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We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Peking Duck


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Beijing school, Big Wild Goose Pagoda


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  World Financial Center, downtown Shanghai


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Airports ... and too much of the Shanghai tarmac

China proves to be rocky terrain for truth-tellers

Had I been forced to put my wife and stepson on an airplane to China without me, I'm not sure what I would have done with myself. Maybe kayak up a creek all by my lonesome and cry for a day or two.

The Far East, after all, had been my idea.

But then I went and filled out my visa application honestly, including the line where it asked what I do for a living. Truth-telling doesn't score you many points in the People's Republic, and "newspaper editor" sent up red flags in the country's Washington, D.C., embassy.

My wife, Debi, a Beaufort High School teacher, has helped organize several student trips to foreign lands — Costa Rica, Greece, Italy, France, Spain. I had accompanied her twice before and lobbied for several years for a trip to Asia, preferably the emerging economic juggernaut China, which manufactures so many of our goods and holds so much of our debt. Seems prudent to go meet the new bosses, if you get my drift.

The embassy accepted the 25 other visa applications without question. However, mine was handed back to the uncle of one of the kids in our tour group without a second glance. The gentleman delivering the applications lives in D.C. and agreed to drop the applications off to save us a charge from a visa company that specializes in such hand-deliveries. But proving the  old adage that no good deed goes unpunished, this would not be his last trip to the embassy. He called to tell me I needed to submit a letter from my employer stating I wouldn't be working while in the country.

So I did ... and my application was rejected again.

My letter apparently didn't provide enough detail about my daily duties at The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where a reporter dispatching from Yemassee would be considered a foreign correspondent.

On the third try, an embassy employee kept my application but told our group's go-between I needed to call the embassy media office before my visa could be processed … and then inexplicably refused to give him that number.

What the heck was going on?

I checked out the embassy website and couldn't find a listing for a media office. I called several other numbers and sent email to several addresses but still couldn't get a person on the phone or even a recording to leave voicemail. I feared this goose chase was a contrivance to deny my visa. With the trip a little more than a week away, I was in full panic mode. I called Rep. Joe Wilson's office. I called Sen. Lindsey Graham's office. The staffers there were helpful as they could be, but we made little progress.

Gawd! Stupid truth.

It simply was not a good time for a journalist to apply for a visa — turbulence on the Arab street had the Chinese Communist Party worried about similar uprisings on theirs. If you set aside politics and propriety, you can understand their logic — the only thing less desirable to autocrats than public dissent is a bunch of outsiders with the satellite feeds and printing presses to tell the rest of the world about it.

With this in mind, I filled out a falsified visa application, listing my occupation as "teacher," and was searching for a company that specializes in aiding with applications to submit it for me. Then, our man in Washington got a call. My visa was ready. There was no further mention of the media office.

Seems everything these days is made in China … except for sense.

But off I went, with my wife; her co-worker, Lori Lungaard, who like me was a chaperone; one parent; one college student; and 21 Beaufort High School students.

Among tour excursions during a nine-day jaunt through Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai was a Monday-morning flag-raising ceremony at a secondary school. This weekly routine was a study in orderliness, discipline and fealty to state — replete with goose-stepping flag-bearers. My ears were dulled by the headmaster's Mandarin address, but my eyes were in overdrive. There was something to see at every compass point, including the stairway to the stage where the headmaster spoke. There, a small bit of American graffiti had been scrawled.

It was the f-word. That made me smile.

I wondered if the teachers and administrators had simply failed to notice it, or if they allowed it to remain because they didn't understand its meaning. I imagined the little rebel who wrote it, extending a furtive middle finger to the repressive state whose interest in educating him was the nation's glorification, nothing more.

Make no mistake, the Communist Party gives its people certain permissions; it does not recognize genuine rights. The two are not to be confused. The latter are irrevocably conferred by a god the party refuses to acknowledge. The former can be revoked on a whim, as in the government’s snap decision to change its policy regarding foreign media as unrest in the Middle East gave way to regime change. Previously, Western journalists were allowed to interview any Chinese citizen who agreed to talk to them; as tensions mounted elsewhere in the days before our trip, that privilege was jerked away and foreign journalists forced to get state clearance to interview citizens.

