Wednesday, June 22, 2005

When in doubt, google

I've been wanting to start a blog for a year now. I moved to Beijing in May 2004 after having lived in the US for almost 12 years. The first few months were exhilarating – the constructions, the smog, the traffic jams, and especially the smiling chatters of people, all conspiring to evoke a tender nostalgia of a past I had emphatically abandoned. I wanted to write then.

But choosing a blogger proved more difficult than making the decision to move back to China. Do I want photo blogging capabilities? Community based? A CHEAP premium version available just in case I need it? I researched repeatedly for the BEST blogger out there and always balked due to commitment phobia.

And I was doing a documentary then, about how expats view Beijing and its dizzying changes. Many times I found myself repeating the doc’s sound bites, praising the development but condemning the pollution, plus the usual complaints about traffic, people going nuts over getting-rich-quick, etc. It’s hard to have one’s voice unique.

Then something happened yesterday.

I have started researching for my second documentary after finishing my first (ok, it’s never really done). My plan is to follow several Chinese Christians in Beijing and to explore why they believed in this non-native faith and how that belief impacts their lives.

I visited several state-sanctioned churches in Beijing. At Gangwashi Church, the Protestant church in Xi Dan where Condi Rice attended the Palm Sunday service early this year during her trip to Beijing, the young minister said to me, “So you are from the States”. Pause. “Have you watched a documentary called The Cross?”

The Cross is a 3-hour documentary on the underground Chinese Christians and the persecutions they suffered. It was shot in secret in China by Chinese Christians from the States.

I hurried explained, “ No, my interest is not about the government’s policy toward religions. All I care about is the believers and their lives in Beijing.” I need the permits to shoot in any church.

He shook his head. “I don’t understand why those in the countryside would go against the official church. Anyway, go talk to the Three-Self Committee. Maybe they will even help you on this project.” I had gone out of my way to point out the bad press that the official Chinese churches had acquired overseas and how my project could help improve that image.

The Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches of China is the state-approved self-governing body of the nondenominational Christian churches in China. I found their number from the directory service and called. A male voice on the line informed me that the committee could not make the decision. I had to call the Religion Bureau.

The Religious Bureau had just moved and did not have a listing with the directory service. So I called the Beijing Municipal Government and got their number. The guy answering the phone asked me to call their Religion Department. I called and was directed to call the Missionary Department.

“Hello (Ni Hao).” A gruff male voice picked up the phone.

“Hi, I’m an independent filmmaker. I’m planning to do a documentary about Christians in Beijing and how their faith POSITIVELY influences their lives and the social cohesiveness. I’m wondering…”

“You can’t do that. It won’t be allowed.” The reply came curt and sharp.

“But I only intend to…”

“Don’t even think about it.” He hanged up the phone.

Just like that, all my research and preparation swiftly went to naught. For a moment, I sat holding the phone, unsure whether I should seethe with anger or laugh at their stupidity – what are they trying to hide? From what?

Then I remembered my trip to the National Library a few months ago. I wanted to get some shots of newspaper reports on the 1999 Chinese protests against the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The National Library was just starting a major expensive facelift to modernize for the 2008 Olympics. The librarian told me that I needed a level-2 engineer’s certificate or a permit from my work unit in order to access any newspaper more than 2 years old.

This defensive phobia, this tendency to hide, is endemic in the system, even after more than a decade of opening up to rampant prostitution and western-style professional PR damage control.

It’s at moments like this that China makes one want to bang her head against the wall.

Instead, I powered on my iBook. This time, rather than wasting 4 more hours comparing different bloggers, I turned to the 1100-pound gorilla - google.

It feels great to be writing!


Joy Li said...

Keep writing. Stay hungry; stay foolish. (Okay, that's a line from Steve Jobs.)

Gordon said...

Interesting blog.

M said...

do keep writing! You are articulate and thorough, and the details are wonderful! Your blog has given me an insider's glimpse into China. It's difficult to just trust what the prof says, after all.