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Welcome To Take Beijing Taxi

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

A little knowledge is very dangerous, and that’s true of the person who knows about as much Mandarin as the average Chinese four year old. People talk to you. In Chinese. Even if you only know how to say the address of your hotel or apartment properly, taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, will talk to you. Some of them talk about the building work in Beijing, others practice their English, but mostly they yammer on to me in Chinese about everything and nothing. All I’m able to do is offer an appreciative “yes” or “ahhhh”, and hope that it looks like I understand and sympathize.

Because of my horrendously low level of Chinese, most interactions with taxi drivers are short and to the point. I know how to direct someone to my apartment (go straight ahead a little…you see the little road on the left? Ok straight ahead, left here and stop), and I’m particularly good at the old mobile-phone-with-handy-Chinese-directions-on-it trick, but that’s about it. I know nothing of their lives, they’re probably largely more interested in my life as most Chinese people are, and I’d like to know about them, but we’re separated by the huge, bulletproof, reinforced concrete barrier of my own ineptitude, my ignorance and disrespect of Chinese culture.

Sometimes I have a great taxi driver, like the guy a few weeks ago. He seemed, as they often do, rather happy to have a foreigner in the back. Once we’d established that my Chinese was pretty much worthless, and that my girlfriend could speak both Mandarin and English, we quickly fell into the routine of my girlfriend explaining something in Chinese, and then the taxi driver checking his pronunciation on me.

According to the Beijing Olympic website, nearly 90,000 drivers are learning English, and will be able to “chat with foreigners about the NBA star Yao Ming, or Beijing snack[s]”. If the drivers struggle, then there’s still no need worry, as taxi companies are installing computerized translators in their cars. The website doesn’t elaborate what’s going to happen if you know nothing of the NBA (like your average British person, who, is, admittedly, more likely to shout directions twice at the poor man, before smashing the car up). Xinhua news releases me always make me nervous, for some reason – especially the use if the word “chat” in the sentence above.

There are two things that foreigners talk a lot about in Beijing. The first thing is mostly about public toilets, ex-pats and tourists alike swap stories about them like war veterans. The second is usually the smell inside a Beijing taxi, largely the smell of a mouth that has been washed with green tea for most of the day, lightly peppered with the smell of aged garlic. The smell problem has caught the attention of the Olympic mandarins and they assure me that only the most fragrant taxis will be available for sports fans this summer – they will conduct extensive smell tests to make sure quality is maintained.

Getting into a taxi, and, a few hours later, when you’ve had a couple of stiff drinks and have worked up the courage to actually take a ride in one to your destination is a watershed for both the tourist and foreign worker. As mentioned, even though the taxis are the lifeblood of the city, not many of the drivers can speak English. They’re being forced to do it for the Olympics, but given their attitude of picking and choosing who to pick up and where to go, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about them all getting their heads down to study after a 12 hour shift ferrying drunken foreigners to and from Sanlitun.

Under normal circumstances – that is, if I didn’t live in Beijing – I would say that the taxi driver has to put up with a lot of grief. Having been booted out of innumerable taxes simply because the driver doesn’t want to go where I want to go – I assume it’s something along the Chinese version of “I’m not going south of the river this time of time of night, you’ll stink up the cab with your kebabs” – I’m going to say that they don’t have that much of a hard life outside of working on national holidays.

Beijing is a crowd surfing city, built on a shifting sand of people. You meet people in Beijing, and then pretty soon, they leave. The Chinese guys usually go back to their families, taking two day train journeys back home. The foreigners soon ache for something different, somewhere where you can breathe air you can’t see, a green field, a flower or two that isn’t choking on car fumes. Maybe the attraction of English-speaking Hong Kong draws them south, or cooler climes of the north take them to some one-horse village in Gansu. China owes it’s economic success to the migrant worker, and it’s the migrant workers that make up the bulk of Beijing’s taxi driver community.

Weather they liked it or not (and it’s more than likely not), Beijing taxi drivers were the front line of the city’s personality drive for the Olympics. The hardened, dour-mouthed resident would argue that trying to give a city like Beijing a personality is akin to bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted, failed to run, been shot and turned into the contents of a glue pot, but still, you have to give points for effort. Taxi driver might need lessons in hygiene, customer service and basic Beijing geography; they were the first and last people that Olympic visitors were likely to see.

