October 1st marked the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. To celebrate the occasion, the Communist Party organized a giant pat on the back for the local populace. It’s a gesture unseen since, well, last year’s Olympic opening ceremonies. In China’s largest-ever showing of military might, tanks and lorries carrying nuclear weapons rumbled through downtown Beijing, fighter jets roared overhead, and a 2,000-strong military band played martial tunes throughout. About 30,000 lucky guests were invited to watch the spectacle. I wasn’t one of them, but tried to crash the parade anyway. This is my account of how it went down.
9:30 a.m. — I leave my apartment in search of a coffee before cycling to the parade area. The perimeter of the Workers’ Stadium, which was built fifty years ago to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the PRC, is lined with hundreds of volunteers this morning, all wearing yellow shirts and red armbands. The Starbucks across the street is closed, and one of the volunteers tells me I can’t lock up my bike on the sidewalk. No problem: there’s an open McDonald’s within sight. My Egg McMuffin combo is delicious.
10:00 a.m. — There’s an armoured personnel carrier and riot squad with machine guns on the roundabout over the 2nd Ring Road, blocking the path from my place to the parade route. Fellow journalist Kit Gillet and I hop off our bikes and snap photos. “This will be one of those things in China when they know exactly what they can and can’t do with us [foreigners]. They won’t let us cross the line, but they’ll let us take pictures,” Kit says. “Of course, we’re going to try to cross the line.”
10:25 a.m. — A few hundred people are gathered at the intersection of the 2nd Ring and Jianguomen Dajie. Rumour has it we’ll be able to catch a bit of the parade from here. Police attempt clearing the road. “Zou le, zou le, zou le!” they order, which means, “Go, go, go!” The crowd shuffles to the left and right. Nobody leaves.
10:38 a.m. — Kit and I ride toward Tiananmen Square through the hutong alleyways. We are thwarted at every turn as we try to get closer to the action. I can hear cheers in the distance and feel like I’m in a massive line-up outside an awesome nightclub, knowing I’ll never get in.
11:00 a.m. — We cycle down a deserted road on our way to Wangfujing Street, a shopping thoroughfare near Tiananmen Square. Wangfujing is blocked off and filled with red balloons. My roommate Tom, who is watching the parade at a bar, texts me to say there are tanks rolling by Tiananmen and fighter jets have taken off for the coming flyover.
11:04 a.m. — You really couldn’t ask for better weather today. Clear skies, no wind, no clouds. That’s probably the result of advance cloud seeding — i.e., shooting silver iodide into the sky to produce rain. Coincidentally, I’m wearing a t-shirt that says SASK, for my home province of Saskatchewan. A friend later points out that cloud seeding was invented there. (According to Wikipedia, he’s wrong.)
11:15 a.m. — We’re a little closer to the Forbidden City now, with a great view of the flyover. I see bombers, fighter jets, helicopters, the whole deal. The last group of planes blows plumes of rainbow-coloured smoke — an odd choice for an intimidating show of military strength. I’d hoped for some loop-de-loops and other tricks, but nothing like that happens. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has some work to do before the next celebration like this in 2019.
11:23 a.m. — Running out of options, we stop by a store that sells police supplies and inquire about sirens, helmets, badges, and billyclubs. The prices are fair, but we decide that impersonating Beijing cops is probably a bad idea.
11:47 a.m. — After trying, unsuccessfully, to access to a hotel rooftop bar that overlooks the parade, we bike toward the backside of the Forbidden City with the idea of climbing the hill in Jinshan Park. I’m stopped by a police officer who says, in English, “Stop. Forbidden.” He’s referring not to the Forbidden City, but to the road behind it. “Forbidden? I think that’s Forbidden,” I say, and point toward the City. He’s too clever for my ruse. “Both forbidden,” he replies.
12:00 p.m. — Tom texts to say there are tanks near Worker’s Stadium. Kit and I head in that direction.
12:15 p.m. — We catch the last of the tanks from the sidewalk outside the Starbucks where I’d tried to get coffee earlier. It’s still closed. We give up trying to watch any more of the parade.
8:00 pm — After the morning’s frustrations, we successfully made our way to a friend’s barbecue in a hutong neighbourhood. Right now I’m drinking a bottle of warm Tsingtao beer and watching fireworks on a grainy television. Happy diamond anniversary, China!
(Photos by Mitch Moxley)
In the fall of 2007, on a bus from Turpan, an oasis town on the old Silk Road, to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, I met a young Uighur kid named Musitafa. He was impossibly bright; he spoke three languages and had won scholarships to study in Shanghai and England. He was excited to hear about Canada and other places my travel companion and I had visited, and he especially loved England. His mood shifted when we asked what he thought about Xinjiang, a majority Muslim territory in China’s remote northwest, “England is paradise,” he said, pounding a fist in his hand for emphasis. “Xinjiang is just dirty. A bad place to live.”
