I am out of China for a few days. Here are two real-time updates from people on the scene about different aspects of the "we are ready!" front. The first is about traffic in Beijing; the second, the visa crackdown and larger tensions created by the government's attempt to impose "zero defects" control on the Olympics.
Traffic: Context here is that traffic now is ruled by "odd-even" license plate rules designed to keep half the cars off the road each day.But on the main roads, one lane is now set aside as an "Olympic lane," for official cars only, so the declogging effect for other traffic is not as great as it might seem.
Yesterday was the first "workday" of the odd/even license plate regimen and the result was "not great". We live east of Guo Mao, outside the 5th Ring Road and usually hit the first morning commute slow-down near Gaobeidian, just inside the 5th. There is no "Olympic Lane" on this stretch of expressway, so one might assume fewer than half the normal number of cars (odd/even, minus some government vehicles) would result in speedy passage to the 3rd Ring. No such luck. It pretty much looked like a normal day between the 5th and 4th rings as traffic moved slightly faster than a crawl at 30 km/h. By the time we reached the 4th ring and the introduction of the "Olympic Lane", it was mostly "slow-and-go" with some confused drivers blocking the Olympic Lane to merge right for off ramps.
My destination in a BOB (Beijing Olympic Broadcasting) car with official VAPP (vehicle access permit pass?) was Fuxingmen... It was very slow. No Olympic Lane. No speedy circuit promised by the authorities. Seemed like a normal workday to me. Private cars seem to "cheat" the Olympic Lanes without regard so far. A practice that will be watched closely as the fine if caught is RMB1,800! [> $250] ... A visiting friend from L.A. joined us for dinner near Sunday night and he is staying just north east of the Olympic Green, outside the 5th Ring. He took two subways to the 3rd and a 12 RMB taxi to the restaurant - total time 15 minutes! [Note: this is a big improvement, due to the just-opened subway lines.] He used the time on the Metro to trade pins. He's known locally as "The Pin Guy".
My boyfriend, Chris, is one of the unlucky ones unable to stay in China. He is not a protester or an agitator. He's teaching second grade, not selling drugs. He was working for a school who has sponsored his visa extensions in the past. He has never overstayed a visa or worked on a tourist visa, but he was not able to extend his visa. I can't think of anything he's done that would make him a bad candidate for continued employment and residence in China....
After telling everyone what a long way China has come since they've opened their borders, I feel stupid having to explain that I'm coming home because, uh, foreigners have to leave for unexplained reasons. This change in rules is shady, arbitrary and frightening, and after trying to change the perception of China away from this stereotype, I feel like an idiot.
I'm convinced that in the long run, the most important part of such accounts concerns the arbitrary and selective nature of enforcement, rather than the pre-Olympic closing itself. Full explanation another time.