One such driver, a former pig-dung shoveler, laborer and electrician (the connection between the three isn’t very clear) isn’t optimistic about his prospects, “My monthly income was about 3,000 yuan (£195) two years ago. Now it is 2,000 yuan (£130).” he told a Guardian reporter, “I expect it will go even lower in the future,” he says. “I don’t get any days off. I want to cry.” So says Xia Shishan, Beijing taxi driver of four and a half years. He has to support a daughter at university, and a sick mother.

Compared to his own youth, when he only had flour, sweet potatoes and tea leaves to eat, things are now undoubtedly much better. Shishan and his family eat meat on a regular basis, compared to the times when meat was confined to special events like Spring Festival, but still there is the worry. His worries are not those politics, or social stability, banned movies or songs, or imprisoned journalists. He is more concerned about supporting his family, while surviving on one of the lowest rungs of Beijing society. Already the Olympics have affected him personally – “Developers are going to knock down my mum’s home. It’s part of the project for South Beijing railway station. They offered compensation, but it is only enough to buy a bathroom. We can appeal for more, but ordinary citizens don’t have much power.”

The Olympics fired the imagination of everyone in the capital. Xia Shishan reckons that “China is an ancient nation with 5,000 years of history. Thanks to the Olympics, we can show how great our country is. We will finish top of the medal table. There is no doubt about it. And when we win, I will be so excited my blood will boil.”

Of course, not all the taxi drivers are this nice. In 2004, Li Pingping was executed for murdering prostitutes in Beijing, he killed three of them from November 2002 to April 2003 – he also managed to stab his ex-employer, his wife and their 12-year-old daughter to death. He killed the hookers because he believed they made money more easily that he did, and his wife was sent to the slammer for fifteen years for helping him.

When you do a little research on the Beijing cabbie, you tend to see why Pingping blew his stack. As well as having to cope with ever-changing rules and traffic regulations, the ever-increasing price of petrol, and the fact that the drivers have to pay their management companies anything from 2000RMB to 6000RMB while they earn a maximum of about 2000RMB – which doesn’t leave a whole lot of cash to live on. Add to that a compulsory English test for the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that there are obligatory price hikes, you get a much clearer picture of what’s going on. It becomes more and more unfathomable as to why I routinely get told that a destination is too far, or is in the wrong direction, or perhaps the drivers have accepted the inevitable, and have just given up on trying to offer some kind of recognizable customer service. When you consider that the Beijing taxi will be the front line of the welcoming committee for the Games, then everything becomes even more unfathomable – the city authorities should be doing things to keep them happy, rather than poking them with a pointy stick. Repeatedly. For no good reason.

Everything came to a head two years ago, when the driver arranged a mass “go slow day” in Beijing, throwing the city into mild chaos. While it fell short of an out-and-out strike, the message was pretty clear – the drivers were not happy. Foreigners and Chinese alike were forced to stand…waiting (people do not like to wait for much here in Beijing) for a driver to take them somewhere and they did take them. Very, very slowly they took them.

Ok, so no one forces them at gunpoint to become taxi drivers, but when these people have very little else in the way of employment options for them, you can hardly blame them, and they do get a bum deal. Most of them sign on for four or five year contracts, and get paid less that Ghandi’s personal assistant.

What is lacking is a clear, thought-out strategy. The Olympic Games are a great source of national pride, and if there are few smiling faces to ferry around the fresh-faced tourists, then it will largely be the fault of a government that, while it wants to be accepted, is more preoccupied in taxing heavily, and dreaming up kooky new laws that serve only to confuse and bamboozle the average Beijinger. Instead of reveling in their red tape paradise, perhaps the powers that be should focus on giving the workers reasons to be cheerful beyond the pipe dream of a harmonious society.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

April 6, 2009 1 comment

“We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China…We are confident that the Games coming to China not only promote our economy but also enhances all social conditions, including education, health and human rights.”
– Wang Wei, Executive Vice President and Secretary General of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, speaking in 2001

“The Chinese authorities have broken their promise to improve the country’s human rights situation and betrayed the core values of the Olympics. There has been no progress towards fulfilling these promises, only continued deterioration. Unless the authorities make a swift change of direction, the legacy of the Beijing Olympics will not be positive for human rights in China.”

– Amnesty International statement 10 days before the the start of the 2008 Olmypic Games.

