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08.05.2006

I Spy

There comes a moment in the back of any police van when your thoughts turn to the chain of events that has brought you to this moment in your life, and with perhaps more urgency, to any potential chains of events that may help lead you someplace else. Whether it's the softness of the cushions (designed for beefy men who sit all day), the gentle rocking of the van, or that feeling of absolute cocooning safety that can only come from being surrounded by police, there is something about the police van that encourages quiet contemplation.

My only previous ride in a police van had been marred by a somewhat tight suspension and a feeling of vague unease connected with the large number of guns sliding back and forth under the seats, whanging against the van walls. The Beijing police van, by comparison, was an oasis of comfort and safety. The thoughtful driver didn't even turn on the siren or utter a single expletive as he drove me and ten police officers in restful silence to my office, where I hoped to reunite with my passport and perhaps even get a chance to introduce my new friends to my late-working boss.

I had penetrated Beijing's top-secret aerospace complex (near Zhichun Lu, Haidian district, take a right between the Jade Hotel and the McDonald's) through an ingenious ruse. Posing as a simple American tourist out for a walk, I had followed a man on a decrepit cargo bike and an old worker carrying a bucket as they turned down a normal residential street. To get past the sentry in the almost invisible guard booth, I had cunningly omitted walking up and banging on the glass to wake him up, instead following the creaky bike, which was delivering the habitual Beijing bike cargo of three pieces of scrap wood and an old rag. Eluding detection by the basketball court full of army guys in tank tops, I continued after the bike and the bucket, pretending to head toward the main road that would take me home.

This tour-de-force of tradecraft soon paid off. The cargo bike turned a corner, the man with the bucket disappeared into a doorway, and I stood face-to-face with my first intelligence coup. The Beijing Aerospace Center had imprudently left a key motivational banner suspended over the street:

事事有人管 - 人人有事管

(every matter taken care of - everyone with work to do)

A lesser spy may have called it a day right here, but I smelled greater glory ahead and knew that I had to press on. So I continued pass this banner (a classified relative of the big "DO NOT CHEAT ON YOUR EXAMS!" banners hanging at nearby Beijing University) and took myself deeper into the heart of China's aerospace industry, so cleverly disguised as a through street.

The complex was full of low, squat buildings in the usual mild state of disrepair that characterizes the quieter parts of Beijing. There were no people around. Each little street I followed ended in a fence or closed gate with a frustrating view of the main road I was trying to get to, right there on the other side. This also wasn't that unusual; Beijing is a city of gratuitous fences. Undeterred by repeated failure, I moved like Pac-Man in my maze, trying to find an exit.

Turning one particuarly desolate corner, I hit the mother lode of military intelligence. Right there before me, painted in four giant red characters on a peeling plaster wall, stood the secret directive at the heart of China's space program:


安全第一

(safety first)

My pulse racing as I absorbed the import of these words, I turned frantically in search of an exit. NASA had to know about this! But right then I heard that most dreadful sound, the feverish clapping of a man running towards me in flip-flops.

Caught!

I tried to fake it. Still wearing the mask of a bored and lost tourist, I walked idly past the man, pretending I didn't know he was after me, pretending to be innocently trying to find my way out of this goddamned tangle of identical streets. But this laughable ploy failed. The clapping slowed and he stood red-faced in front of me, trying to catch his breath while pouring questions at me in Chinese. He was a worried-looking young guy with the unmistakable look of someone who has just woken up from a sweet, sweet nap. He was dressed in a red mesh tank top and shorts, with a black walkie-talkie in one hand.

---

The interrogation facility in China's top-secret aerospace complex consisted of a little room filled with mosquitoes. For maximum psychological impact, it had been built next to the large street I'd been trying so unsuccessfully to reach this entire time. The flip-flop guy began the interrogation by sitting down and grinning at me. A few minutes of close questioning revealed that I did not speak Chinese, and he did not speak English. He pointed to a logo of a rocket on a piece of furniture, by way of explaining where I was, and then we basked in each other's company, both nodding sagely, as skinny guards filed silently into the room.

In China there seems to be a direct relationship between authority and waist size. Beijing is full of skinny young guys in uniform standing on various boxes and in small booths, watching the world go by. Their purpose is unclear - none has ever been observed to prevent anyone from entering any building or courtyard - but they do lend the city a certain martial flair. The security guards entering now definitely belonged to this category, and so everyone ignored them as they shuffled in and sprawled on the various sofas.

After thirty minutes of amiable sitting I heard the siren of an approaching police van, the gate rolled open, and a sharp squeal of brakes told me that Beijing's finest had arrived.

The cop who walked in was, judging by his girth, in a position of great authority. He did not immediately address me, instead pouring his wrath out on those unfortunate enough to be standing in or near the building. Then he turned to me, introduced himself, and pointed at my pockets. He was accompanied by another authority figure, a man in civilian clothes whose job consisted of takng pictures of all the guilty parties with a digital camera and browbeating those poor security guards that the big cop overlooked.

They divided the interrogation task between them - the fat cop started digging his way through my belongings while the angry photographer went into the sentry booth room to lay into the hapless guards there. Every so often he would pop out to take some pictures of me and my entourage of skinny guards, who straightened visibly for the camera.

Now that I had activated the factory's immune system, more and more of these guys were coming in to sit with me in the little waiting room, clustering around me like bored antibodies enveloping a particularly foul virus. I had a mental image of all the gates to the secret complex now standing unguarded and open.

