August 7, 2008

BEIJING -- There was an exchange yesterday in a little dumplings restaurant in the run-down Daxing district in the southern part of this enormous city that captured the unsettling dichotomy that seems so much a part of the Chinese way of life.

I was trying to follow the so-called journalists' "Walking Guide to the Persecution of Falun Gong in Beijing," which if actually done on foot in this out-sized, kick-ass city would take days if not weeks, and was looking for the Beijing Municipal Prison for Women, where at least a couple of the most recent Falun Gong detainees are believed to be incarcerated. They are in jail; it's just that this being China, it is not always easy to determine which one.

Daxing it turns out is as famous for its prisons as it is for its watermelons, and when my interpreter asked a man eating at the table across from us where the women's city hoosegow was, he grinned and shrugged, "There are lots of prisons here."

It was the same in the taxi on the way out to Daxing: The driver or the interpreter would stop and ask someone for directions, giving only the name of the road; if that failed, and it usually did because given the size of the city and the rate at which it changes, you could live a long life here and not know a tenth of it, they would mention a certain "re-education through labour" camp or a particular detention centre, and suddenly, the directions would come fast and furious.

In other words, everyone here knows or suspects at least some of what goes on under their noses - as do most of us who come here as visitors - but few look too carefully.

When it is uncomfortable, or bad for business, or outright dangerous to acknowledge even central facts of your own existence, not so many folks will do it head on. As former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief Philip Pan ruefully concludes in his new book, Out of Mao's Shadow, "The hard truth ... is that many people aren't looking and that the Communist Party is winning the battle for the nation's future."

And the party is winning, Mr. Pan says, because the galloping economy has genuinely improved many people's lives; because the rising entrepreneurial class, who ordinarily might be expected, with more time on their hands, to clamour for more democracy, got rich because the party let them get rich; because propaganda works; but also because, Mr. Pan says, "The government has grown expert at manipulating public opinion, especially at rallying nationalist sentiment to its side."

Thus, the Olympic spectacle, in full flower now that the torch relay (which saw many Chinese react angrily, or at least puffed with nationalist pride, to the pro-Tibet protests that accompanied the early leg) has arrived in the capital.

Beijing is, in the Olympic sections and environs, so new it practically squeaks.

The airport is new and huge. The superhighways leading to it are new and comparatively empty. The abundant greenery - trees, flowers, shrubs, lawns and even cunning little pots of plants at tolls booths and exits - is all new, and you can tell it's all new because when you get far enough away from the splashy Olympic sites and see older-than-yesterday trees and plants, they have a permanent coating of dust and look grey-green.

The buildings, whether apartment or office towers, are new and dazzling; the Olympic stadiums are bigger-than-life and awe-inspiring. Everything from bus transport to public toilets seems to work with great efficiency. Hordes of cheerful, gorgeous, helpful young Chinese staff are everywhere; it is as though decades ago the Stepford Wives walked out of that bad movie they were in, moved here, and bred only smiling, happy, unquestioning progeny. Exchanges between Canadians and Chinese are particularly amusing, as people of what may be the two most polite, self-conscious countries in the world try to out "I'm sorry" one another.

So, it's all going to be grand in so many ways.

But, while I never did find the Beijing Municipal Prison for Women, we did stop by the Qinghe Emergency Centre (essentially an emergency hospital, called 999 in these parts), where the family of Yu Zhou were summoned in early February.

The 42-year-old Beijing percussionist (you have to watch those troublesome percussionists) was, conveniently, already dead, having died, it is thought, while being held at the Tongzhou District Detention Centre. He and his wife, the poet and painter Xu Na, were arrested in late January, on their way home from a concert. Despite his family's pleas for an autopsy, the Falun Gong information website says they have never even received his body, and that his remains are believed to be still at the hospital. His wife is serving a 12-year sentence at the prison I couldn't find.

We drove by a "re-education through labour" camp and a detention centre in the Tuanhe part of Daxing district. The interpreter asked the fellows at the gate if we could get some basic information (we had agreed in advance not to mention what the interpreter, with a wry smile, described as "the F word"), but one official said that even during the Olympics, permission must be granted in writing first from various authorities. It is at this detention centre, I think, that another Falun Gong practitioner, David (Dongwei) Bu, who has been declared an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, is believed to be held.

For the record, no one has ever accused adherents of Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, of being violent radicals. Indeed, no one but the Chinese government, which after years of approving the practice, which is part spiritual and part physical exercise and apolitical, accused them of anything much.

In Canada, as in much of the Western world, Falun Gong mostly holds silent vigils outside Chinese embassies and consulates. It was just that sort of protest - quiet, bannerless - that was attended by 10,000 in April of 1999, at Chinese Communist Party headquarters; three months later, the Chinese government banned the group, made belonging to it illegal and began the brutal crackdown that continues to this day. Silent protests, doing breathing exercises in public, being a bit weird: That's enough here.

Philip Pan ends his book by saying when he first came to China in the early 1990s, he actually thought the party's fall from power was just around the corner. He doesn't think so any longer.