Xinjiang, where ethnic rioting this week claimed the lives of some 156 people, both Uighur and Han, is a world away from Beijing. In Urumqi, which has been designated a port city by the government so that it can enjoy the economic benefits of such a status — even though it’s one of the farthest cities from the sea on earth — Uighurs have become a minority after years of Han migration, encouraged by the government. (See Edward Wong’s story about a migrant family in the New York Times). But the roots of the recent violence are historic. (more…)
Considering the gloomy state of the world media, the April launch of Global Times was an ironic affair. At a lavish banquet in a Beijing hotel, “glasses clinked under crystal chandeliers,” The Guardian reported, as hundreds of diplomats, journalists, and other dignitaries welcomed in style the English-language addition of the foreign affairs newspaper, published by the state-owned People’s Daily.
At the ceremony, Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin said the aim of the newspaper, which in its Chinese-language form is often described as “nationalistic,” was to “speak directly to foreign readers,” while Jan Canrong, deputy dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University said the paper will help the world to better know and understand China. “Chinese media should help world audiences to see China’s advancement, problems and challenges, but also make the world accept a country with a vast population that is experiencing unprecedented growth,” he said.
In other words, the Global Times will be a propaganda tool-promoting China to the world. China already has an English-language national newspaper, whose mission is remarkably similar to Global Times‘. That’s China Daily, where I worked for a year when I first came to China. China Daily is no New York Times, but it does serve a purpose: It offers insight into the mindset of the Chinese government to an English-speaking audience. (more…)
I recently travelled north to the Mongolian border and south to Guangzhou and Macau, working on separate stories about human trafficking and China’s African population. This postcard is from Macau, where prostitution thrives even as the casinos tank.
MACAU—The hosts at the Chinese sauna — twenty years old, tops, with brush cuts and baggy suits — hand us a laminated menu with peeling corners. A “Taiwan Model Massage” runs for HK $1,914, the most expensive on the list, followed by Korean, Chinese, Mongolian, Vietnamese, and Filipino massages, at varying prices.
“Fifteen percent government tax,” one host tells us, tapping his index finger on the menu. “Hand jobs are cheaper.”
“We want to see the girls first.”
He escorts us down a short hallway into the dimly-lit sauna, where a few dozen men wrapped in red towels — mostly Chinese with a few foreigners — stand around a peanut-shaped hot tub.
“Wait a minute,” the host says.
A moment later a line of 70-odd women in lingerie is paraded by to the blare of thumping electronic music. Each woman has a number pinned to her bra. The men go wild, hurrying down the line to their preferred girl, with whom they will be given two hours in a private room.
“This is more depressing than I imagined,” Tom Mackenzie, a fellow journalist, whispers in my ear. (more…)
I recently travelled north to the Mongolian border and south to Guangzhou and Macao, working on separate stories about human trafficking and China’s African population. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing some short postcards from each of the cities, since I think they provide interesting snapshots of China today. This one is about Guangzhou, where the African community, China’s largest, is at a breaking point.
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In Guangzhou, you can buy anything. On the chaotic streets of the old city there are stores selling over–sized stuffed animals, Christmas decorations, plastic trees, neon signage, bulk candy, and elastics. There are separate shops for plastic, paper, and reusable bags. Stationary. Wigs. Sneakers. Scooters. Jay-Z t–shirts. Whatever you could possibly want, it’s available here. Guangdong province – the “world’s factory” – is home to 28,000 industrial firms, including 15,000 overseas–funded business. It makes 75% of the world’s toys and 90% of its Christmas decorations (in a country that doesn’t celebrate it). In Guangzhou, the provincial capital, it’s all available for purchase, direct from the source. (more…)
I recently travelled north to the Mongolian border and south to Guangzhou and Macao, working on separate stories about human trafficking and China’s African population. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing some short postcards from each of the cities, since I think they provide interesting snapshots of China today. This one is about Erlian, a Gobi desert boomtown straddling the China-Mongolia border, known for dinosaur bones and brothels.
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ERLIAN, CHINA—In the city’s centre square is a statue of a naked woman with flowing hair holding a globe in an extended palm, the paint chipped and yellowing. It’s the kind of kitsch one expects to find in China’s myriad of forgotten cities, but this one stands apart from the statues of Mao and other Chinese heroes. Locals say it’s meant to symbolize the beauty of Mongolian woman, and in Erlian, there’s no shortage of Mongolian women.
I came to Erlian with a fellow journalist, a photographer, and a Mongolian translator to work on a feature about the trafficking of Mongolian women to China to work as prostitutes. The story idea came to us through simple observation. In Beijing there are several bars that are frequented by Mongolian working girls and the mostly middle-aged foreign businessmen that solicit their services. Last spring, the best known of these clubs, Maggie’s, was abruptly closed and rumours surfaced about murdered Mongolian women. (more…)
A few blocks from Workers’ Stadium, which was commissioned by Mao Zedong in 1959 to mark the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, is a neighbourhood called Sanlitun, the city’s centre of hedonism. Sanlitun is a place of expat lore. In the late 1990s, Sanlitun South Bar Street was, other than hotel bars, the only place to go for late-night revelry. The Sanlitun establishments were intimate and dirty, and partiers spilled into the narrow streets until it was a big outdoor beer garden. A friend of mine who teaches math at an international school and who is in his sixth year in the city told me that South Bar Street was a place where people drank lukewarm bottles of Tsingtao beer by the dozen and “just got drunk.” The Facebook group Sanlitun Bar Street Alumni now has some 1,500 members. (more…)
BEIJING—It’s just after 7:30 am on the day of the closing ceremonies and we’re counting down the hours at the CBC studio. The Games are almost over, and thank the good Lord for that. It’s not that I’m happy for the Olympics to end (rather glum, actually), only that I want to sleep past sunrise again. The folks here are almost giddy for things to wrap up. “I’m getting drunk tonight,” is a common refrain. Hear, hear.
