Thursday, May 3, 2012

Beijing, May 2-5

Firstly, sorry this is showing up without paragraphs. I have no idea why except my computer has been acting strange all trip and doing odd and annoying things. This must be one of them. (UPDATE: I actually figured out how to make the pars in HTML, but have no idea why the program stopped doing it automatically)

Back in Beijing, and first time on the road with Clinton in a long time. It was supposed to be very boring -- the annual "Security and Economic Dialogue" between China and the United States, but suddenly got hijacked by the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng who showed up at the U.S. embassy. We have been scrambling.

The State Department had hoped that Chen - one of China's best known human rights figures, famous for his dark glasses -- would agree to leave before Clinton got here to save everybody some face. But he didn't, and when we showed up in Beijing on Wednesday he was still under U.S. protection. The situation has been so delicate that the State Department feels literally imposed a news blackout. They told us nothing before we left DC, nothing on the plane ride over, and nothing once we arrived. A very Chinese approach, all considered, and pretty frustrating when you are trying to tell people what is going on (how should we know, we're only traveling with Clinton).

Truth is, obviously, there was a lot of frantic work going on behind the scenes. But none of it was visible to us or anybody else, so after the 19 hour trip from Washington we had a free-ish day. I really just wanted to sleep but didn't want to waste the time here, so got together with some other people and went for a walk around my favorite part of the city Houhai Lake.

Beijing is never going to be (in its broader aspects) charming. It was hot for May, and the sky had the polluted yellow sheen that it gets on smoggy days. The huge new roads are heaving with cars, the big skyscrapers are shiny and featureless...although some of them are pretty cool looking. We got thru the traffic to Houhai and a little bit of old Beijing reasserted itself. Old men still swimming in the lake (no amount of money would get me into that water). The old alleys still looking more or less like themselves, although for the most part prettified up as this is a major tourist and nightlife area now. Lots of people walking around, dating Chinese kids on tandem bicycles, construction where they are rehabbing more of the old courtyard houses into new restaurants or shops or whatever.

I'm glad we went, just to see that it (however modified and neon lighted) is still there. But we got nervous after about an hour..worried that we would miss something from Clinton and feeling guilty that we hadn't done anything yet to merit this trip because we had zero information. So we went back to the hotel.

About 1/2 hour later the news broke that Chen was out, and the real work began. We've been going pretty much non-stop ever since (I had about four hours sleep last night, after the 19 hours on the plane). At first the State Department tried to pitch Chen's departure from the embassy as a big success, but pretty quickly it became clear that something else was up and by today he says he has had second thoughts and now wants U.S. asylum. Its a mess, and to have it happening right while Clinton is in town is a sort of diplomatic perfect storm

Today was spent at the "dialogue"...empty opening speeches and then waiting for them to finish. We did get an interview withe the U.S. ambassador which was more grist for the Chen mill, then came back to the hotel to write that up. More waiting and wondering how this is all going to play out.

Tonight things have wound down, thank goodness, because think that everybody on Clinton's team is totally exhausted as are we. Just came back from a very good Sichuan dinner in a restaurant around the corner from the hotel, which is in the new fancy part of town. Around here is the territory of the 1 pct of China, which makes for a lot of very rich people -- I'll close out with a picture from one of the stores.