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Saving Face
Let's hear it for closed cities

October 11, 1999
Web posted at 6 a.m. Hong Kong time, 6 p.m. EDT

I read on the Internet the other day that China recently opened up 26 more counties to the outside world. The number of "closed" areas--which foreigners may not visit without express permission--is rapidly dwindling. This is no doubt comforting to many travelers and journalists. But I hope a few places remain off limits: visits to such areas tend to be far more amusing.

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Eleven years ago, when I was a reporter in Beijing, I traveled to the city of Hengshui, in northern China's Hebei province. At the time, it was a closed city, apparently because it was home to some military-related factories. As a result, local officials weren't accustomed to journalists' visits, which meant anything could happen.

During my two-day visit, I was under virtual house arrest in my hotel. Two beefy "guides" were assigned to watch me from an adjacent room. Every one of my interviews--including several with top city officials--were held in my suite. When I said I needed batteries for my short-wave radio, the hotel manager asserted that there was no use going out because, he claimed, all the batteries in town were sold out. For good measure, he blocked the door. (The radio itself caused a stir: one city official feared it was a two-way stealth communicator and quietly asked my interpreter if it should be destroyed.) Yet despite the attempts to restrict what I could see, there was a refreshingly bumbling air to the exercise. For example: local bureaucrats accidentally left in my room a confidential document spelling out exactly how officials were to handle any demands I might have. (Article 8: If Mr. Ignatius has any spontaneous requests, politely refuse.)

I had come to check out a report in the official Xinhua News Agency about tentative steps at Chinese political reform. A crusader in Hengshui, Xinhua had reported, had marched to the mayor's office and dumped a box of stale sticky buns at his door, complaining that the government should do something about the city's "inferior pastries." The mayor responded positively, and somehow the affair was trumpeted as a big step forward for China's democracy.

During an interview (in my hotel room) with Hengshui's deputy mayor, I asked to meet the mayor himself. The deputy tried to "politely refuse" and asserted cheerfully that, alas, the mayor wasn't in town. An unthinking aide blurted out: "Sure he is. I saw him this morning." The deputy mayor shot him a look that could kill. He then turned to me and said, "Oh that's right, he's back. But he can't meet you. He's, er, sick ... in the, um, ear." An interesting ad-lib.

I responded, equally cheerfully, that I'd happily stick around indefinitely in Hengshui or (even worse in their eyes) apply to come back as soon as I returned to Beijing. The thought of another visit was too much; the officials huddled. After a few phone calls, it was announced that I could meet the mayor the following morning--in my hotel room. "But you'll have to speak loudly," the deputy mayor cautioned. "He's sick. In the ear."

When mayor Li Guoxuan arrived the next day, I extended my hand to greet him. Before even saying hello, he advised: "I'm sick. In the ear. So you'll have to SPEAK VERY LOUDLY." And, so, taking our places, we proceeded to hold a surreal interview in which I shouted questions to Mr. Li, who kept his hand ever cupped around his ear. It was a bizarre ruse that, if nothing else, helped save face for the deputy mayor.

These kinds of things don't happen in Shanghai or Beijing. They probably don't occur any longer in Hengshui, which was opened to foreigners several years ago. So please, Beijing, leave a few places closed. It's a lot more fun.

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