It started as a minor inconvenience. I could (seemingly) browse the Internet but certain sites were blocked. No Facebook! For 3 days I was unable to see or update my precious timeline. YouTube would not work for me. Like Americans, the Chinese are glued to their social media but it is a state-sponsored service where they are tracked, edited, or blocked. The NSA debacle has spawned outrage in America, but doesn’t come remotely close to this.
On our first visit to Tiananmen Square we got a taste of state intimidation. A large crowd was in front of the Forbidden City (a “public” area on the square) watching the nightly flag ceremony while police were randomly administering pat-downs and demanding government identification just for being in the square. They didn’t bother with us Westerners, it was directed at their citizens and it seemed excessive but it was nothing compared to the last day.
The morning of the last day we headed to the Forbidden City. This is the giant walled compound with the famous painting of Chairman Mao over the main entrance. We approached the entrance on a long narrow walkway, lined on both sides by soldiers at attention, precisely spaced, wearing stern expressions and crisp uniforms. At first I was puzzled but then horrified as I realized every 3rd or 4th soldier (same spacing, same attention, same expression) was in plain street clothes. The message was unmistakable – “We in at the table next to you, in your work place, in your family room. We are everywhere and we are watching you.”
The Facebook thing was sobering and the random ID checks were chilling. But the plainclothes spies on display and the knowledge of what could happen if you crossed the line with them was horrifying.
It’s not hard to see past this if you choose. The city is bustling with families, young adults, seniors, teenagers, and Chinese tourists. Lovely people. They are enjoying the sights, the food, the shopping. They are riding bikes and laughing and sipping tea. It actually seems much like home in so many ways. I really don’t know how they live their lives in the shadow of this oppression. To a lightweight American like me it seemed like such a contradiction.
We are so incredibly lucky and we don’t even know it.