China’s authoritarian impulse dulls marketing of its Olympics
By David Cogswell
Over the years, I had been told several times
that the Chinese government was uncomfortable with journalists. “When you go for
your visa, don’t tell them you’re a journalist!” I had been advised.
But having been to China several times
without any problems, I wasn’t particularly
worried as my departure day approached. I
was planning to visit China with representatives of a major airline to report on upgrades being made in preparation for the
2008 Beijing Olympics.
China is one of the few countries that
still require Americans to have a visa to
visit. U.S. citizens pay $50 for a single-entry visa, while citizens of other countries
pay $30. The standard turn-around is four
business days, but you can pay $20 more
and get it “express” in two or three days or
$30 more and get it “rush” the same day. Of
course, you can always pay even more and
have a visa service do it all for you.
I chose to do it myself, but, distracted
by a few extremely busy weeks, I had left
it till the last minute. I showed up early at
China’s visa office in New York, and it was
I was impressed with the way the office
managed the crowd. You take a number
when you arrive, then watch a digital ticker
that tells you when it’s your turn and which
window you must approach.
The room was crackling with the energy
of a crowd of people on the verge of taking
big trips to China. People were filing in the
door, standing at counters that lined the
wall filling out their applications, or seated
in rows of chairs. The number system kept
the lines at the windows short.
I picked up my application from a rack
and hurriedly began filling it out. It asked
all the standard questions you answer when
applying for anything. I intended to play
down my employment as a journalist, but
at the same time I was hesitant to actually
lie about it. What had I entered on past visa
applications? I couldn’t remember. It’s not
the part of a trip that sticks in your mind.
I abbreviated Northstar Travel Media to
“Northstar Media” as my employer. Avoiding “journalist” and “reporter,” I settled for
“editor,” an attempt to denote a nondescript person at a desk in an office, leading a life of quiet desperation. It certainly
sounded unthreatening enough to me.
But I quickly learned that the word “
media” is a definite no-no. “Editor” is also a
When my turn came, I approached the
designated window and found myself
standing before an impatient-looking man
behind a thick shield of Plexiglas with a slot
at the bottom for passing documents.
He waved with an irritated wince as if
I’d been holding him up for hours, and I
slid my application under the Plexiglas. He
picked it up, stapled the photo of my face to
the application and quickly scanned it. He
made two marks, handed it back to me and
directed me to Window One.
I was impressed with how quickly he had
processed me. Window One must be the
cashier, I reasoned, because he hadn’t asked
me for any money. But as I stood in line
looking at my application, reality began to
The two marks he had made were circles
around the words “media” and “editor.”
Next to me in line at Window One was a
young man with a woven hat wrapped
around a large shock of dreadlocks. He carried a thick pile of passports, suggesting he
worked for a visa processing service. I asked
him for guidance.
He told me he came every
day to process visas. “You
could have filled in anything
under ‘occupation’ and ‘
employer’.” he said. “It doesn’t
matter what it says there.
But you can’t put ‘
journalist’.” Even so, he thought I’d
be able to work it out.
When my turn came, I
handed my stuff to the woman behind the Plexiglas.
“What’s the problem?”
“There’s no problem,” I
answered, hopefully, but she
quickly figured out what the
“What kind of articles do you write?” she
My instinct was to be evasive, but I was
out of practice at obfuscation. So I played
the self-deprecation card. “I’m just an editor,” I said. “It’s just a trade paper.” In other
words, I’m not significant enough to expose
any sins or shortcomings of the Chinese
government or people.
A marketing paradox
She gestured with her pen as though directing a small orchestra and said, “You’re
going to have to get a letter from your employer saying that you’re not going to write
any articles and it’s just your personal trip.”
But, of course, that wasn’t the case. “I
don’t have time to do that,” I blurted out. “I
have to leave Saturday.”
“You could get it done rush,” she offered.
“You could come back this afternoon.”
“But that would cost more money, and
I’ve already taken a day off work to come
here,” I said. “I just won’t take the trip.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied. “That is our
Back at the office I noticed an article
from the Taipei Times, a paper that loves to
embarrass the Chinese government about
its authoritarian policies. The headline stated: “Beijing vows to let media travel freely
during the Olympics.”
The article said the head of the Olympic organizing committee was promising
that restrictions on reporters would ease by
2008, but it also pointed out that living up
to that promise would “require a loosening
of some of the tightest restrictions on foreign journalists in the world.”
It occurred to me that the restrictions
themselves were only part of the problem.
While writing a cover story for Travel Weekly about the Olympics a couple of months
earlier, I had stumbled upon an even more
fundamental paradox about the Chinese
government’s promotion of the Olympics.
On one hand, it is funneling millions of
dollars into advertising and marketing the
Olympics. Yet its leaders have such a hard
time curbing their authoritarian impulses
and their fear of free expression that I often found the Chinese bureaucracy to be an
impenetrable barrier between me and the
information my readers needed.
“We don’t have much information; you’ll
have to try [another office],” was the answer
I heard so many times I thought I’d plugged
into a skipping CD. If it hadn’t been for
a few Western tour operators who love to
talk, I wouldn’t have had any story at all.
E-mail David Cogswell at dcogswell@travel
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