So in its own modest way, this blog is my f-bomb, my extended middle finger. I wasn’t so much wronged as inconvenienced by my visa difficulties, of course. Nonetheless, I departed my dear home soil determined to retroactively falsify my visa application after all. For I might have entered the country as a chaperone, but I would take notes. And after I departed, I would tell what I saw. Like a good journalist should.

Take that, repressive commie dirtbags.

I think I've seen too many movies about Cold War intrigue. I imagined that although my visa application was accepted, I would be tailed by special agents, perhaps even dragged into an alley and given the business.

For surely, I was tempting fate — I wasn't technically a working journalist on this trip, but I lugged along enough equipment to open my own bureau. A laptop, an audio recorder, a Flip camera, an SRL camera, an extra lens, a point-and-shoot camera, a reporter's notebook.

Yet, I breezed right through customs upon arrival and at the security checkpoints for each of the two domestic flights during the trip. If anyone followed me, they did a damn fine job of concealing themselves, and I apparently never gave them any reason to rough me up in an alley. After a day or two, I decided I was simply getting too carried away with myself. The Chinese government has 1.3 billion people to keep an eye on, and that doesn't leave much time to trifle with short, balding, middle-aged Americans.

So there went my book deal.

To be sure, China's Communist Party is poised to take away privileges it grants at any moment. Indeed, the same week we were in the country, China's most famous political blogger went missing. (I'm not sure if this was reported in China; I didn't learn of this until I returned to the States.) The next week, the man chiefly responsible for the design of the Bird's Nest — Beijing's main Olympic stadium — and a frequent critic of the regime was arrested as part of a crackdown on dissidents.


However, the country is more tolerant of both capitalism and journalists than it was just two decades ago. The country has a growing class of millionaires and a growing number of Internet cafes where the people can both entertain and inform themselves.


True, Facebook has rather famously been banned there. And Google engages in a tenuous dance with a government that thinks "Tiananmen Square massacre" and "Dali Lama" should not be searchable terms. These are serious affronts to freedoms of press and speech.

Nonetheless, there is hope in the raging popularity of the country's version of Twitter. State-run television offers a lineup of channels that includes CNN's international feed (and which features programming as vacuous as any cable system in America.) Judging by the only edition of the English-language China Daily I managed to wrangle, the government will even brook an unflattering article here and there. The March 28 publication — which I found expansive and aesthetically pleasing, if awkwardly written — contained stories about domestic violence, a growing web-publishing industry that is displacing traditional Chinese printing houses, and several authors' criticism of the Chinese search engine Baidu, which they accuse of copyright infringement.

Of course, the lead story in China Daily was about a massive radiation spike at an earthquake-ravaged nuclear plant in Japan. (As an aside, bashing Japan is practically a national sport in China, and if you're familiar with the rape of Nanking during World War II, you understand why.)

In addition to growing Internet accessibility, newsstands festoon about every third corner in the cities we visited. They are full of magazines — including Asian versions of American titles such as Time and Fortune — but notably bereft of traditional newspapers.

I asked our tour guide about this.

Huang Jian Hua, a diminutive 28-year-old who adopted the American name "Robert," explains that newspapers are read primarily by the educated and affluent — much as in the United States — and by the young — much unlike the United States. According to Robert, the government runs newspapers in each of China's provinces and municipalities, and they are the dominant print media in the areas they serve. However, private start-ups are now allowed, and Robert said the government doesn't practice prior restraint.

I gathered, however, this is less the result of enlightened policy-makers in the Communist Party, more a bow to pragmatism in a country that wants to allow some private enterprise and would struggle to pre-approve every word intended for publication, anyway. Because these news enterprises exist at the government's leisure, they self-police, Robert says. Anonymous bloggers intent upon shaking the political order might be willing and able to subvert for a while, but publications seeking profit won't find any in bucking the party line.

This begins to explain a news dichotomy within China: The older generation typically accepts the state's version of truth without question; however, enough news from foreign lands has seeped across China's borders that people Robert's age are deeply skeptical of their government.

It remains to be seen if this suspicion will foment into conviction and, in turn, give rise to efficacious, First Amendment-style reforms. It is tempting to predict that it will as you walk the streets of a thoroughly Westernized city like Shanghai; the possibility seemed depressingly remote as we walked through Tiananmen Square with a day guide, however.

