The Beijing Diaries, Day 3: 18th National Congress Begins!

November 11, 2012 in China, Travel

The Great Hall of the People prepares for the opening ceremony of the 18th National Congress

8 November, 2012

The day is finally here. The opening of the 18th National Congress, which I’ve been writing about almost every freaking day for the last 8 months. And while the average Chinese person off the street doesn’t give a shit about this momentous five yearly event, the Communist Party leaders and the rest of the world certainly do.

I ended up leaving the hotel at 7:30 in the morning to walk to Wangfujing station and catch a subway (2 stops) to Tiananmen East. I was supposed to leave earlier but it took me a while to wake myself up after a less than ideal night of sleep. As it turned out, I probably could have left later. I got there by 8am, and it was still relatively quiet, with not a whole lot of press hanging around outside. I went into the Great Hall of the People (which really is a great hall — I’m just not sure it’s “of the people”) at around 8:30 and found a seat on the third floor, which is for writers. The second floor is for photographers and the first floor is for the 2,000+ congress delegates.

At 9am on the dot (those punctual communists!), the spokesperson for the congress officially declared it open, and out came onto the stage all of China’s political heavyweights, all those people I had been writing about for months, from outgoing leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to new leader Xi Jinping, and ancient leader Jiang Zemin, who looked like he was already half mummified.

The whole point of the opening ceremony was for exiting party leader Hu Jintao to deliver his report from the 17th National Congress to the incoming 18th National Congress. Unlike previous years, they did not release the script to the press in advance — we were told we’d have to get them afterwards.

As the speech got underway, it became obvious why they did that. If the press had the script in advance, there’s no way they would have stayed for the entire duration of the 100-minute coma inducer (many didn’t anyway). Seriously, it was utterly brutal, not just because the content was 100% predictable and all about how great the party’s achievements were over the last decade, but it was delivered in Hu’s trademark monotone and with his expressionless face.  I had hear rumors that the dude has zero personality but my theory is that he is a cyborg born out of a secret Chinese government experiment (after Mao Zedong) to create a leader who has no risk whatsoever of establishing a personality cult.

The only thing that kept the 3,000+ people in that hall from falling asleep was Hu’s tendency to periodically punctuate the end of a section of his report with an exclamation, like “blah blah blah…FOR THE PEOPLE!” or “blah blah blah…INTO THE FUTURE!”  and everyone would wake up and burst into spontaneous applause.

I left the auditorium just before the end of the speech to get some water and to drag a copy of the speech. Even though people had been lining up for ages, as soon as the copies arrived the journalists just went crazy and rushed up to the front in typical Chinese fashion. The staff simply started tossing them out into the crowd like they were free T-shirts and the journalists started climbing over each other to get them. Naturally I managed to snatch one.

Before I left, the one other thing I was told by my bosses to check out was the so called “ritual girls” of the congress (essentially staff who serve water and stand around) who have the reputation of being the prettiest girls from all around China. I was told to see if there was a potential story to write about them, and to be honest, I was sorely disappointed with this year’s crew. Perhaps the party leaders made sure most of the girls were average looking to avoid officials from getting in sex scandals. They had more serious things to discuss, like how to convince the world they were working hard to stamp out corruption.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 1: Arrival

November 8, 2012 in China, Travel

G’day, Chairman Mao

November 6, 2012

The last time I was in Beijing was 1990, merely 8 months after  Tiananmen Square. I don’t remember much of that visit apart from my sister enjoying a Forbidden City bento box no other member of the family would touch out of hygiene concerns. This time, I’m going as a reporter to cover China’s 18th National Congress.

For those of you who know jack, the national congress is a big deal in China — and these days, the entire world. It happens once every five years and every second congress they swap Communist Party leaders. This year, Hu Jintao is handing over his title of Communist Party General Secretary to his successor Xi Jinping. It’s gonna be very RED.

The 18th National Congress runs from Nov. 8-14, and it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ll be in Beijing for a total of 11 days, including 2 days before and 2 days after for contingencies. Not like I really had a choice in saying no, but for me, the only drawback is that I’ll be away from my wife and 10-month-old son. And it’s a major drawback. In the 10 years I’ve been with my wife (including before we were married), I had only been away from her for more than a week on two occasions — Hong Kong for a month in 2003/4 and Singapore for a week in 2006 — both for work purposes. And needless to say, I’m dreading being away from my son. What if I miss his first unaided steps or more new words?

Anyway, this was the day I travelled to the Chinese capital, and it was quite a journey. I had been battling the effects of a nasty stomach virus in the days leading up to the departure and my head was still stinging by the time I got to the airport, which was jam packed with Chinese tourists. One particularly memorable image was three Chinese tourists on a travelator heading towards their (my) gate. For some inexplicable reason, they stood about 10m apart from each other, though it did not prevent them from having a full blown conversation that sounded much more like a screaming match.

The plane ride was also an experience. As I had not selected my seats until check-in, I ended up smack bang in the Chinese tourist section right at the back. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard before. It sounded like a meat market and people were literally climbing over each other and testing the limits of the overhead cabinets by cramming in things that probably should have been checked-in. The middle-aged woman who sat next to me was quiet enough, but she kept encroaching onto my space while attempting to find a comfortable position to sleep in. In the end I basically just let her lie against me.

Luckily the Xanax I took for my severe flight anxiety mellowed out any intentions I had of biting her in the face.

I landed at Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport (because it’s the capital, duh) at around 7pm. It’s supposed to be the biggest airport terminal in the world, bigger than all 5 Heathrow terminals combined. I must admit, I had some preconceived notions of Beijing despite everything I had heard about it, and my first impression of the airport was that it looked just like every other major airport in the world.

It wasn’t until I was waiting in line for my taxi to the hotel that I experienced my first real taste — of thick clouds of cigarette smoke in an area with 47 “No Smoking” signs (I counted)…and phlegm hocking on surround sound. Not to mention the little bald man who thought no one would notice if he just squeezed in front of everyone.

The hotel booked for me (by a colleague from a sister paper) is situated in the Dongcheng district and about a 20-minute walk from the Great Hall of the People where many of the congress sessions will take place. It’s a 3-star hotel. Not that I look down on 3-stars because most 3-stars are perfectly fine, but my fear was that it would be a “China 3-star”, if you know what I mean. I had been too pampered on former business trips working for a rich law firm where everything was business class, 5-star hotels and gourmet meals, so the type of travel “perks” you get from a poor news agency (well, maybe not poor, but definitely cheap) came as a rude awakening.

The ruder awakening, however, was finding out upon arrival that my hotel room had been cancelled. As it turned out, my colleague typed the wrong mobile number in the booking form and when the hotel called to confirm the booking the woman on the other end said she had never heard of me (because she hadn’t!).

A furious search for other hotels in the same chain ensued, and a moment later I was told that I had 30 minutes to get to this other hotel or that booking would be cancelled too. I was also told — while carrying a big suitcase and a massive backpack and all — that it would be difficult hailing a cab at that time of the night and I was better off catching a bus and walking.

I passed on that brilliant idea and found a cab. I grinned whenever the cab passed another bus with passengers packed like sardines.

At around 9pm, I finally checked into the hotel. To be fair, the hotel room is no worse than any of the 3-stars I stayed in during my Eurotrips. A flatscreen TV, a table, a big bed and free internet access. Notwithstanding that it was unnaturally dark in the room even with all the lights on, I though the room was more than good enough for me.

And so that ends the first day of my Beijing trip. I look forward to the rest of it with a mix of fear and excitement. If I don’t post on this blog again, I think it is safe to assume that I ended up like Richard Gere in Red Corner.