We arrived in Beijing on the evening of Feb. 6, the first day of the Spring Festival. Walking to our hostel was like walking through a war zone. As midnight approached, the city became increasingly ablaze with fireworks (and remained so for several days afterward). There weren't many people on the streets where we were walking... just people setting off an absurd amount of fireworks. The cars didn't seem to care, however. They drove right through the blaze.
I think Peter Hessler is a great writer, probably the best non-academic writer about China I've encountered. However, I've always had trouble relating his stories about China, most of which take place in Beijing or other parts of northern China, to my own experiences in the country. Officials were constantly bothering him, people were always arguing with him about nationalism and which country was better, the US or China. He befriended a Uighur dissident, and was thrown out of hotels numerous times because he was a foreigner or had a reporter's visa. People argued with him about politics. Why did this stuff so rarely happen to me?
When I was in Beijing I had a taste of his China. (I'd been there before, but just for a couple days when I first arrived in China a few years ago.) The city is much more restrictive and tense than Shanghai and other parts of China I've been to. One hotel hadn't yet received a license, apparently required of hotels in Beijing, that would allow them to accept foreign guests. A hostel wasn't allowed to let foreigners and Chinese share a dorm room. The government is too on edge: for the latter restriction, I suppose they're afraid of foreigners telling Chinese about all the things the foreign media obsesses over: human rights, environmental degradation, censored media and internet, the massacre at Tiananmen. Chinese people often have only the vaguest notions of these things, if they do at all, and the government wants to keep it that way.
I realized even more the potential for the Olympics to be very, very ugly. Picture this: on one side, thousands and thousands of foreign reporters entering China (about 20,000, I believe). The ones who are new to China will have brushed up on the country with any news they can find; in foreign reportage, especially in North America, Europe, Australia, etc., that means human rights, censorship, tainted goods, the environment: all the things that the international press loves criticizing China about, and that Chinese people themselves have little idea of. None of these reporters will be content with accepting the news the press conferences give them, or conducting interviews the government sets up. All will work to find the "hidden story" behind what the authorities are telling them—what they're trained to do, and what they will be inclined to do in the midst of the intensely critical attitude foreign journalists typically take towards China.
On the other side, the government. In China, newspapers and other types media all have an appointed censor working with them in their offices. They practice self-censorship; if they don't, heads roll. Things are not as tight as they used to be, but any severe deviation from the party line can mean serious consequences. This is what the government is used to, and it has shown no sign of relaxing its attitude. Recently there has been a crackdown on dissidents, or even on those who simply seek to point out small problems on blogs (a crackdown that the New York Times, and other media, covered with glee). Many of those who will be in charge of dealing with the press have displayed very little knowledge about what foreign reporters will be like; they don't seem to be aware that they may be asked tough questions. (Many such people are members of the communist party, and CCP members are often encouraged to stay in China for their education instead of traveling abroad.) Unless the government decides to change its Internet policy, people will come to China and discover that Wikipedia is blocked, Blogspot is blocked, the BBC is blocked, Voice of America is blocked, and many other sites. In Beijing foreign tourists will confront arbitrary restrictions in relation to hotels, like the ones I encountered, as well as other types of sensitivity. Athletes will stay outside of the city to avoid the pollution and will bring their own food. Meanwhile, the myriad of international groups that are constantly struggling against the Chinese government—people advocating a free Tibet or a free Xinjiang, Taiwanese nationalists, Falun Gong activists, those who want China to put pressure on Burma, Sudan, etc.—will work harder to make themselves heard, and the media will pay more attention to them.
Hopefully I'm exaggerating, but I think the Olympics will be ugly to one extent or another. I fear the recent decision of Stephen Spielberg to drop out of the Olympics, and the subsequent (relatively limited) frenzy, is only the beginning. My advice to all parties—reporters who are out to get China and government officials who panic in the face of criticism:
Take it easy!!