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"Please don't make me do this," the woman says. "I can't talk to foreign media." � She's right in identifying you, at least. You are distinctly foreign and, notebook in hand and photographer by your side, obviously media, but what she hasn't picked up on is this: Here in China you feel about as threatening as an infant. A first-time visitor from the U.S., you don't know the language or mores; you can't even begin to have a feel for subtleties three millennia in the making. You may as well be deaf, dumb and blind for all the good your senses have done you these past two weeks as you've tried to take the measure of a burgeoning nation preparing to stage the costliest, most anticipated, most transformative athletic event in history.
Yet the nose still works, because it twitches, journalistically speaking, at the words your interpreter has just delivered. Can't talk to foreign media? This is the first official push-back you and your photographer have encountered in a five-city, 2,700-mile jaunt down the country's east coast, the first hint that the People's Republic of China--under fire of late for everything from failing to stop the genocide in Darfur to exporting lead-tainted Thomas the Tank Engines--might well be a touchy host for the 2008 Summer Games due to spring open, like the well-oiled drawer of a cash register, one year from now.
You're no Woodward or Bernstein, but even the lowliest sports hack knows to go when the sign insists stop--if only to see what happens next. Didn't the Chinese government announce last December that it was relaxing rules on foreign reporters in the run-up to the Olympics: no minders, no interference, no problem? Yet here you stand just inside the doors of a third-rate mall in east Beijing on a Saturday in June, looking for a word with former marathoner Ai Dongmei, a 26-year-old woman caught in the gap between the old state-controlled sports system and today's furiously churning market economy. With few skills beyond running (she finished sixth in the 2000 Boston Marathon), she has in the past year sold children's clothes on the street, put her medals up for sale online, sued a former national-team distance coach for embezzlement, opened a small apparel shop and told her story--through her blog and Chinese newspapers and television--to an astonished nation. But for us?
"No chance," says the interpreter.
You sag. The photographer, whose instinct at such moments is to drive his head through the nearest plate-glass window, mutters ominously. To gather yourselves, the three of you wander around the multicubicled mall fingering what appear to be Hello Kitty knockoffs and fake Mickey Mouse notebooks. Two uniformed men in olive drab begin trailing you, setting off internal alarms: This is a political system, after all, whose censors still black out CNN's signal whenever someone out of Hong Kong uses the word democracy. It seems clear the men are present to make sure that Ai, puttering about her third-floor store, never says a word to impugn the state.
That seals it. You step on the escalator going up to the second floor. Two more uniformed men pick you up the instant you alight. As the photographer lifts his camera, one rushes forward. "No photos!" he says in English.
The photographer looks him in the eye. "Why?" he says.
"Don't why!" the uniformed man snaps, and then whispers into his walkie-talkie.
A plainclothed man walks up. "Buddy, don't take pictures," he says in Mandarin. "They've got closed-circuit cameras here, and the company will know."
The company? Not the government? Wasn't this supposed to be a scene out of a Le Carr� novel? As you head up to see Ai, a third pair of guards joins in tailing you. You figure that the regime must indeed be behind this, that when you walk into Ai's shop the old game of Communist cat-and-mouse will kick in; maybe there'll be an arrest or two.