Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When discussing China's myriad challenges with laobaixing, or ordinary Chinese, most eventually circle back to the source of all their problems: too many people.

There is a population clock here.

China now has 137 million Internet users, and is expected to overtake the US in two years, officials said in today's China Daily newspaper, which like all media here is state-owned. The US has 210 million Internet users.


The other night, I went to a poor neighborhood in old Beijing to interview some people who are often not encouraged to talk with the media. It wasn't a big deal: these days we're allegedly allowed to go anywhere, so who knows whether I really needed to be all that careful in the first place, at least in this instance. But I took my ability to slip past for granted.

Coming back to my diplomatic compound, the security guard wanted me to show ID. I refused. I also refused to speak English, since that wasn't the point. I wanted to know why he waved in Caucasians, without ID, but not me. Years ago, Chinese were not allowed in these foreigner compounds, but nowadays Chinese also live and work here.

The guard's non-answer answer - "it's for safety reasons" - infuriated my translator, who was with me. She asked him if he thought foreigners were safe and Chinese people were dangerous. He babbled, then said he had no authority over foreigners, and could only stop Chinese. I asked whether, as a foreigner I could do whatever I pleased in the compound, while my translator had to obey the rules. He babbled some more.

"It's colonialist thinking," my translator said. The only fair policy would be a swipe card for everybody, she argued.

It's hard not to get angry about this sort of thing when it happens so often, but I am trying.

It sort of reminds me of a recent interview where I asked what sort of follow-up occured after a misguided official killed off a needed program, then was forced to restart it again. Was there any belated recognition of the program's merits, I asked? "You ask very American questions," my interviewee said, to my chagrin. Whether the program was beneficial or necessary was irrelevant. All that mattered was that the official's face was temporarily saved by relaunching the program. Now that that need had been met, the program could easily die again.