“When I was back there in seminary school There was a person there Who put forth the proposition That you can petition the Lord with prayer”–The Soft Parade
This week is a very political week in Beijing, it is the week of the Lianghui, two meetings. Starting Monday the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), part of the Communist Party-controlled governmental structure, which “meets once a year to discuss social and economic policies“ began meeting in the Great Hall of the People, in Tianenmen Square. “The CPPCC is generally seen as a symbolic organisation with little political teeth. Its role is to present Chinese politics as inclusive of other groups and social organisations,” according to an article in The South China Morning Post. On Wednesday, The National People’s Congress, China’s ceremonial legislature, commences a 10 day meeting during which they will sit through endlessly droning reports, after which they will pledge support for the leaders’ latest initiatives.
Beijing is swarming with thousands of politically connected representatives from across the nation and that means a show of security unlike anything I witnessed in my two previous trips to the capital city; blue uniformed police officers, green-jacketed army recruits, citizen volunters with red armbands line the streets. Red & Blue flashing police lights pulse from almost every major intersection in the city’s center. Add to this the obviouse tension from the railway station attack in Kunming on Saturday night and you have what seems to be a city on alert.
Monday morning I headed out in the apocolyptic air to wander hutongs with a camera hanging at my hip. As a laowai walking the streets of the city center I am often approached by people offering rickshaw rides, guided tours, trips to the Great Wall, special lady massages and invitations to “the last day of the art show” and offers to give me special prices and take my American credit card number. But yesterday, the first two people who approached me asked if I was a journalist. In China, that is the equivelant of being asked by the Baghdad Police if those are wires sticking out of your vest. “Nope, tourist,” I reply as I walk away without slowing for conversation.
Emerging from a hutong east of the Forbidden City, I turned north parellel to the perimeter wall. Ahead of me, outside the gate of an unsigned military / government building ,gray bricked and green roofed with military guards, was a group of people millling about. From their dress and appearance they were likely from the countryside, middle-aged and elderly. I noticed most of them holding sheeths of paper and as I passed through the group I could see black and white images of emaciated men lying on wooden planks; whether they were in a hospital, a home or a prison I couldn’t tell, but they were in distress, that much was obvious. Perhaps this was one time that my habit of making eye contact and smiling at people wasn’t the best course of action; one of the men smiled back, looked at my camera and excitedly walked after me proffering the papers clutched in his hand.
With “Jimmy Jazz” blasting through my ears, I quickly crossed the street. As I glanced back I saw guards double-timing it down the block toward the crowd. Camera at hip, I pointed and squeezed off a few shots.
Glancing back, again, I saw 5 men hurrying towards me waving papers and loudly calling, in English, ‘HELLO!” I walked on, removing the flash card from my camera and slipping it into my underwear. At the northeast corner of the Forbidden City moat they caught up to me, tapping me n the sholder. I stopped and turned. One man held out a stack of paper covered in Chinese writing and signatures; it looked like a petition. I felt helpless. I was helpless. I shrugged, held up the plams of my hands and and with a big, dumb laowai grin, shook my head back and forth. He glanced at me camera as I continued to shake my head. What did they want me to do?
I tuned and continued walking into the gloom.