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My 20hour stopover in Beijing occurred during election week, a fact that didn’t register before my arrival.  I thus spent my first few hours in the city intrigued by the polarity between the easy atmosphere and the sheer number of law enforcing officials milling or marching about.

Released from airport incarceration for just one afternoon, I headed for the Tiananmen Square as the obvious sightseeing choice. What with the Tiananmen Square security team, the state police, the secret police, attendants for the Forbidden City, various ranks of the army and Mao’s personal dead-body guards, my touristic wanders felt a little like being at a uniform fancy dress party, albeit a rather deadpan one.

The searching of anyone coming in and out of the square area inspired an instinctive panic until I reminded myself that in this particular context I was relatively guilt free.  Indeed the searchers would sometimes confirm this on sight, shooing me onward through the queue with a downward hand wave.

This contrasted with a story I heard later that evening about the government tendency to rather blatantly trail (we’re talking a blacked out car crawling next to you down the street) any Westerners enrolled at Beijing University.  As to the truth of this I cannot say, but apparently my geeky rucksack and gormless map clutching appeared genuine enough for me to be considered in no way a threat to national security.  Though if I was a spy, that’s exactly what I’d want them to think…


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