Beijing’s Leaden Olympic Skies

According to the large red countdown board outside my place of employment it's 22 days until the Olympics begin. Despite China's hopes for blue skies for the opening ceremonies and beyond and its loudly trumpeted anti-pollution measures (as well as rumored urban-mythical "weather control machines"), the last month has seen mostly rainy, smog-ridden, humid, phlegm-colored days and starless nights, though Sunday night a group of us leaving a goodbye party looked up and gaped at a stunning sight. A star! Two stars! Well, maybe they were planets, nonetheless it was a welcome vision. And on Tuesday, wonder of wonders, the day dawned a cerulean blue.

My neighborhood and areas elsewhere throughout Beijing are seeing a notable increase in police, albeit the unarmed variety, and foreigners with stories of being stopped for passport checks by both plainclothes and uniformed cops are becoming common. At the airport new "special police" armed with machine guns are roaming in twos throughout the three terminals in order to "enforce the existing security force's capacity to deal with emergencies in the airport," says an unnamed airport security droid. Most of the airport users, according to China Daily, feel happy and safer with black-uniformed, nervous-looking 19 and 20-year-old acne-scarred males toting loaded machine guns in a crowded public venue, but somehow it doesn't make me feel anything but slightly queasy.

A Canadian software engineer who has been living in a largely expagriate-populated compound in north Beijing for several years told me that he and others there are now required to sign in and out. "It's a bit crazy," he says. "The guards and I know each other by sight - I've lived there longer than some have worked there. But we have to play the game. I generally sign something like "Mickey Mouse" "Osama Bin Laden" or "Tim Horton" (a popular Canadian coffee house chain). They can't read it anyway and it gives me a little lift."

It's not just foreigners. A 27-year-old Chinese woman surnamed Shen and who goes by the self-dubbed English name "Road" ("Because life is a journey," she says) is a front desk manager at a three-star hotel about 2 kilometers from the Bird's Nest stadium. She said she and other employees in the area will be required to show newly issued Olympics-related ID cards as of July 15 in order to enter the area to come and go from work.

"I don't know what hotel guests will do," Road said. "We are not even fully booked. I wanted this job to meet Olympic visitors. I enjoy talking with foreigners and practicing my English, I was hired because I am the only one who speaks English. But we have no foreigners and Chinese tourists are not so many now."

The visa situation for some foreigners already here or hoping to come remains troublesome, despite repeated "assurances" by the foreign ministry that the visa restrictions are "unchanged" and "not designed to deter visitors or people doing business in China". Meanwhile, China's tourist numbers were down for the first five months of the year, though the official blame was put on factors other than the visa clampdown.

Like the USA in the post-9/11 era China is using the overreaching "terrorist" label and bogeyman to include the "Dalai Lama clique/Tibetan separatists," so-called Islamic separatists in western China and just about anyone who might be suspected of putting a blemish on the Olympics.

Still, there is some levity and mystery among the muck. Just two days ago an unidentified object was raised on the roof of the vaunted Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium. The puzzling structure is an enormous red inflatable arch backed with a dark screen of sorts that spans a portion of the nest top. It resembles a quasi-amphitheater. Whatever it is hasn’t been explained by state media as yet, though its presence is plainly obvious to hundreds of tourists and regulars who’ve been gawking at it and speculating since it appeared.

The most obvious explanation is that it has some connection with the August 8 opening ceremonies, but other random guesses collected during a short view and visit Tuesday evening ranged from “A penthouse prison camp” to “(Chinese President) Hu Jintao’s Weather Making Machine.”

And who’s to say that the latter isn’t correct? The weather has been nearly sublime – blue skies, cool evenings and even occasional star sightings since the Mystery Arch appeared.