The first time I saw China’s police state in action was three years ago, while vacationing with my sister in Beijing. We had just finished watching the lowering of the flag ceremony (a real snooze) with about several hundred other tourists in Tiananmen Square, when, all of a sudden, a pack of men in street clothes emerged from the crowd and started sprinting toward one corner of the square.
The crowd of tourists surged behind them, curious to see where they were going. But before we could catch up with them, the men tackled a woman, shoved her into a blue and white police van, and sped off. I quickly realized the running men were “plainclothes” police officers, the woman a possible protestor. Uniformed policemen brusquely dispersed the crowd: “There’s nothing to see here.”
Though I’d known that Tiananmen Square was one of the most carefully watched and guarded places in China—and had heard that hundreds of undercover police roamed the gigantic square round the clock—I was still shocked to realize that Big Brother had been standing right next to me.
In my countless other visits to the square, I’ve tried to pick out the undercover cops, but haven’t been able to do so with any certainty. This afternoon, they were unmistakable.
On any other May 1, I wouldn’t have dared go to Tiananmen Square. Every year on this day, the world’s largest public square—roughly the size of 90 football fields—becomes the world’s largest mosh pit. Millions of Chinese tourists come from all over the country to see the center of their People’s Republic and to linger over the massive flower displays, gigantic portraits of Communist Party heroes, and red signs painted with the latest Communist Party slogans that are erected in honor of the holiday.
I suspected that this year’s festivities wouldn’t be so well-attended. So, as usual, I recruited my friend Emma to accompany me. “You want to go where?” asked our incredulous cabbie. “Aren’t you afraid of SARS?”
Apparently he was. When we arrived at the square (making the trip in a brisk 15 minutes, instead of the usual 45), we couldn’t get out of the cab: Our driver had disabled the door handle from the inside. He told us to reach over the window and open the door from the outside. “It’s a SARS-prevention measure,” he explained.
Walking toward the square, we spotted a handful of people flying kites in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. But as we got closer, we realized that the kite-flyers were actually kite-sellers from Shandong Province, which is south of Beijing. They immediately surrounded us.
Most of the people who had bothered to come out to the square this afternoon were unmasked. “Getting SARS is just a matter of luck,” said a window fitter from Shenyang (a city in Liaoning province, in northeastern China) who had made a special holiday trip to the square. “If your luck is good, then you won’t get it.” A group of students—all of them unmasked—posed for a group photo in front of the Chinese flag. “We love our country,” they screamed as a photographer snapped their picture.
But then we noticed a clutch of skinny men in street clothes: T-shirts, jeans, khakis, and a suspiciously unusual number of “Members Only”-style windbreakers. They walked in pairs, casually pacing the square, stopping occasionally to survey the scene. We wouldn’t have noticed them, except for the fact that they were the only people in the square outfitted not just in masks, but in rubber gloves, as well. “Bet you those are secret police,” Emma said.
I bought a fluorescent-orange butterfly kite for a little over a dollar. Emma bought one painted with Peking Opera masks. Within seconds, my butterfly had caught a strong current and had free run of the clear, wide, blue Beijing sky. “Last year on May 1, there would’ve been no way you could’ve flown a kite here,” commented a New China News Agency photographer who had spotted Emma’s foreign face and was shadowing her around the square with his telephoto lens. “The square was so crowded, you wouldn’t even have been able to take two steps.” I looked around. Like most of Beijing, the square was almost deserted. A massive but lonely portrait of Sun Yat-Sen (whom the Chinese consider the father of the nation) flanked by rows of waving red flags seemed to be the only decoration marking the holiday. The “Defeat SARS” banners that have become ubiquitous in the city were nowhere to be seen.
As we followed our kites around the square, I kept my eye on the plainclothes officers. I watched them hover as a police van drove onto the square and toward an elderly woman carrying a large black bag. A uniformed police officer asked her to open her bag and peered in. The group moved on when he saw nothing suspicious. I watched their white masks create a loose perimeter around the small crowd that had appeared to watch the flag-lowering ceremony. I watched them watch me as I walked my orange butterfly closer and closer to the Chinese flagpole, where soldiers were preparing to lower the flag.
Aha! I had them! SARS had forced the Chinese police state to mask itself, and it had unmasked it in the process.