That's because there was no mention whatsoever of the incident with which most Westerners associate Beijing's largest public square. It was as if the civil resistance had never occurred, as if the tanks that rolled over and killed students there in 1989 were too trifling to mention.

I don't claim to have discerned deeper truths from a nine-day trip through a complex country. As such, I don't know if the day guide who assisted Robert in Beijing didn't mention the massacre because he chose not to or if he simply didn't know. Either seems possible, in retrospect. For his part, Robert clearly was aware something had taken place in the spring of that year and that students had died, but he off-handedly referred to it as an "accident" — the government's characterization. Just the same, he listened intently — as if receiving deeper truth — as my wife explained the "accident" through Western eyes.

It is difficult not to compare contemporary China with the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union's dalliance with "perestroika" and "glasnost," which proved insufficient to slake the Soviet people's thirst for Western-style government and freedoms. President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the reforms, but they ultimately failed because they were less new governing philosophies, more concessions intended to keep the union intact. The fawning Western press notwithstanding, Gorbachev never claimed to be anything other than a committed communist. Eventually the party rule he hoped to preserve was overwhelmed by the forces he unleashed but did not understand.

China has had similar dalliances with reform, albeit with different outcomes.

For instance, in 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong decided to encourage criticism of the party and government and to embrace a variety of views and solutions to national policy issues. Unfortunately, this Hundred Flowers Campaign lasted just six weeks. When it was over, those who had taken Mao at his word were rounded up and dealt with as dictators typically deal with dissidents — by crushing them like cookies in a fist. Scholars can debate whether the Great Leader simply found the criticism less palatable than he anticipated, or if the whole program was a ruse to flush out his opposition. It matters little — those foolish enough to speak are just as dead, whichever is the case.

This was neither Mao's only program of brutality, nor his worst. The "Great Leap Forward," for example, was a disastrous attempt to move the nation from an agrarian economy to an industrialized one. The folly of central planning was made plain by the deaths of 20 to 43 million Chinese that ensued, many as a result of starvation. Less than a decade later, Mao was at it again, this time exterminating a generation of scholars and intellectuals as part of his "Cultural Revolution."

Despite these atrocities, Mao is revered by many in China, where the official party line is that the Great Helmsman was indeed great, if slightly imperfect. Our day guide gushed as he pointed out Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, where armed guards hold vigil and people stand in line for hours just to shuffle past the leader's preserved body for a few, brief moments. In China, one of the most beastly dictators in a century full of them is still revered, and his portrait still adorns the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Truth might be coming to China, but it has not yet arrived.

If comparisons to the Soviet Union of the early 1990s are inescapable, a similar outcome for China is not. The biggest difference is that for all of China's backward thinking, it has made far greater economic advances (environment be damned) than the Ruskies ever did.

However, the source of China's success, relative to the USSR, is also its greatest threat. The Communist Party in this one-party state might claim to run "Socialism with Chinese characteristics," but these are face-saving semantics. The belching factories that litter the landscape (literally) and the corporate tenants in Shanghai's skyscrapers suggest the party might be OK with being communist in name only, so long as it retains power. China's goal does not seem to be making good on Karl Marx's theories of class struggle; it seems to be making good, period.

If capitalism proves a better means to that end than communism, so be it.

It will be a good thing for the Chinese people — indeed, to the entire world — if free-market reforms are not merely bones thrown to the people, or half-measure political reforms as they were in the Soviet Union. But a government monopoly on power is difficult to square with free markets, which are predicated upon competing ideas and, importantly, access to information.

While we wait for this to play out, bloggers sit in their pajamas and rage against the machine, just as they do in the United States. Says a recent report in Time's online edition:

Many believe that the Internet is "blocked" in China. … (T)hat is only partially true. Some sites are blocked outright, yes, and some searches turn up empty. But the uncensored Chinese language web is vast and varied, and netizens are always finding new ways to scale the "Great Firewall."

God bless those climbers. Here's hoping they can one day extend their middle finger without fear the Communist Party will chop it off.

Visa, sweet visa

Visa, sweet visa.

Visa, sweet visa

Pretty sweet, checking out from a hotel lobby in Beijing.

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