How I Became a Prop for China

I was defeated. Back in my own neighborhood, I stopped by the corner store and bought a roller ball—which does count, in the Chinese hierarchy of pens, as an "ink pen." And I went to the local police station to report myself as an unregistered foreigner.

Did I have a copy of my lease? the neighborhood policeman asked. I did not; the lease was a word-of-mouth extension of one signed by my wife three years earlier. Without the lease, he said, I couldn't register myself. I was not allowed to turn myself in.

Luckily, though, we were almost due for a new lease anyway. The landlord worked one up on paper, with my name on it, and I delivered it to the neighborhood police station. The neighborhood cops issued me a residence certificate, which I delivered to the visa office. I filled out the form, in black roller-ball, and attached an I.D. photo, and handed in the papers at a now-staffed Window 38. For the next 90 days, I would be a legal journalist.

So I went out and interviewed people, visited places, attended official press conferences. No one ever asked to see my visa. I began to feel more or less like a reporter in America: an unimportant functionary, watching events from the margins.

Then, after two months, I got a phone call from the Olympic press center. Would I be interested, they asked, in getting a driver's license? It was, as far as I could remember, the first time the media department had offered me something without my asking. Till that moment, I hadn't really planned on getting a license. Beijing's driver's exam involves a grueling and pointless written test; the expat tales about it deal with either brutal cram sessions or well-placed bribes. Since cars are expensive here and taxis are cheap, it didn't seem worth the bother. But the Olympic representative told me I could just bring in my American driver's license and fill out a form. It was a new example of the campaign to make life easier for foreign journalists. I could drop in—by now, the press center had left the hotel for a space in a gleaming municipal office tower, with a wavelike glass roof over a full-height atrium—any time that week.

Maybe I did want a driver's license. I pictured myself renting a car and taking it for a spin out the Liangma Bridge Road, to the neon-festooned drive-in theater I kept seeing out my taxi windows.

I told them I would sign up, then let a few days go by. The press center called again and repeated the invitation: easy license, no hassle, come by this week. They also called to tell me that there would be a press conference—Sunday, 9 a.m.—to announce the opening of a new one-stop media service center. If I applied before then, they said, I could pick up my license at the service center that morning. I would be coming to the press conference, right?

Slowly, it dawned on me that there might something behind the solicitousness. I told them I probably couldn't drop off the application till Saturday afternoon. Would that be OK? The office would be open, they said.

I arrived late on Saturday, in heavy rain, to find four staffers from the Olympics and the Gong An waiting. I gave them my New York license and got to work on the application. There was a space for the duration of the license–that, they explained, would be the same as the expiration period of my visa. When I got my next 90-day visa, I could sign up for a new license to go with it.

Also, it needed a photo—did I have a photo? I dug out some spare I.D. photos left over from the Public Security Bureau's visa office. The Public Security Bureau in charge of the driver's license examined the pictures. They were the wrong size, she said.

There was a moment of mutual dismay. The one-stop media service center did not have a photo department. But! A market in the neighborhood could take the photos for me. Out the door, across Chaoyangmen Bridge, on the left. One of them wrote the size and background color specifications out for me.

Had I been considering only my own interests at the moment, I would have hailed a cab and gone home. But there were greater historical issues at stake. I was the Western media; China was trying to do me a favor. I set off through the downpour.

The market, I discovered, was a 10-minute hike away. With soggy feet, I tramped up and down the escalators, looking for the photo department. I found it in the grocery section-—a tripod, rate sheet, and foamboard backdrop set up by the checkout-line exits. I hunted up a clerk, sat for the pictures, collected them, and sloshed back.

As I handed the photos over, I tested my hunch. How many other journalists would be picking up their licenses the next day? "You are the very first one," the lead media-center staffer said. "So don't be late!"

The next day's program began in the press-conference hall on the top floor, under the swooping glass roof. A banner at the front read "Launch of One-Stop Service for Media during / the Beijing Olympic Games and the Preparatory Period." A snippet of "The Greatest Love of All" played, then went away.