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Published in The Globe and Mail

August 2 2008


April must have been tough on travel bookings to the Beijing Olympics.  First, coverage of the Tibetan uprising and its suppression dominated the media. Then came the protests during the Olympic Torch Relay.  By month’s end – after an alleged plot by Xinjiang separatists – the head of Interpol was warning of the real possibility of disruptions, even terrorism, during the Games. Then things seemed to cool down, to be brought under control.

In the wind up to the “One World, One Dream” Olympics this month, reports continue of the incarceration of potential troublemakers, culls of thousands of Falun Gong adherents, as well as the steady expulsion of unwanted foreigners from the country. International media attempting to cover these occurrences face interference. Local media, old or new, are quiescent – a.k.a. heavily censored.

As for residents, the capital itself is under a kind of lockdown that will end only once the flame is officially extinguished on Aug. 24. If the government could arrest the air pollution, it would.

In short, the Olympics will unfold as engineered. You should see it if you can.

You should also take in the city while you are there. It will not disappoint. There are palaces and tombs and Confucian temples, and an ever-expanding skyline including Rem Koolhaas’s looping CCTV tower currently under construction. The area near the zoo is also teeming with street life.  And if recommending Beijing as a tourist’s delight seems at odds with the coercion and control I just described, so be it. Welcome to the complex task of engaging with China.

**

Travel is never neutral. Pass through customs into a country and you are stamping it with your presence as much as your passport is being stamped with an entry permit. This is as true of Canada or France as it is of Myanmar or Vietnam. Show up, and a statement is being made.

No nation is free of stain, and there are always reasons to criticize how a country goes about its business. Still, certain destinations are going to present the traveler with more confrontational, or else more sweeping, ethical dilemmas. Some will do both.

With China, the dilemmas take most forms imaginable, and then some. Like it or not, admit it or not, choose to see it or not, the 21st century’s emerging power is an aggressive and imperious serial abuser of every human right agreed upon by various international bodies.

That would include promises made by China itself in order to win the Olympic bid. In 1998, for instance, it finally signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 19 of the covenant declares that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression” and to “hold opinions without interference.” No such rights exist in the country, and the government signed the document without the slightest intention of honouring it.

But still. China is China, a nation unlike any other. It is a geographical empire and a psychological totality – it is zhongguo, the “middle kingdom,” the centre of the Earth. One out of every six humans lives there, a statistic that has probably held steady throughout history.

For long periods, China had little contact with the outside world and was quite content with its inwardness, or completeness. It didn’t much care how other places did things and often it acts as though it doesn’t much care now. The country has its realities and it has its reasons.

Sorting out one’s thoughts about this colossus is never easy. Nor should it be easy to experience the Middle Kingdom as a tourist. Does visiting it, even for an athletic event, amount to a kind of travel sham? Or worse, is being in Beijing this August “simply” to attend the Olympics a passive collusion with state practice?

Travel, of course, is also expansive and enriching, both for the tourist and, with any luck, the host. Encounters between the two are gestures toward the unity, rather than the dis-unity, of the species. And if the people of China share any one trait with the people of Myanmar or Vietnam, it is that they are not their government. They are not their government and they are not their army or police, or even, sadly, their media.

It is hard to remember this when thinking about China from the outside. But once on the ground, whether out in the nation of a billion-plus or simply in the capital of 17 million, it isn’t hard at all.

**

I lived in China for five years – first in Beijing in the 1980s, then more recently in Hong Kong – and have been travelling there for two decades. Formerly, the difficulties were mostly practical. Trains were over-stuffed, every man a chain-smoker, and hotels lacked running water or heat, the uniformed hall monitors entering rooms without knocking to deliver thermoses for tea. Airports, meanwhile, were scrums and internal flights often involved getting on planes that the Russians, no pedants about air safety, had sold off.

On one flight I took to Lhasa, passengers started shifting from side to side, the better to admire the Himalayan peaks below. When the plane began listing like a boat in heavy seas, I looked to one of the flight attendants for leadership. They were all asleep in first class.

Nowadays, a tour of China can provide three or four stars worth of Western-style comfort. From the brand-new airport to the brand-new highways to the mostly brand-new hotels, Beijing will accommodate its impending throng of visitors nicely. Expect efficient service and courteous policemen and even taxi drivers with broken English. All this has been carefully arranged.

Expect, too, to be astonished by the material prosperity of the city. It was unimaginable 20 years ago.  Officially at least, such prosperity would even  have been undesirable when Mao Zedong’s revolution was proposing to remould society. The pace of change has been remarkable and the energy of Chinese society is awesome. All fair to remark upon, and admire.

Amid the comforts, though, and the astonishments, will lurk signs of Beijing’s less admirable qualities. They will not be hidden away.

Check out the security presence around Tiananmen Square any hour of the night or day for a glimpse. Ask about the content of local newspapers. Drop by a cyber-café and see which media sites you are allowed to read online.

Again, though, the 17 million Beijingers will be as readily present for viewing as their state’s mechanisms for absolutist control. Within China, the capital is notorious for the blunt manners and arrogant, if unpretentious, ways of its citizenry. Beijingers are quite approachable, albeit across the divides of language and circumstance, and may even surprise with their openness.

Despite being ground zero for authority – the country operates on Beijing time, and all distances are measures from the square – these Chinese, too, are not their government. Nearly all my lasting travel experiences in China have involved casual encounters with people who decided that they wanted to cross those divides, even just briefly.  Some were scripted, including paid tours that wound up conversations, the guides cautious but still forthcoming, happy to speak more freely than they would dare with their fellow countrymen. Others were spontaneous, exchanges in restaurants and in parks, on long train rides in still-crowded cabins. Few such exchanges, by the way, will likely occur in those brand-new hotels.

Exchanges of any variety can’t happen, of course, if you don’t travel to China at all. To boycott the Olympics, as some have been proposing during the tumultuous lead-up to the opening ceremony, is to miss out on an opportunity. The opportunity is unrelated to athletics or even necessarily to serve as glancing witness to onerous governance and abuse.  It is, rather, to assert by your presence, and whatever modest interactions come about, that the place you are visiting is not an engineered event. It is a living, breathing society, as much a multiplicity of characters and lifestyles, opinions and positions as your own country.

 

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