Getting to know the Beijing police state
In China, the law is whatever the policeman and his security sidekick in the black shades say it is.
And right now the policeman is telling me I need a piece of paper from the “committee” to get through the security barricade.
It is the third encounter the two of us, and his silent comrade, have had in the past two days.
“When you are in China, you should follow what Chinese people do,” the policeman instructs.
Australia’s biggest trading partner — home to a fifth of the world’s population and one of humankind’s great civilisations — has surprised me by becoming even more repressive since I moved here as The Australian’s China correspondent in January.
Four months into my posting, China’s era of “reform and opening-up” seems as distant as the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty.
In the lead-up to the country’s main political gathering — the National People’s Congress, which on Wednesday it was confirmed would be held on May 22 in Beijing — things seem to be getting worse. Almost 20 fellow members of the foreign press corps in China have been booted out since February.
Last week, Chinese journalists were harassed by local officials while reporting on the tragic death of four children who were buried alive in Henan province.
In recent days has come news that three Beijingers have been locked up for archiving stories about the coronavirus outbreak that China’s state censors had deleted from the internet.
My troubles are trifling by comparison and happen as I go sightseeing around Beijing’s imperial-era inner city: home of much of the world’s most extraordinary cultural heritage and also much of the Chinese Communist Party’s most fearsome security apparatus.
The trouble is that I am a “jizhe” (journalist), a particularly unpopular profession in the Xi Jinping era. The “J” word is stamped in my passport.
So from whichever direction I approach Zhongshan Park, the same theatre of the absurd ensues.
“You must follow the Chinese law,” says the policeman who, along with his menacing sidekick in the black shades, arrived, as with our last encounter and the time before that, about half an hour after I first gave my passport to one of the pack of junior officers manning this security station.
Here we go again.
Zhongshan Park is in the centre of Beijing, in its Tiananmen precinct, which has been a sensitive area since China’s government killed up to 3000 of its citizens there in 1989.
Unfortunately for me, the Chinese Communist Party’s discomfort with its own history — evidently heightened by the new coronavirus — has got in the way of my effort to visit a park that, in the Ming Dynasty, was an Altar to the God of the Land and the God of Grain.
“It will be really difficult for the officers to tell the difference between professional media behaviour and private sightseeing,” the policeman had explained to me on our first encounter.
Taking over from some of his underling police colleagues, he had arrived holding a curled yellow Post-it note with my home address written on it. He said he had found it in “our database” and also confirmed I had obeyed Beijing’s COVID-19 quarantine laws.
“We feel really pleased that you have obeyed Chinese laws. But since you have done such a good job, why not obey the Chinese media policy?” he asks.
The reason I am struggling to obey the “media policy” is that I have never heard of it.
Nobody has. Not long-serving Beijing correspondents, not Beijing’s municipal government. Even China’s Foreign Ministry claims to be ignorant of it.
It is also news to the two arms of the Chinese state from which the policeman had told me to get permission earlier.
“There’s no regulation forbidding you from going into Zhongshan Park,” said a member of Beijing’s public security bureau after I spent a Sunday getting permission ahead of my final attempt.
The friendly officer at the Tiananmen Area Administrative Committee, the other building I have been told to visit, says the same thing. None of that matters to the policeman.
“That is your opinion,” he says when I tell him the two agencies he told me to speak to had said that I could enter.
“You have a very strong British accent. Is that the reason why you keep the mind very firmly?” he asks. I tell him I am Australian.
“Australian? OK, no problem. OK, so have you got the point? Why you will be rejected to get into this area now?”
The policeman hands back my passport and my accreditation as a foreign journalist in the People’s Republic of China.
“Enjoy your time in Beijing,” he says.