Today in Beijing

Tiananmen Square was very threatening.

For a start, I was completed spooked by James Fallows’ blogging on his visit to the square last night. He tried taking some photos of the huge security presence… and does not say what happened next. In fact, he says he won’t say what happened until he is out of the country. He ends his piece with

if you in Beijing and are near the square, be careful. Seriously.

So I left the big camera with the red-rag-to-the-bull long lens at home and joined a group of five other New Zealanders who planned to walk around the square this afternoon.

On the edge of the square, uniformed cops were checking identification papers and rummaging through people’s bags, while a street-sweeper cleared away rubbish with a wire in his ear. We ignored those guys, crossed the road to a square entrance, and got stuck.

Just before the Olympics, Chinese Security put up wee tents at all the entrances to the square, installed a metal detector and staffed them with a couple of bored guys who waved you through.

Today, the tiny tent was stuffed with about 15 cops.

My bag got put through the scanner then manually searched. A cop checked my ID (a Chinese diplomatic ID card), and passed it along to a couple of others. The last cop radioed in for instructions, and while he was waiting for a reply I said in my best English ‘Okay?’, took the card from him and walked past into the square.

The other New Zealanders (4 with diplomatic IDs, one with a NZ passport) were not so lucky. Two of them were Chinese speakers, and once they outed themselves as such, were grilled on why we were visiting the square, what our intentions were and whether we were ‘working’. The Kiwi Chinese speakers said we were showing our friend through the famous Square as tourists, and after much discussion, they were let through.

Inside the square, it would have been funny if it wasn’t so tense. There were the usual hordes of troops marching about in columns, but they are a common sight around there. What was unusual was the large contingent of ‘plain clothes’ security guys. They were easy to spot – they stood completely still, legs slightly apart, a wire in one ear and, rather incongruously, carried an umbrella. Some of the umbrellas still had their price tags attached.

The huge number of these guys, silent and staring, was un-nerving. They vastly outnumbered the tourists. In some directions it appeared the Square was solely populated by brolly-carrying statues.

We walked a little way into the square and stopped to take a few photos of the Heroes Monument. Some umbrella-carriers came to life and did little walk-bys around us, to listen in to our conversation and see what we were photographing.

A little further on, we noticed someone had decided a light in the square needed fixing, which meant moving a huge crane into position – a good place for a lookout. No-one was working on the light fixture.

By this time we’d picked up a couple of umbrella carriers of our own (in matching pink polo shirts) who followed us at respectable distance as we walked around the square, past Mao’s resting place (closed today) and back out again. We saw maybe 4 other white tourists in the square – there were some mutual ‘what the hell is this?’ looks.

On the way out we passed a Chinese bloke with a big grin and a “I Love Tibet” t-shirt.

Good luck to him, I say.

Apparently Chinese people who want to commemorate the the 20th Anniversary are planning to walk quietly around the square in white shirts – the colour of mourning in China. I didn’t see any of that. With the grim-faced security guys around, I think I’d sit that one out.

While in the square, our group sort of muttered to each other nervously but no-one felt particularly comfortable talking. We certainly didn’t take any obvious photos of the security. In fact I’ve just had a look at the few photos I did take, and they’re all pretty much duds- I was obviously too freaked out to take anything sensible. Reid and Sia are about to ride down to have a look on their bikes – perhaps they’ll do better.

For a lighter side of umbrella-based security, watch John Vause attempt to do a piece to camera on CNN this morning:

(PS – this afternoon, it rained. I bet that’s manufactured, to help disperse any crowd that attempted to form)