Today being a beautiful day in the ‘jing, I thought of nothing better than a long hutong ramble, a bit of urban hiking if you will. We started at Xinjiekou, wormed our way through the Sihuan wet market, around Houhai,* down Gulou Dongdajie (stopping for burritos at Amigos), and then south along Jiaodaokou to the National Museum of Art, and then further south still…and that’s where our springtime stroll turned interesting.
I had — perhaps naively — assumed that since no protests materialized last Sunday, and the overwhelming security response had brought so much attention to a non-issue, that this Sunday would be comparatively mellow. A few cops, some red armbands, but mostly just NPC bullshit and nothing like the street sweepers and broom beaters of last Sunday’s debacle on Wangfujing.
Yep, I was wrong.
We made it past the first checkpoint, just north of the cathedral, by putting on the ‘dumb laowai’ act. Since most cops assume foreigners are idiots anyway, this ruse is not too hard to pull off. After a few “We don’t know anything we just want to look at the church, Mr. Police Officer” lines, we were through…only to be stopped just north of the pedestrian mall by a literal phalanx of security forces (at least 20-30 plus plainclothes). Chinese shoppers were coming and going at will, but within a minute we were pulled aside and surrounded by police officers, asking for our identification and passports, and who we were, and where we were going, and did we like Justin Bieber’s music or was it just his hair…usual cop shit.
On one hand, you had to feel for the poor bastards. We asked them why we couldn’t go forward and they knew why, and they knew we knew why, and they knew that we knew they knew why…but they couldn’t say why. They had to stick to the “it’s not convenient” line as they grew more and more pissed and we were having trouble keeping straight faces.
“Come back tomorrow.”
“Is there something going on today?”
“Nothing going on today. Just come back tomorrow.”
“No. It’s not convenient.”
“Because tomorrow is more convenient.”
As this charade was being played out — and as would happen a little while later by Xidan — several Chinese passers-by stopped to gather around and watch the cops and the foreigners arguing in Chinese, and when they started asking the cops why the foreigners couldn’t go through…well, that was the end of that.
Our ‘conversation’ lasted another two minutes before it was clear that we were not going any further. They forced us to cross the road and head west towards the Forbidden City.
Going through the Forbidden City East Gate and then turning south and out Tiananmen, we naturally assumed we’d run into more police interference, but no…the closer we got to the Hall of the People the fewer cops we saw.
Thinking that was it, we walked east along Chang’an Dajie. Even in front of Zhongnanhai there was the usual contingent of PAP and a few plainclothes guys but nothing out of the ordinary…and then we hit Xidan.
Even in my naivete, I had a hunch that Wangfujing might be problematic, but Xidan was a “back up location.” I mean…you bring your big guns out to guard Lebron, not Mike Bibby.
But about two blocks east of the shopping area, a group of cops made us from 50 meters out and gathered us in.
“You can’t go to Xidan.”
“Because it is not convenient.”
Of course, even having this conversation was difficult because we were caught in a massive crush of Chinese people, all of whom were headed to Xidan.
“They can go, why not us?”
“According to relevant regulations, you cannot go.”
“What if I want to go to the Arsenal store?”
“A Spurs fan, eh?”
In the middle of yet another Kafka-esque conversation with the forces of disorder, my friend mentioned that we didn’t want to go to Xidan, our final destination was actually the famous Minzu Fandian, located about 300 meters east of Xidan.
“Oh, Minzu Fandian. You want to go there?”
“Okay, go straight. But don’t stop at Xidan.”
Problem solved for at least one block until we ran into a huge cordon of cops, three of whom were filming us.
“Where are you going?”
(Talks into radio.)
Now, the boss comes over. He was dressed — I am not making this up — exactly like Tiger Woods: Nike sweater, shades, Nike hat. He looks us over, asks the usual questions and then huddles with the two uniform guys who are his minions.
For what it’s worth, the old guy did let us pass, focusing his attention instead on berating some poor foreign tourist with a huge backpack who was probably wondering why and how Lonely Planet had steered him so horribly wrong.
Thinking ahead, we asked:
“Can you tell them we’re going to the Minzu Fandian so they don’t keep stopping us?”
(Talks into radio.)
This seemed to work. We walked another block, now we’re in front of the actual square, which had been cordoned off with the blue construction tarp made famous last week outside the Wangfujing McDonald’s. More cops try to stop us, but their radios crackle, we hear the words Minzu Fandian, and they break off.
Now we’re thinking that “Minzu Fandian” is a kind of mystical incantation like “confundo,” “You shall not pass,” “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” or “Two tequila slammers and the check.”
But as we walk past Xidan and onto the quieter section of the street, we notice that not only are we being filmed and followed on foot, there was a police van slowly shadowing us, stopping when we do, going when we go. This is unnerving enough that we hunkered down for a moment outside the Minzu Fandian as if we actually meant to go inside.
By that point though we could turn north again, and soon we were alone in the desolation of the Financial District on a Sunday afternoon. No people. No cops. Just a peaceful stroll.
Even when we walked past the actual CPPCC building — which, you know given the calendar, you would think might have a security presence — there was nothing. Seriously. We could have played a game of ultimate in their parking lot. Two guys were watching the whole place.
There have been a lot of theories recently about just what these anonymous calls for protest want to accomplish. Barbara Demick argued this week that the whole thing is an elaborate ruse to burn out the Chinese security response.
I don’t think that was the intention originally, but when the first two “protests” failed to materialize, then the idea of making the cops jump every time somebody online posted the word “hop” has become a game unto itself.
Certainly today, the cops were on high alert, and the government response is starting to take on the cat-piss stench of fear when in reality it has little to be afraid of.
We’ll have to see what next Sunday brings.
*Has anyone else noticed they have totally demolished 银锭桥 Silver Ingot Bridge? When did this happen? I guess they’re re-engineering it to the support the weight of an Audi A6…