Tuesday, September 14, 2004

A funny thing happened on the way to the pub ...

As I think I said in one of my comment responses, it's not that Beijing is getting a facelift for the Olympics -- it's getting a full-body, nip/tuck style makeover. A makeover, I might add, that's entirely aimed to please Western tastes. All that is salvageable of Beijing's cultural resources is being renovated and dressed up to suit tourists' "discerning" tastes (... entire blocks of restaurants and hotels are experiencing what I can only call a garish feedback effect where the style of Chinese restaurants abroad is being re-created and amped up to give American vistors that "genuine Chinese dining" experience.) The inner city is increasingly Westernized as well -- malls featuring the most exclusive American, European and Japanese stores where a single item of clothing costs more than the salary a Chinese worker might take home in an entire year. The Chinese worker, though, is clearly and explicitly not the desired target -- the billboards, advertisement, even window dummies target the tall, strapping, Caucasian Westerner.

Disturbingly, these efforts are succeeding in convincing many of the tourists, even the widely travelled backpacking crowd with whom I rub elbows at the hostel's watering holes, that China is really "just like home," maybe in need of a bit of "catching up with the West," which "will take time" but is sure to happen. The notion that there might be some idiosyncrasies with which the government may not *want* to catch up -- say, democracy and human rights laws -- seems oddly more unreal to those who've set foot into Beijing than to those who've never been to China.

And so a funny thing happened on the way to the pub last night. Wandering along, my little group passed another little group of locals, holding umbrellas in the streaming rain, at the corner of a small sidestreet. After wandering across we stopped to consult our maps and noticed that the group we had just passed had been joined by a number of men in uniform. Several of the Chinese men were lying on the wet pavement, their hands being pressed behind their heads. Within a matter of seconds -- and without making a sound -- they were on their feet again, being lead away, while others passed by the scene without lifting their eyes or giving any outward sign of taking notice.

My companions concluded that clearly the men must have done something wrong for the uniformed men to come down so harshly upon them. Censorship, bugged lines, executions for financial fraud just a couple of days ago ... compared to the modern conveniences tourists are being presented with in China, those seem like ancient myths. And that, I suppose, is the desired effect.

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