Many different people wanted many different things from the Olympic Games. The Chinese Communist Party wanted international recognition of their legitimacy, the Chinese people wanted the tourist dollars, human rights activists wanted better human rights, and almost everyone wanted to see more porn and uncensored Internet access.

In the 7 years that Beijing had time to prepare for the Olympiad, the pipe dream of improved human rights had pretty much evaporated. Amnesty International had been monitoring the situation, and in 2008 conclusively reported that “in the run-up to the Olympics, the Chinese authorities have locked up, put under house arrest and forcibly removed individuals they believe may threaten the image of “stability” and “harmony” they want to present to the world.”

The Chinese government will have people believe that the games had been nothing less than “16 glorious days which we will cherish forever.” In truth, the whole thing had been astonishingly mismanaged from start to finish. The Chinese government lied to the people of China, and managed to tarnish it’s image on the international stage even further – if you believe that could even be possible.

The first problem that Beijing mandarins faced was the appalling level of air pollution that blighted the city. With American medical experts like Bob Lanier, who works as a doctor at Fort Worth said that “It’s like living in the middle of a construction zone,” and the marathon runners that had tried the damnedest to run through the city’s most beautiful and most breathtaking construction sites in the 2007 Beijing Marathon had promised that “we won’t be coming back.” The solution to this was to ban odd and even numbered cars from the roads on alternating days and to shut any and all factories that were belching out offending fumes that would push the air quality index of the city down. Of course, these rules were both dissolved soon after the games, and the fumes were once again merrily pumped in to the air. The effect was, as Will Moss put it, that being in Beijing was like being with “a kid holding in a giant fart”

Months before the Games started, hotels were feeling the pinch of the new, draconian visa rules that had been introduced. In June, the Kerry Center Hotel was only 63% full, 37% down on bookings the previous year. According to the Beijing Tourist Bureau, 44 percent of four-star and about 77 percent of five-star hotel rooms were booked in the city.

Insisting that the new visa rules were in place to tighten security ahead of the games, the government was cracking down on illegal F (business) visas that had been issued to foreigners who didn’t have a work visa, but wanted to stay and work in the city. The F visas allowed people to visit factories, take part in meetings, etc, and could be valid for up to six months. Since the tourist, or L visa, only gave a maximum of three months, the F visa was the visa of choice for people who worked on the sidelines in Beijing. Unfortunately, the influx of African expats who funded themselves mostly through prostitution and drug trafficking in the Sanlitun bar area were resident on F visas. Since a bar street riddled with drug dealers wouldn’t give the image that the CCP were hoping for in August, the drug dealers had to go.

Once the dealers found themselves unable to get a visa, they would, in theory, leave the country (and they did, flooding into Hong Kong). In order to send the right message that drugs were not welcome in Beijing, the police raided several bars one night, arresting and beating any and all black men, regardless of whether they were African drug dealers, or African-American teachers working legitimately, unfortunately for the Beijing police, the son of an African ambassador was caught up in the violence and was beaten on the streets before being arrested.

Other business interests were being damaged too. In one case two businessmen who needed to visit Beijing were given visas. The German got a 30 day F visa, and the Swiss businessman got a 10 day visa. Something was clearly wrong with the interpretation and application of the new rules, but since Beijing had not even acknowledged that there had been a change in visa policy, there was little that anyone could do. Even business reps from Hong Kong who often took a trip to nearby Shenzhen were being denied visas, and thus entry into the mainland. While the visa rules had done good job of getting rid of the riff-raff that would tarnish the pristine presentation of Beijing during the Olympics, businesses were being oxygen-starved three months before any athletes had touched down at Beijing Airport.

Well before the Olympics had started, Chinese people, especially those who felt that they had been wronged in some way, took advantage of the interest that the Games had generated outside of China. In one incident, Hu Ziwei took revenge on her philandering husband, Bo Zhang and told everyone about his extramarital affair at a press conference that had been called to mark the renaming of CCTV 5 to The Olympic Channel.

No stranger to controversy, Hu Ziwei had previously attacked the ping pong player, He Zili, who competes on the Japanese national team because her former husband was Japanese. At the press conference in 2007, she appeared alongside Zhang Bin, over three long minutes, exposed the adulterous affair:

“As the wife of Mr Zhang Bin, rather than in my normal capacity as a TV announcer, I would like all of you to spare me a minute. Today is a special day for The Olympic Channel, and it’s a special day for Mr Zhang Bin, and for me it’s a special day, too. Because just two hours ago I found out that, besides me, Mr Zhang Bin has been maintaining an improper relationship with another woman.”

