By beefing up security for this year's Apec meeting to a farcical degree, China risks damaging the image of modernity it is so desperate to portray
Jarret Williams, Lonely Planet in hand, busily plans his day in China's fastest-growing city. There's plenty for the 26-year old New Zealander to do: boat cruises, museums, temples, skyscraper observation decks, you name it.
There's just one problem: everything's closed. 'Shanghai looks like some post-apocalyptic city you see in a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger movie,' Williams moans. 'I'd love to see the place but I can't get anywhere.'
To call Shanghai, which is hosting this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting, a ghost town is an understatement. This may be a booming city of 13 million but you'd hardly know it by the look of things. Major streets and parks are closed and deserted. The only sign of life is the 100,000 or so police, People's Liberation Army soldiers and security personnel on hand ' and the delegates and journalists trying to navigate by them.
China wanted to use this year's Apec gathering to showcase its bustling commercial centre. The hope was that its futuristic skyline, illuminated bridges and tree-lined avenues would convince the world its most populous nation is ready for prime time, ready to be a modern economic superpower and take its rightful place on the global stage.
Trouble is, you can't see anything. Security, always tight in China, borders on farcical. Anyone wearing an Apec badge is confined to Pudong, Shanghai's financial district, and is ferried in and out by a network of official buses. Those not part of the Apec confab are being kept at a distance ' a long one at that. And tourists, those lucky enough to get into the country this week, are wondering why, oh why, they came to Shanghai now.
For evidence that Shanghai is a complete police state at the moment, look no further than the city's famed Huangpu River. It's normally one of the world's busiest waterways, clogged with barges, tankers, ferries, passenger boats and military vessels. All traffic on the river official tourist guides call 'the expression of Shanghai's past, present and prospects for a brilliant future' has been stopped.
The same is true of Shanghai's fabled Bund, an embankment that hugs the eastern shore of the Huangpu. A city centerpiece for generations, the Bund offers a brilliant vantage-point to take in the spectacular skyline. Pop singer Joe Jackson was so moved by his stroll along it that he penned The Shanghai Sky.
Thanks to Apec, it too is closed. Shops and businesses ' many of them the very swank eateries Shanghai would like to showcase ' are being shut down for security reasons. A waiter at the popular M on the Bund restaurant offered only a bitter laugh when asked if they'd be compensated for the lost business.
China's move to turn the city into a fortress is understandable on some level. After spending $36m preparing for its coming out party and promoting the heck out of it, Beijing wanted Apec to be a success. But following the 11 September terrorist attacks on the US, and a series of anthrax cases around the globe, China is not taking any chances.
Having 20 world leaders ' in another PR gaffe, China barred Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian from attending ' and a who's who of corporate chieftains on hand is stressful at the best of times. The deadly assaults on New York and Washington raised the stakes considerably and those heightened risks are on display here. There are 10 security officers for every one Apec attendee.
Journalists have to fight with policemen just to get into press conferences. Police manhandled Bloomberg Television anchorman Ty Marega while he tried to enter a building, even though he had the proper credentials. Police officers on two occasions tried to stop me from interviewing locals. Business executives, meanwhile, are being forced to argue and push their way into hotels.
Security may be tight but it's not always effective. I entered the Shangri-La Hotel at the very moment President George W Bush was giving a speech. As a journalist, I was forced to use the employee entrance around the back, where a group of under-trained rent-a-cops manned metal detectors.
As I walked through, the detector alarm rang. I paused, assuming I'd be frisked. But in all the confusion, the security folks didn't notice and I was allowed in. I could've had a gun or 10 sticks of dynamite. Moments later, when Bush walked within 15 feet of me, I couldn't help but think 'Wow, good thing I'm not a terrorist.'
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