In what can only be called a journey of epic proportions, Nicholas Kristof decides to apply for a protest permit from the Chinese government to test the process:
“What I didn’t realize is that Public Security has arrested at least a half-dozen people who have shown up to apply for protest permits. Public Security is pretty shrewd. In the old days it had to go out and catch protesters in the act. Now it saves itself the bother: would-be protesters show up at Public Security offices to apply for permits and are promptly detained. That’s cost-effective law enforcement for you.
Fortunately, the official at Window 12 didn’t peg me as a counterrevolutionary. He looked at me worriedly and asked for my passport and other ID papers. Discovering that I was a journalist, he asked hopefully, “Wouldn’t you rather conduct an interview about demonstrations?”
“No. I want to apply to hold one.”
His brow furrowed. “What do you want to protest?”
“I want to demonstrate in favor of preserving Beijing’s historic architecture.” It was the least controversial, most insipid topic I could concoct.
“Do you think the government is not doing a good job at this?” he asked sternly.
“There may be room for improvement,” I said delicately.
The official frowned and summoned two senior colleagues who, after a series of frantic phone calls, led me into the heart of the police building. I was accompanied by a Times videographer, and he and a police videographer busily videoed each other. Then the police explained that under the rules they could video us but we couldn’t video them.”
As if this interview wasn’t Kafka-esque enough, Kristof describes what happens next:
“After an hour of waiting, interrupted by periodic frowning examinations of our press credentials, we were ushered into an elegant conference room. I was solemnly directed to a chair marked “applicant.”
Three police officers sat across from me, and the police videographer continued to film us from every angle. The officers were all cordial and professional, although one seemed to be daydreaming about pulling out my fingernails.
Then they spent nearly an hour going over the myriad rules for demonstrations. These were detailed and complex, and, most daunting, I would have to submit a list of every single person attending my demonstration. The list had to include names and identity document numbers.
In addition, any Chinese on a name list would have to go first to the Public Security Bureau in person to be interviewed (arrested?).
“If I go through all this, then will my application at least be granted?” I asked.
“How can we tell?” a policeman responded. “That would prejudge the process.”
“Well, has any application ever been granted?” I asked.
“We can’t answer that, for that matter has no connection to this case.”
The policemen did say that if they approved, they would give me a “Demonstration Permission Document.” Without that, my demonstration would be illegal.
I surrendered. The rules were so monstrously bureaucratic that I couldn’t even apply for a demonstration. My Olympic dreams were dashed. The police asked me to sign their note-taker’s account of the meeting, and we politely said our goodbyes.”
And yet, after describing all of this, Kristof somehow draws the conclusion that
“My hunch is that in the coming months, perhaps after the Olympics, we will see some approvals granted. China is changing: it is no democracy, but it’s also no longer a totalitarian state.”
Huh? Didn’t he just descirbe a bureaucratic process so burdensome and so rigged as to make any real protests by non-Westerners/non-journalists virtually impossible? And yet this is supposed to be a sign that China is progressing away from a totalitarian state? My god, what kind of fucking drugs was Kristof on? And this is with his own admission that the process is a charade, that the “application process” is still just a way for the Chinese government to identify potential trouble-makers easier. How does his conclusion fucking follow anything he has said previously?
And the worst sin of the op-ed, at least in my view, is Kristof’s decision to use concepts first employed by Tom Friedman. When Krisotf says:
“The Public Security Bureau (a fancy name for a police station) gleams like much of the rest of Beijing. It is a lovely, spacious building, and the waiting room we were taken to was beautifully furnished; no folding metal chairs here. It’s a fine metaphor for China’s legal system: The hardware is impeccable, but the software is primitive.“
When I read that, I just about fucking died: here it is, Nicholas Kristof employing the words of Tom Friendman, truly the case of the blind following the blind, one hack to another. The funny thing was that I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where I heard the metaphor of “hardware” and “software,” but I knew it was something that I had encountered previously. Then I remembered that last summer, I read The Lexus and The Olive Tree (not mine, my roommate’s) while taking shits. After I had finished reading it, I wanted to wipe my ass with the book, but since the paper was rough and pulpy, I decided against it, because Tom Friedman is not worth it to sandpaper my ass.
Besides, the book is already full of shit as it is; there is no point in adding more.