“Next year is an Olympic year, and all eyes will be watching China. But as a French diplomat once pointed out, if Chinese people don’t have any humane values to present to the world … then what does all the [Olympic] fuss mean?”

She was escorted off-stage and the press conference continued. Unfortunately, one attendee filmed the whole thing with his camera phone, and the video was soon uploaded, first to Chinese sites like Youku and Tudou, and then to Youtube. Chinese webmasters were ordered to delete the video, but it still remains alive on the American owned Youtube.

When nearly ten thousand journalists descended on the capital in summer 2008, the CCP had promised that unfettered Internet access would be available – the games were supposed to be “Free and open”. Initially, it seemed like a good idea, China was showing that it was able to accommodate foreigners reporting during the time that Beijing was hosting the most famous of all sporting events. Of course, when the journalists arrived, they found that Internet sites that had been fine when they left their home countries where now completely inaccessible.

They complained and the complaints where initially met with the tired old excuse of “this is China” or “it’s a cultural difference”, once again, the CCP went on the offensive-defensive, and ultimately blamed the journalists for not accommodating themselves to China’s laws. After some confabulation, some restrictions were lifted. What’s astonishing is the idea that people wouldn’t notice that the CCP had not even tried to fulfill their promise of opening the up the Great Firewall.

Another Olympic elephant was the laughable creation of “protest zones” in the ridiculously named Ethnic Minorities Park. In an attempt to show how diverse and accepting the CCP was in the wake of the riots in Tibet, the opening ceremony had included a show of the traditonal costumes worn by the many ethnic minorities of China, sadly, as many pointed out, the children modelling the clothes were all majority Han Chinese. The idea was that the zones would a kind of sandbox for people to protest about. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible just to show up and protest about freeing Tibet – an application had be submitted and approved beforehand. 77 applications were made by 149 people:

-74 where rejected because the issues “were properly addressed by relevant authorities or departments through consultations”.

– 2 were rejected because they didn’t provide sufficient information.

– 1 was rejected because it violated Chinese laws governing protests and demonstrations.

When a protest did eventually take place, instead of arresting the protesters, the police arrested an British ITN news reporter. He was filmed repeatedly showing his press ID to the gathered police, but when he was released a few hours later, the police claimed that they had mistaken him for a protester. Since the reporter had a camera crew with him and a legit press ID, the arresting officers were either blind, stupid or lying.

In trying to deal with international problems with domestic solutions, the image that is projected by the officials who get quoted in the newspapers is almost always much poorer than the real experience of living in the place. CCP officials must learn that it’s not enough to answer a question bluntly, because foreigner journalists are not going to accept was they think is a transparent lie, and will push further for more information. This happened at an official Olympic press conference where a British reporter, Alex Thompson, who works for Channel 4 news repeatedly asked the same question both of Giselle Davies and Wei Wang, the secretary general of the Beijing organizing committee.

Like any good reporter, Thompson didn’t mince his words. He asked if Davies or the Olympic organization as a whole was “in any way embarrassed” by the Chinese government “lying through its teeth” about keeping its promises to improve human rights and press freedom. After she refused to answer the question, and while Thompson was having his microphone forced from him by two Olympic volunteers, a senior Chinese official attacked the foreigner journalists, saying it was unsuitable for foreigners “to peek, to be critical, to dig into the small details and find fault”.

The government was desperate to educate Beijingers on how to act when the world came to visit the capital. Several thousand leaflets telling people what not to do were distributed and on the 11th day of each month, people practiced queuing up politely for things, instead of the usual “every man woman and child for himself” spectacle. Several important etiquette rules for governing public behavior were covered in the leaflets. Central to this co-ordinated charm offensive were the 8 don’t asks:

“Don’t ask about income or expenses, don’t ask about age, don’t ask about love life or marriage, don’t ask about health, don’t ask about someone’s home or address, don’t ask about personal experience, don’t ask about religious beliefs or political views, don’t ask what someone does.”

The rules admittedly don’t leave a lot of scope for what Chinese people can ask foreigners about, but maybe limited contact with the foreigners was exactly what the CCP wanted. Everything seemed to be going well, Chinese people were slowly getting out of the habit of clearing their throats and noses like European soccer players out on streets, smoking had been banned in the more high class establishment, rules governing small talk had been established, and people were learning that people outside China actually stand in line for things.

