Thursday, July 03, 2008
Olympics - its our party, not yours...
China is getting weirder and weirder.
Just staying in the country has become a full-time job in itself. Visawise, the place has really clamped down. To get the 2nd 30-day extension to my tourist visa I had to open a Chinese bank account and deposit $100 for each of the 30 days I wanted to stay in it - $3,000. I couldn;t understand what the point of this was - what real tourist (ok, I'm not really a tourist here) wandering around China would open a bank account here? How will this help security? But an American queueing at the Public Security Bureau in Beijing said the move was probably aimed at poorer migrants from developing world countries who come to China looking for opportunity and have in the past fallen into destitution and petty crime.
This new bank account rule has cost me about GBP 200 in credit card charges, exchange rate charges etc etc. And I will have to leave the country anyway at the end of the month, which will cost loads more in travel and so on, including potentially the loss of a month's rent. My media visa application - I'll be astonished if I ever hear anything about it ever again.
China doesn;t want to admit it is making the country an expensive pain to be in - the first swingeing changes came in early spring but it's only this week that the country has actually fessed up to making any changes at all. To quote an Arab diplomat I was chatting with today, it is quietly building another Great Wall as the Games get closer. The Games may in theory be a global party - but China seems pretty determined to keep as much of the world out as possible (as well as non-Beijing Chinese).
Check out the 57 rules for foreign visitors during the Olympics. Note that tourism to Beijing was down 14% in May and that hotels are deserted.
I could sort of understand some of this - it's been a crazy year for China: ridiculously heavy snow in February, T-bet riots, the Sichuan earthquake. Maybe they want to make sure there are as few lank foreign scruffs wearing Free T-bet t-shirts hanging around as possible.
But this NY Times piece puts it all into a new kind of context. According to the writer, China doesn;t give a toss what the IOC or anyone else thinks - these Olympics are for domestic consumption only. The real battle was winning the mandate to stage them in the first place - a new "mandate from heaven" to stay in power.
Now perhaps the Chinese government doesn't care if there's no real party. And any criticism from outside about crackdowns etc will just be badly received by Chinese at home who are particularly sensitive to what they see as foreign attempts to humiliate them. Their hysterical nationalistic responses thus bolster the government. Check out this screamer from China Daily - "The Chinese people don;t want Sarkozy to attend the Olympic Opening Ceremony - survey". Today this was the banner headline across the top of the site's front page.
Here's the message to the world from the Chinese authorities: "Go away - we never wanted you here anyway! These are OUR Olympics and no one can take them away from us. Just try it - we'll jump on these funny segway scooters and shoot you..."
I like China a lot. Maybe I'm just annoyed that my individual plans haven't borne fruit exactly as envisaged. Maybe I just resent all the stress and wish I had planned better. All that's true - but there's still a kind of clenchedness setting in here, hard-edged and gripping ever tighter.
In other weirdness, the US discovers that Guantanamo was Made in China. The methods of torture used at Guantanamo are in fact Chines in origin and were used against US POWs in the Korean War. That's nuts - but it might yet afford the US a way to dissociate themselves with the newly "un-American" place.
And Israeli border guards humiliate and assault a young prize-winning Palestinian journalist while he is accompanied by Dutch diplomats. Astonishing really. I'm continually waiting for the moment some of these guys rip into the son or relative of a big US personality - the rebellious son of a Congressman or TV presenter perhaps...