It’s been a good ride for me (although I think I’ll always harbour a grudge against the CBC for the early wake-ups), and above all a learning experience. Here are some tidbits I picked up over the last sixteen days:
— Since China made its Olympics debut in 1932, the names of practically all of its athletes have been pronounced incorrectly. This year was no different. For future reference, Wang is pronounced “Wong“, “Zh” is a J sound, and Liu Xiang is not “Lu Jang.” You’d think networks would have given their on air people a few lessons in pinyin since the games were being held in, you know, China, but I guess that wasn’t in the budget. (For the record, I thought most of CBC’s talent, particularly the hosts, did well in this regard. I have no reason to lie — CBC isn’t hosting the next two Games, and it would take a miracle to get me to work another Olympics anyway). (more…)
BEIJING—Last Saturday something incredible happened in the Bird’s Nest. Usain Bolt, the aptly named Jamaican extraterrestrial, demolished the world’s fastest runners with a swagger, cutting three hundredths of a second off his own world record. I was fortunate enough to be there, and I’ve never seen anything like it. The stadium was on fire.
Two days later, just before noon on Monday, something equally incredible happened at the Nest, only the reaction was polar opposite. In a matter of seconds, the energy and excitement of Bolt’s run was sucked out of the stadium—and the Olympics—into a black hole of national sorrow. As famed hurdler and virtual Chinese god Liu Xiang pulled out of the 110-metre hurdles, the crowd of some 80,000 gasped in disbelief, mouths ajar, as they tried to figure out just what the hell was going on. Many broke into tears, including journalists, and an unsuspecting country went into shock.
It’s difficult to put into context the gravity of Liu Xiang’s exit from the hurdles competition. One of the CBC tech guys said it was akin to Wayne Gretzky, in his prime, gingerly skating out for a Stanley Cup game seven warm up, and then failing to show up for the opening face off. Really, though, that’s not even close. Canadians love their hockey, but I doubt the Great One could bring reporters to tears. (more…)
According to the Associated Press, the Olympics are decidedly lacking in both fans and vibe. “After the first few days of the Beijing Games, some cracks have appeared in China’s perfect party,” including “empty seats at the venues, disappointing crowds at the Olympic grounds… [and] a lack of buzz around the city,” a report said.
According to the report, just 40,000 people passed through the Olympic Green on Monday, and the IOC has told organizers the number should increase to 200,000 people per day. Olympic sponsors, with their lavish—and empty—Olympic Green pavilions, are understandably concerned. As a Canadian listening to a rock band at the Samsung pavilion told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s too bad there aren’t more people… I though this would be more of a party.” (more…)
BEIJING—A pall fell over the Olympics on the opening weekend, after the bizarre stabbing of an American couple and their Chinese guide Saturday afternoon, and more explosions in Xinjiang Sunday. The weather didn’t help the mood any. It’s just after 5:30 a.m. in Beijing on Monday as I write from the CBC studio at Ling Long and the clouds (fog? smog?) have broken. It’s been raining now for about twelve consecutive hours, but the air, finally, looks to be clearing.
Alas, the Games go on. Michael Phelps won his first gold yesterday and last night’s US-China basketball match drew an estimated one billion television viewers. Crowds have been good so far despite intense security and the heat and humidity. I managed to check out beach volleyball at Chaoyang Park in east Beijing after work Saturday and was impressed with the atmosphere at the stadium. The announcer led the crowd through the wave; dancing girls called “beach babies” wearing lime bikinis filled in down time; and cans of Tsingtao beer were a mere five Yuan (less than $1). (more…)
BEIJING—A good day to kick-off the Olympic Games it ain’t. The view from the CBC studio in Ling Long Pagoda, a tower overlooking the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube where I’ll be working for the next two weeks, is of one of those post-apocalyptic Beijing days you need to see to believe. The apartment blocks across from the man-made river snaking through the Olympic Green are barely visible. Through the clouds, the sun appears a “lurid red,” as an early Reuters report put it. For critics, Beijing hasn’t disappointed.
The weather may not be cooperating, but it won’t take away from today’s significance: the seven-year wait is over. “Welcome, World,” splashed today’s front page headline on the state-owned China Daily. China’s moment is here and it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement.
Forgive the melodrama, but Beijing is electric. (more…)