The fat cop scowled as he navigated his way through the phone, reading through the many mystery text messages that had periodically arrived for the phone's mysterious Chinese owner. With nothing better to do, I began to wonder what it was all those text messages actually said. I hoped they were along the lines of:

hey where r u 2nite loooooonely lol xoxoxoxo lulu

rather than:

yo japanlover and falun bong just scored some primo 
tibetan weed meet tonite under the bridge death to 
the oppressors 420 4evr

By now it was dark and my evening was beginning to drag a little bit. The fat cop grunted at the phone and walked outside again. Someone offered me a bottle of water (with an astronaut on it), but soon the conversation was flagging again. It was clear that the eight skinny guys in cheap security uniforms, belts wrapped twice around their waists, didn't have much in common with me, an imperialist spy. Outside I could see the bright red glow of cigarettes and the blue glow of cell phones, bobbing around in agitated counterpoint.

A very long time later, the gate opened again to admit a much smaller cop car, and a skinny cop who looked barely out of his teens came into the room. Despite his lack of embonpoint, the mass of sprawled out limbs and lolling heads on the sofas around me instantly reassembled into a row of guys at tiptoe attention.

The skinny cop introduced himself as Claude. He spoke good English and was extremely polite, expressing a deep curiosity about my reasons for being in China in general and one of its most restricted aerospace facilities in particular. He seemed particularly interested in seeing my passport. I could not satisfy him on this point, offering the feeble excuse that I had left it in my office to go on a ten-minute walk, and that is how I eventually ended up in the van.

I took Claude's rebuke about not having my passport in stride - it was true, I didn't like to walk around with it because of my knack for losing important documents. But I was hurt when he took me to task for not having registered my address with the local police. Here I was, a white guy, living in the middle of a highly technologically sophisticated police state, speaking no Chinese, surrounded by willing informants, adhering to a rigid daily routine. How hard could it be to figure out where I was? Granted, keeping the gate of their secret aerospace facility closed apparently lay beyond the capabilities of the Chinese secret police, but did they require this level of handholding in everything?

In the interests of international harmony, however, I neglected to press this point with Claude. Instead I handed him my New York driver's license, which he took ginger hold of before heading out into the night.

At some point the fat cop walked in again to make another attempt at the cell phone, guards springing back to attention around him. Having suffered the slings and arrows of the phone's outrageous user interface for three months, it gave me a secret thrill to watch this battle. But as confident as I was of the outcome, I worried that the cop might accidentally squeeze the button on the side of the phone and thereby discover the phone's built-in camera.

By my estimate the phone had about fifty photographs stored on it - two of my bewildered face squinting at the phone, one of my hand, and forty seven of the inside of my pocket. I had no way of verifying this, though, because the built-in photograph viewer was not navigable by mortal man. Only the pure of heart, to whom the user interface would open like a blushing rose, could activate the picture viewer. I did not look forward to having to explain this if the fat cop hit the wrong button and heard the shutter's distinctive click. "Hang in there," I whispered into the phone's little camera eye, while the fat cop mashed its buttons.

And the brave little phone held firm.

---

Living with someone continuously for several months, it's easy to assume you know all their foibles. But the expression that appeared on my boss's face when I walked in to my office at 10 pm trailed by a dozen uniformed guards and police was one that I had not previously seen.

There was a momentary, awkward silence as the angry photographer took his photos and the fat cop sat down to more comfortably leaf through the papers on a colleague's desk. But then Claude broke the ice by asking us how the Lakers were doing this season, and whether we thought Chinese girls were cute, whether we liked Chinese food, and who exactly the office belonged to, the names and business cards of all relevant and irrelevant parties, and our names, and the names of our staff, and photocopies of our passports, visas, and anything else that could fit in the office copier. A minion started to make copies, and again there was a bit of a lull in the conversation. For a while all that could be heard was the sound of whirring paper.

Then Claude turned to my boss.

"我爱你 (I love you)!" he said, somewhat unexpectedly. His face was radiant.

My boss beamed back at him. Two of the skinny guards woke up from their stupor and exchanged glances.

"我爱你!" Claude repeated. I took a step back. "Do you know how to say this in Chinese?"

"He's saying 'I love you', I muttered to my boss.

"No, no, no, I speak very little Chinese," my boss said. "Zher!" he cried, demonstrating his entire vocabulary. The word "this", combined with a pointing index finger, had served as a potent food procurement strategy.

"我爱你?" asked Claude, hope fading. "Chinese girls not pretty?"

"No no no, Chinese girls very pretty." said my boss. A picture of his meaty finger pointing at the chest of some young lovely in a Sanlintun bar, punctuated with a lusty "Zher!", appeared in my mind. I suppressed it.

"Chinese girls pretty?" Claude wondered.

"Yes, very pretty." My boss looked towards me for corroboration.

"Yes, yes, pretty girls. And strong space program!"

Fortunately the scanning finished before this conversation could go much further. With no further reason to trouble us, the police made their farewells. We shook hands with great joy and wished each other a good night.

In his parting comments, Claude thanked me for my time and suggested that, in the future, I be more careful about where I walk. This finally exhausted my patience, and I suggested back that the relevant authorities seriously consider closing the gate on their high-security, top-secret urban Area 51. This was duly translated into Chinese and brought forth a hearty, those-responsible-are-already-on-their-way-to-xinjiang kind of laugh from the group.

Our friendly camaraderie restored, and with assurances that he would not forget to come visit us and make sure hadn't had any problems remembering to register with the local police, Claude and his entourage left, leaving my boss and me alone to discuss the captivating story of where I had been for the last four hours, and how I had come to bring such a delightful assortment of Chinese law enforcement professionals into our lives. Then I took off my shoe and called my controllers at the U.S. Embassy.

And that is how I lost my walk-taking privileges in Beijing.

« Black Letter Days ^ Aug 2006Dirty Old Town »
Idle Words

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