Beijing prepares for the no-fun Olympics

Factories shut, workers laid off, no frolicking on cars - in fact, forget fun - it's all for an Olym

The management office for my apartment complex rang this week to tell me which police station I should report to when I next return from a trip overseas.

As I am not a criminal on parole, I have no intention of reporting to any police station. But as a journalist, I am often followed by the police; and quite possibly they tap my phone and read my emails, so I figure it's their job to find me.

This is par for the course in China now, as the government tries to keep tabs on all the foreigners it has to put up with, who are in the country for the Olympics, while keeping out the rest. One friend is having to leave her house because the police tell her landlord they're nervous about a foreigner living there during the Olympic period. No further reason is needed.

New visa restrictions are catching tens of thousands in a dragnet. Foreign students who had hoped to spend the summer here have been told to leave and reapply for visas in October. Tourists have to produce Olympic tickets, hotel reservations and confirmed flights before applying for a visa - and still they may be refused.

"They're paranoid," says Gilbert van Kerckhove, a Belgian businessman who has been advising the Beijing city authorities on the Olympics, apparently with little success. "They can't distinguish between a genuine tourist and the guy who may have a banner saying 'I Love Dalai Lama'. So the extremists say: If we cannot control the flow of people coming to China, let's just shut down as much as we can, and never mind the consequences."

The consequences are being felt by business: the Shanghai-based management consulting firm Access Asia says that independent inspectors who must visit Chinese factories to check Christmas orders have been denied entry. Quality assurance staff and teachers at language training centres are also finding it hard to get visas.

Anyone who runs a business in or near Beijing knows they will take a big hit over the Olympic period. Factories are being closed to try to curb pollution: owners will suffer losses; workers may be docked pay. Many firms can't get supplies, as trucks are no longer allowed to enter the capital.

The Chinese government, it seems, does not care how much it costs, nor whom it pays, provided the Games look good on television. The aim is a picture-perfect Olympics.

With some 80 heads of state expected for the opening ceremony, precautions must be taken against terrorism. But no distinction is being made between violence and peaceful protest.

Last month, the human rights activist Maggie Hou was seized from a cafe and "disappeared" for 18 days, during which time she was interrogated about a US-based group called the Human Rights Torch Relay. She was released only after she signed a statement agreeing not to take part in protests. "They wanted to know exactly how many people were involved in Human Rights Torch," she said. "They were very concerned that Chinese domestic activists might work together with those from overseas."

The Chinese government prizes stability above all else, hence the strict instructions to provincial party bosses to ensure that no one with a grievance makes it to Beijing to "petition" during the Games. Any protest would be regarded as a loss of face, an unspeakable embarrassment.

But the bureaucrats have failed to understand what the rest of the world might regard as a successful Olympics. Quite apart from the sport, people want to have fun. The Sydney Olympics of 2000 are widely regarded as one of the best, because those who didn't have tickets gathered in parks where they could eat, drink, make merry and watch the events on huge screens. Then they went out and partied. Everyone had a great time.

However, bar owners in Beijing have been warned that the 2am curfew allegedly stipulated in the capital's by-laws (which, it seems, no one has ever heard of before) will be strictly enforced. The Stone Boat, a charming cafe and bar in a park, has been told it can remain open, but only if it no longer has live music, one of its main attractions. And the Olympic Legal Handbook - which has been distributed to Beijing residents - bans, of all things, "frolicking on cars and in bicycle lanes".

"It's like the old story about the tree in the courtyard," says van Kerckhove. "People always go to pee against the tree, and this is very ugly. How do you solve the problem? Cut down the tree!" So busy is the Chinese government creating a smooth, perfect landscape, that it may never understand how everyone else is rather fond of trees.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’