Taxi for Sandell…

From Mark…

There are two Olympic Games going on here. There’s the smiley, “Ni Hao”, “Welcome to Beijing”, Bird’s Nest games and then there’s the other , slightly sinister, rumour-laden, you- are- being- watched, sanitised Games.

I had a taste of the latter yesterday and it wasn’t pleasant. Rebecca and I were working on a piece about the “right” to protest, and we wanted to go down to the so-called “petition village” in the south of the City Before the Games, it was a place where people could – with permission – take their complaint from their own town or village and protest peacefully about their grievance in the capital city. We’d heard it had been shut down for the Games and the area “cleaned up”.
With an interpreter, who for the purpose of this blog we’ll call “Lucy”, we got into a taxi to head south – both Rebecca and I clearly wearing our accreditation identifying us as journalists. Lucy sat in the front and explained where we wanted to go.

The driver , as he set off (in the middle of a thunderstorm, just to set the scene), started shouting at Lucy, and told her that he was under orders from his boss not to take anyone there. He kept on driving, but clearly wasn’t the happiest worker in Beijing. He then – still with the accelerator well down – phoned his boss. Lucy was by now pale and she told us she was frightened. “Why are you helping these foreigners ? “ he shouted at her “Why are you telling them what I am saying?”. In between shouts he told her that nobody in China has anything to protest about which is why the “village” is not worth going to.

Lucy said she felt uncomfortable now and wanted to get out of the cab. She thought that us as clearly accredited journalists , would be ok, but her advice was not to linger when we got there. She got out, at a place where she could get a cab back into the centre of Beijing, and we carried on. Then the driver took a call, which didn’t take long. Lucy thinks this was from the police (though by now of course she wasn’t there) but the driver seemed a lot happier after taking the call. We can only guess who was on the other end of the line but he put his foot down afterwards as if he was on a mission. We were obviously going to get a welcoming party and we were concerned that our association with “Lucy” would give her problems when we left so we decided to get out as well.

We asked him to stop and motioned to the side of the road. He wouldn’t stop. He took another call and still wouldn’t stop. Finally at some lights we were able to get out. It was an unnerving experience. Later, we went to one of the designated “protest parks”, again wearing our accreditation (which is also the advice from our bureau here). We were greeted nicely at the entrance (Games 1), but as soon as we set off, one of our greeters pulled out his mobile phone to call someone, while looking straight at us (Games 2). One of our colleagues, in the same park, was assailed by a middle aged man who told her that nobody needs to protest in China – everyone is happy. We asked where the protest zone was : the man with the mobile told us it was the whole park if any protesters wanted it – but no-one does because everyone is happy, see ?

We met up with some other media people last night and they were full of similar stories. Not the kind you can really do much with – we weren’t arrested, I can only speculate who those last two calls were from, we can’t prove tales of bugging and phone taps, e-mail monitoring etc, but it’s an overall uncomfortable experience and I can understand why sometimes the paranoia can get to you.

They key thing for us is that we will – eventually – go home, but for Lucy and all the other people who’ve helped the media, spoken freely to the press, or raised a dissenting voice, I wonder what the future holds. A respected senior figure at the BBC who happens to be Chinese, says he thinks people will be ok because the authorities have too many people to visit. I hope he’s right.

6 Responses to “Taxi for Sandell…”

  1. 1 nelsoni
    August 15, 2008 at 10:02

    Hi Mark, There are basically two ways to learn. By observation and by experience. I am sure you learnt a great deal from your experience. Which probably means some people are not paranoid afterall. Hope you can put together your experiences covering the Beijing Olympics into a book. It would be interesting to read. As always, It’s great reading your daily updates.

  2. 2 Bob in Queensland
    August 15, 2008 at 12:40

    I’d love to here some of this put to the group you had assembled for the “WHYS on the Rooftop” shows….

  3. 3 roebert
    August 15, 2008 at 13:12

    Being watched in beijing is one thing; being watched by the Chinese in South Africa is even more sinister. As founder of the SA Friends of Tibet with a relatively ‘highish’ profile due to activism and a publication or two etc., I’ve had to put up with being watched and hassled by ‘Beijing.’ My computer is under regular attack by virus-laden emails, hate-mail, weird Chinese pornography with Trojans, and so forth. All our events are watched. There was a significant and rather sinister group of watchers at our recent event in Cape Town, where Desmond Tutu spoke for Tibet.

    The weirdest experience I’ve had is actually being visited on my (rather remotely situated) farm by some ostensibly ‘lost’ Chinese, asking for directions to I can’t remember where, and looking around my place. You know the feeling you get in that kind of situation; you just know there’s something going on, and it’s scary. You feel touchable.

    That’s just Chinese diplomacy.

    As for endangering those Chinese who assist you; that is a very real problem. No matter what anyone says, the Chinese authorities don’t miss much, if anything.

  4. 4 Andrew
    August 15, 2008 at 17:42

    Dear Mark,
    This has the beginnings of a good spy story, with authenticity to boot. You write with perfect pace too–tension vs ease at just the right moments.

    Sell your story to Steven Soderbergh, I don’t know what you look like, maybe get Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise to act as you.

    Throw in some Chinese femme fatales like Zhang Ziyi, or turn Lucy into a double-edged agent.

  5. August 15, 2008 at 18:04

    Hi Mark,

    Interesting, if not unnerving post.

  6. 6 Dennis
    August 16, 2008 at 01:25


    it is always nice to see your reports from beijing….

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