Everything fell apart when the government tackled the thorny issue of how people should act around disabled people. The manual printed in both Chinese and English (and is still available for download from the CCTV.com website) issues several guidelines on how the volunteers should act and speak. The section dealing with physically and mentally disabled people caused international outrage:

On dealing with optically disabled people, the manual advises, in Chapter 6, page 161:

“Often the optically disabled are introverted. They have deep and implicit feelings and seldom show strong emotions. Comparatively they have more sensitive auditory abilities. Because they touch to connect with the outside world instead of using their eyes, they have very sensitive hands. Most visually disabled people rely on their memories to locate furniture and daily utensils. To set up a good relationship with them you need to establish trust. Help familiarize them with their surroundings and serve them with respect. Remember: When you communicate with optically disabled people, try not to use the word”blind” when you meet them for the first time. You can tell them about yourself as much as possible so they can trust you and feel safe, and when you come up to them or leave, be sure to let them know by language or actions. And when you put the glass in front show directions, try to be accurate and clear (for example: say “It is about 1 meter ahead from your left,” not “It is there” It will also help if you try to tell them what’s going on around them. ”

Not intending to leave anyone out of this train wreck, the physically disabled were dealt with the next subsection (Chapter 6, page 161/2):

“Physically disabled people are often mentally healthy. They show no differences in sensation, reaction, memorization and thinking mechanism from other people, but they might have unusual personalities because of disfigurement and disability. For example, some physically disabled are isolated, unsocial, and introspective; they usually do not volunteer to contact people. They can be stubborn and controlling; they may be sensitive and struggle with trust issues. Sometimes they are overly protective of themselves, especially when they are called”crippled” or “paralyzed” It is not acceptable for others to hurt their dignity, so volunteers should make extra efforts to assist with due respect.”

The section finished with the words:

“When you make eye contact with them, do not fuss or show unusual curiosity, and never stare at their disfigurement. A patronizing or condescending attitude will be easily sensed by them, even for a brain damaged patient (though he cannot control his limbs, he is able to see and understand like other people). Like most, he can read your body language. Do not use “cripple” “lame”even if you are just joking. Be friendly, kind and patient. ”

This manual was printed and distributed to 100,000 Olympic volunteers citywide. People rightly launched outright attacks on the insensitivity that the the Chinese government could even begin to think that this was an acceptable way to talk about disabled people visiting their city. Simone Aspis, a parliamentary campaigner at the UK Disabled People’s Council, said, “It’s not just the language but the perception that in 2008 we are considered a race apart. Disabled people are introverted and stubborn the same way anyone else is.”

The CCP found itself in a tricky situation, and managed not only to draw fire on it’s hamfisted attempts to educate people, but for it’s attitude towards it’s own 83 million disabled people. Instead of assimilating them into society, the desire of a genetically pure and healthy nation has led to forced sterilization, bans on marriages between disabled people, and the routine abortions of what are determined to be abnormal or fetuses. The Chinese word for disabled is can fei, according to Everybody Belongs by Dr. Arthur Shapiro, this means “useless cripple” (efforts have been made to get people to use the more politically acceptable ji ren instead). Many of Beijing’s 3 million disabled are unemployed, and the only work that a blind person can get is in a specialist “blind massage” parlour. Speaking in the UK Independent newspaper, Chinese disabled commentator, Ai Na, says that “Once a family has a disabled person, many people presume this family must have done bad things, that it is a kind of karma. When I was a little girl, if my brother brought friends home, I had to stay in my room and lock the door. This behavior came to be normal some time later. Every time friends or relatives come by, I get nervous. Playing outside for me is like entering a strange and frightening world.”

It was hoped that the Paralympics would change people’s attitude towards disabled people, but the basic policies that are in place to “deal” with unborn babies who are “diagnosed” with physical abnormalities. As for the offensive training manual that was created for the volunteers, a redraft was hastily written and distributed with the offending sections reworded. Zhang Qiuping, director of the Paralympic Games in Beijing, did not offer an apology, dismissing the problems as “cultural difference and mistranslation.” When inspected, the Chinese version was found to be almost identical to the English version, and both “offensive” versions of the manuals were available for download from the Beijing Olympics website for several weeks after the story broke.