Update on the Occupation in Hangzhou - The G-20 in the Potemkin Village                             September 2, 2016


First off, let us stipulate –


  • It is vitally important for a nation to ensure security during the G20. National leaders will be present, en mass.  With terrorism threats salient everywhere, China wants to show off its prowess as a new member of the elite club.  In Hangzhou, terrorists and protesters,  ils ne passeront pas!
  • At the same time, China shows the major democracies, all of which are G20 members, and the world, that there are ways to ensure stability and harmony. No Seattle 1999 here!   Chinese soft power in action. 

The question for the G20 members, all of whom are seeing a Potemkin village Hangzhou, is what cost for stability.

One expects some concessions in time and convenience for a meeting of world leaders.  But perhaps the concessions go too far.

There are “checkpoint Charlie” locations everywhere going into the downtown districts.  All vehicles must stop to be checked, registered, and if desired, searched.  The checkpoints are at major arterial streets going toward downtown, generally 30 to 45 minutes driving time from Xihu, West Lake, the focal point of all directions in downtown Hangzhou.

On the way to the train station this morning, it only took me 5 minutes to get through checkpoint, at 5 am.  I left an hour early, anticipating longer delay.

But I had to get out of the car, go into the special police station built just for this purpose (construction started more than a year ago, and I wondered what this was for; now I know) and have police check my papers.   Took about 4 minutes.   But now imagine this checkpoint, with only two checking lanes, and every car has to stop for at least a minute, to have someone write down license plate number, check the hukou registration of the driver, and check the driver's license against records.   Put this system on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, or the Holland Tunnel in New York, 24 hours a day for two weeks.  Imagine the back ups at rush hour - could you imagine sitting in the line for an hour and a half?  two hours?   That is what people have to do here.  And, like the movie, No Way Out - there is no other way to get most places of business in Hangzhou, or the train station, or the airport, without going through one of these checkpoint Charlies.  

This checkpoint, and others at the train stations and airport, even at some school entrances, look like an occupying army has swept down.   More police than you can imagine, at any one location - two policemen every twenty yards, for two hundred yards or so, standing both sides of the access ramp, driving up to the train station dropoff;  plenty more policemen in the drop off zone, some with heavy body armor and weapons.   Inside the train station, a police lookout station, built just for the G20, with an armed guard surveying the train station masses.   Special luggage search lines, not only to get into the train station, but also to get out of the station.   Ticket and passport inspection, not only to get into the train station, but also to get out of the station.  

I posted before that there were very few taxis available on the streets in Hangzhou.  That is because most Hangzhou taxis have been allocated to the train stations and airport, and wherever the G20 people are staying.  It has never been easier to get a taxi at the train station in Hangzhou.  No line of people waiting.   Dozens of taxis in line waiting for customers.  
There are luggage checks on the buses and on the subways.  I cannot verify that myself - only reports, and in this environment, no reason to doubt.

Factories are closed in the districts of the city.  All construction has ceased in Hangzhou.  This applies only to the districts, not the outlying counties, where I think I saw some construction going on from the train.   But that means no one is working on construction projects at all for miles from downtown.  

There are absolutely no trucks on the streets at all - not last night at 8:30, not this morning at 5 am, not this afternoon at 1:30.   That means no deliveries of any kind.  I will say it again - no trucks at all.   Our main grocery store seems supplied, as of Saturday morning.  There is meat in the display cases, although I think less than usual.  I am going to bet that the stores will be running out starting today, and the G20 meetings are all next week.  

Thousands of businesses are closed.  From my looking, it is not clear what determines whether a business is open or not.  It feels a bit like after a tornado – only rumors, no information -

 "Is the bank open?"  
- "No, but maybe the branch across town."
"is the mobile phone store open?"
- "No, all closed.  But I heard they might be open next weekend."

For tens, perhaps hundreds, of  thousands of people, it is a two week forced vacation, but no place to go.   Locals are barred from many of the places they might want to go, like restaurants near Xihu, the big lake.  A permit is required to go anywhere close to downtown.

The Hangzhou government has encouraged residents to leave Hangzhou, to visit nearby places a few hours drive or train ride – “go anywhere, just go.” 

Even the streets outside downtown have a desolate feeling, like a highly selective neutron bomb went off.  Buildings are all there, but maybe 5% of the normal population walking around.  At 1:30 in the afternoon, driving back from the train station, the traffic on Tianmushan Road, a big 8 or 10 lane road (somewhat akin to Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive in local prestige) was less in volume than it would be at 1:30 in the morning.   No trucks at all.   Only a few buses.  Almost no one riding a bicycle, or a motorbike.

