How I Became a Prop for China

There were more than 100 people in the audience. About half were from the press, mostly Chinese. The rest represented the agencies, bureaus, and companies taking part in the service center—29 in all, including the Public Security Bureau; the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television; the Bank of China; the State Administration of Foreign Exchange; the People's Liberation Army.

Even by the standards of press conferences, Chinese press conferences tend to be dry affairs. I hunkered down in my seat and tried to take notes, as a series of officials took the microphone and hailed the service center as a "brand-new innovation" and an "unprecedented approach." Invoking the new press-access rules, one declared the center "a solid step forward to implement these regulations and show that we really honor our promise to the media." China, another said, will "bear in mind the principle of treating the media kindly." With a flourish, the final speaker declared that "one-stop service for the media … now starts!"

The crowd was invited, offhandedly, to stop by the fifth floor on the way out and see the center at work.

Whatever was in store for me was about to happen. Rather than waiting for the elevator, I took the stairs. As I hit the fifth floor, my cell phone was ringing: an Olympics official, checking to make sure I was there.

Staffers intercepted me in the crowded hallway and guided me toward the room where I'd been the day before. I went in like a man being escorted into his surprise 50th birthday party.

At the far end, next to the driver's-license station, a mass of photographers and television camera crews was waiting. Someone had put flower arrangements on the table. Behind the flowers was a smiling Public Security Bureau officer, a tiny woman in uniform. My completed application form was presented with a flourish and remarks to me in Mandarin, untranslated. Flashbulbs went off. The Gong An officer held up an I.D. card with my picture on it, in loose plastic, then gave it a ceremonial pass through a laminator, to the rattle of shutters going off. She handed it to me, still warm.

Officials closed in, shaking my hand, with cameras popping all the while. The card had a made-up Chinese name for me—"Tuo Ma Si" in characters—and an expiration date 27 days in the future. It also said, in the fine print, that if the police stopped me, I would need to show them an official Chinese translation of my American license. So, technically speaking, the license did not allow me to drive. Could I get the translation at the one-stop service center? I could not.

The photographers asked to see my license, and began holding it up in the foreground as they kept snapping away. A man on the far side of the table began asking me questions: How long had I been in Beijing? What sites had I seen? Had I eaten Beijing duck? When my answers flagged, he confided, sotto voce, that he was just trying to keep me talking and smiling for the cameras. This is kind of alarming, I told him, grinning. Yes, isn't it? he smiled back. A photographer hollered something. She says, the man said, if you smile bigger, you'll be on the front page. Interview time. Going in, I had resolved not to be a stooge. My talking points would be strictly truthful: that I was glad to see this new emphasis on coordination and convenience, and that I hoped they would follow it up by making it easier to get a long-term visa. As far as I could tell, I repeated the message to everyone I saw. I did an interview for Beijing Television, then one for China Central Television.

In the English translation of the official Olympic Committee news story about the event, I am described as the "most elated" of the journalists at the event. "I am extremely happy," the story quoted me as saying. "I know that traffic management in Beijing is very strict; I'd never have imagined that I'd get my driver's license so quickly. Now I can drive by myself, which will make interviewing a lot more convenient."

The last bit struck me as especially implausible. But who needed to know what I'd said? I was a representative of progress. And I was a picturesque one. Owing to a previous bad experience with the language barrier and thinning shears, I had not had a haircut since leaving New York. People began to stop me and tell me they'd seen me on TV or on the front page of the Beijing Evening News—a teacher at my Chinese school, a nurse at the hospital, the man who sells phone cards outside the corner store. A sports newspaper invited me to write an essay about my observations of Beijing, for 1 RMB a word. Another TV station, Phoenix Television, asked if I would sit for a follow-up interview. I agreed. By text message, they sent an additional request: Could I drive my car to the interview?

With regret, I told them I did not yet have a car. I went to the interview by taxi.