This past September, CNN described the conditions in Beijing during its military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary to the end of World War II: “While Chinese will enjoy a three-day public holiday as part of the celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, good luck to anyone wanting to tune out the pomp and pageantry…Those living within the lockdown area will be virtual prisoners: They aren’t allowed to leave their homes, invite guests, use balconies or even open windows.”
I ended up being in Beijing during that time this year and experiencing the strict country lockdown. The night before the event, when I went out to get food and water for the following day, I saw that the city had turned off all of the street lights and made shop owners not only close, but also dim their neon lights to encourage people to head home. There were uniformed patrols on every block. The message being sent was clear – go home, stay quiet, and watch the parade on TV.
I was close to but still outside of the zone near Tiananmen that had been placed under martial law; the state had decided that there was to be no room for dissent, error, or other disruptions. When riding the subway, the cars’ that usually played cartoons now played military propaganda and anti-terrorism spots on rotation in which the evil doers were all blonde with blue eyes. Residents living near Tiananmen had been warned to stay away from their windows as snipers had been given authority to shoot persons that looked suspicious.
The government had also recently stepped up incentives to Beijingers to report foreigners guilty of any infraction. This became extreme to the extent that my neighborhood started getting called the “Chaoyang Intelligence Agency.” Earlier in the month, a woman had been murdered with a samurai sword by a mentally unstable man. His reason: she “looked American.” The attack happened during the day in a Uniqlo store near my apartment that I shopped at frequently.
My visa status was legal, but there was some confusion regarding whether or not I had been properly registered at the local police department as a temporarily residing foreigner and I hadn’t been able to get it clarified. As anti-American sentiment continued to rise among Chinese netizens, I wondered if these types of incidents would become more frequent. Indeed, some long-term expats residing in China had been telling newbies on forums that perhaps we were taking our safety for granted.
A few weeks prior, I had answered the door to my shared apartment and was greeted by a man in a uniform yelling something about an American, this building and a phone call, and then shoved a piece of paper in my face and demanded I sign. I managed to convey in my five-year-old level Mandarin that I was sorry but I couldn’t understand most of what he was saying and wouldn’t sign something I couldn’t understand, but my Mandarin speaking roommate would be back in a few hours and we could talk then. He responded by becoming aggressive and trying to take a photo of me. I ducked behind the door, closed it, and double locked it. I hadn’t been able to identify if he was a Beijing police officer or a community rent-a-cop of sorts. I made a note to not open the door as much as I could.
The actual day of the parade was uneventful outside of the official activities, which included a large display of China’s next generation of military hardware. As described by Alan Taylor of the Atlantic, “The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft of various types, representing what military officials said were the Chinese military’s most cutting-edge technology.” The list of world leaders in attendance mostly included states seeking favor with regard to Chinese investment and those who wanted to make clear that they viewed China as a viable geopolitical counterweight to the US. Vladmir Putin, for example, looked quite comfortable. All entertainment and athletic programming had been suspended so all channels could broadcast was coverage of the military extravaganza from the state.
By the next day of the lockdown, I again heard knocks on the door. I froze up and waited for it to stop. If it was the Beijing police, they would gain entry anyway, and if it was my landlord, she would have already let herself in. I stayed there, not moving an inch for a good twenty seconds. The knocking stopped eventually and didn’t return.
I’ve lived, worked, traveled, or studied in 52 countries over the past ten years. With my travel experience, I went into China thinking that even though I don’t like pollution or dense crowds or unending cacophony, I would certainly make it out okay. I would at least eat well and be able to practice my Mandarin. After completing this trial period, I realized how I was wrong. Though life in Beijing is notoriously unpleasant, what I really couldn’t deal with was the element of state control that had become outright scary.
This incentive to flex muscle in foreign and military policy is usually lower when domestic tranquility is high. But from what I saw in China, things are not tranquil at home. Prevailing wisdom regarding the recent crash of the Shanghai stock exchange states that there are no clear signs that the government actually has a long term plan for stabilizing the economy but is merely responding to crises as they arise. Workers and human rights activists whose rights had been violated used to be able to rely on lawyers for justice; now those same lawyers have been flagged as activist trouble makers by the government. Young people have a crushing pressure to succeed. Even on the level of the family unit, the potential for tragic disenchantment is high. The measures taken that week made me fear how unstable the Chinese population really was.
For people who are thinking about traveling to China in the near future to find out for themselves, make sure your visas and registration are airtight, and consider the ramifications of living there as an American. I’ll be watching from a safe distance in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, where I currently work and no longer have to deal with the Orwellian chill of Beijing.