Buses are normally crowded, standing room crowded, any time of the day or night.  Even with substantially fewer buses operating, they are not crowded – score one for good planning by the transportation department.  Everyone gets a seat, when normally, almost everyone would be standing.   Looks like bus service in the suburbs.

I don't know how the word has gotten out to business owners, and to bike riders.   But it is absolutely eerie.   Most hotels are closed, except for those serving G20 participants.   I drove by restaurants I have been to, and banks I have been in, and stores I went to.  All shuttered. 

Police, some armed, most not, are everywhere.  As I mentioned before, all schools are closed, with no one allowed in or out, except for a special few.   All foreign students were told to leave Hangzhou, and universities will open for classes two weeks later than usual.  At my school, foreign teachers who live on campus were relocated, with all their belongings, to a different building.  At one school entrance, where there would normally be hundreds of students and many cars and bicycles and motorbikes, there were ten policemen, a couple heavily armed.   Some school entrances have concrete barricades in front of entrances, in addition to the locked gates.

In the last month, police went to every apartment in our residential development, checking hukou for Chinese and looking for foreigners.  I was in Chicago, but they came looking for me two or three times.

On the streets, police are stopping people on bikes and people walking, checking ID.  This is not near any G20 events – at least ten miles from any event.

Every bus stop – every bus stop -  has a couple of volunteer assistants, standing all day in the sun, with bright red hats and vests,  ostensibly to help any G20 participants who might (a) be on a bus; (b) not be accompanied by a guide: (c) want to go exploring in the neighborhoods; and (d) might somehow need instructions.   The instructions are to report anything out of the ordinary to police.  Every bus has an assistant, as well.

It is an occupying army of police and chengguan (chengguan are the non-uniformed unofficial police, who serve as thugs as needed).   The city is in shutdown mode, except, I guess, where the G20 events are and the participants will be staying.   I don’t have a permit to get near downtown, but I know the streets are clean, the taxis are plentiful, there is no traffic other than G20 traffic, no noise from construction or trucks, no emissions from factories, the hundreds of girls serving as waitstaff are well-dressed and pretty and helpful, and there is no one on the street, for miles around, to take pictures, much less hold up a sign. 

But G20 promotion signs are everywhere, hung from metal posts on the sides of the major streets - "Hangzhou - A Good Host, A Better G20"   In the train station, the new cars on display have a G20 logo on the sides.   Buses all have a G20 promotion on their sides, as well.

Hangzhou and Zhejiang provincial government employees have the script down pretty well – “No trucks?  I am enjoying driving now.  It is so pleasant.”   Heard that from a couple of  friends.

All online searches in Hangzhou are blocked.  I was going to look at Hangzhou Expat, a site that would have other information about the gross government panic we are witnessing in preparation for the G20, but that is blocked.   A search for Hangzhou is blocked; also baseball and Chicago.

Selective internet blocking is a specialty here, so it is no surprise that the hundreds of journalists will have no trouble filing stories, as long as they remain within the village. 

In the train station in Shanghai, I could get some internet searches.   I found a little of the discussion in Hangzhou Expat.  Posts ended in early August.  I don’t know if Hangzhou Expat has been blocked since then, or not.   You see how rumor replaces information, when rumor is all you've got and you can't evaluate the source.

Local TV has foreign journalists praising the organization of the Potemkin village, announcing that based on what they have seen, the G20 will be great for Hangzhou tourism and spending.  A young journalist from Africa expressed hope that China would bring investment to her country.   The foreign journalists interviewed all look earnest, well-scrubbed, and well under 30.

 At opening meetings of the B20, a business meeting in conjunction with the G, Xi Jinping walked out to address the foreigners come to pay tribute, Xi walking out to trumpet blasts announcing the emperor.  Applause was perfunctory.  No ovations.

One can learn from the history of Chinese GDP statistics, customarily announced publicly before the data could all be collected.  Two days before world leaders begin arriving,  I am announcing that the G20 will be a great triumph for Hangzhou and for China. 

Hangzhou is pretty, and modern.  Right now, not so bustling.  And not so good for business, or people’s incomes.  But no personal sacrifices are too great for the greater good of the state.  The world can learn from China.

Next meeting should be in North Korea.  Same safety, same theatrical sets, less expense.