Bird’s Nest Soup

This month, when the final batch of event tickets was released to the public, drawing unruly crowds of tens of thousands of people to the sales offices, police blocked reporters, including Maureen Fan of The Washington Post, from approaching the scene. The official English-language China Daily carried a mystifying after-action story reporting that a photographer for the South China Morning Post had apologized after “breaking through a barricade … and kicking an officer in the groin.”

The China Daily appears to be a different sort of victim of the Olympic reporting climate. In uneventful times, the paper has a quirky, amusingly gothic news sensibility. But under the pressure of the impending Games, it has taken to running headlines such as “Games to Be a Great Success: Survey” or “President Boosts Athletes’ Morale.”

Contemplating a possibly unruly foreign reporting corps, the Chinese so far have embraced control as a bulwark against anarchy. When Korean television filmed a dress rehearsal for the secrecy-shrouded opening ceremony and put it on the Web, the response was stern: The final rehearsal on Aug. 6 would be closed to the press.

“The Koreans spoiled the party for everybody,” Mr. Ruffolo said.

It’s a strange party anyway. Every major, city-occupying news event involves caste and class distinctions that are specific to that city, that event, that year.

In Beijing, you see it in the upscale Taiwanese dumpling house: the pack—six or eight beefy, flushed white men and one beefy black woman—with their yellow Olympic media credentials around their necks.

That the dumpling house is not an Olympic venue is beside the point.

They are here.

Who are you? Domestic or international? Resident bureau correspondent or visitor? News or sports? Print or broadcast? Rights-holding broadcast or non-rights-holder?

Tag wearer or tag shedder? The social overtones are much the same as they are for lift tickets once you’ve departed the slopes. But there is another incentive for reporters to wear the yellow tags outside the sealed Olympic zone—free public transit, free admission to various sites—just as there is incentive for the Chinese to provide incentive for reporters to keep wearing their identifying yellow badges around town.

The yellow badges also demonstrate that you do not have the blue badge. Yellow badges are for the Main Press Center, on the west side of the Olympic Green, a little bit north of the National Aquatics Center and the National Indoor Arena and the Digital Beijing building.

Blue badges are for the Beijing International Media Center, a press center whose main drawback is that it is not, strictly speaking, at the Olympics.

The BIMC is for the Olympic underclass, the journalists and outlets who missed or didn’t qualify for the Main Press Center deadline back in 2006—the quasi-independents, the recently established China desks, the bureau foot soldiers, the just plain disorganized, the supernumerary Chinese media. On the northern arm of Beijing’s central axis, the Olympic Green starts just outside the Fourth Ring Road; the BIMC is out of view, inside the Third Ring. There are people with yellow tags who don’t even know the blue tags exist.

In late July, before the full security lockdown of the Olympic zone, it was still possible—by arguing long enough—for someone registered with the BIMC to get a day pass into the Main Press Center for press briefings. The instructions were to bring a passport and keep the blue tag out of sight. Out on the sidewalk, a staffer handed off a press-conference schedule with a handwritten note in Chinese at the top. The guards yielded at the sight of it.

Inside the gates, paradise is in some ways less plush than purgatory.

The BIMC is in a cushily renovated hotel, with an exterior of bright white paint and blue-tinged frosted glass, with letters and numerals in the world’s various scripts floating on the glass panels. The elevators are so lavishly mirrored, inside and out, that it’s hard to tell when the doors have opened. Outside the biggest press conference hall, a uniformed employee tends a silver dispenser of ice water with lemon in it.

The front end of the MPC, on the other hand, was built to serve as a convention center after the Games: broad concrete hallways, with exposed pipes and ductwork in a black-painted ceiling. Then, right before the largest of the press-conference halls—Hall No. 1, the “Plum Blossom” hall—you cross over into the part of the building that will be the five-star InterContinental Beijing Beichen Hotel after the games. There, off to the right, is a soaring lobby with multistory wall art, and polished surfaces everywhere (except underfoot, where gray industrial carpet awaits a monthlong trampling). The seats in the Plum Blossom hall are red and there are some 800 of them.

“We have 4,000 people working in the building today,” Jeff Ruffolo said on Aug. 5, on a local phone call from the MPC. Counting the broadcast people in their own center, he said, the total was probably more like 10,000.

Mr. Ruffolo, a former Olympic sportscaster, holds the title of senior expert with the Beijing Olympic organizing committee—a position that, by his own account, he badgered the committee into creating for him.

All through the run-up to the Games, his has been the white face that foreign reporters see as they try to get their bearings at the Olympic news briefings. When the Olympic media center split in July into the MPC and the BIMC, Mr. Ruffolo went to the MPC. He had, he said, never been so busy in his life.

“Today, tomorrow are the crunch days,” he said. “We get people that we’ve never seen ever coming to the press conferences and the like by the hundreds.”

Before they get to the MPC press-conference hall, non-Chinese-speaking reporters are asked—to their visible alarm, if it’s their first time—to surrender their yellow credentials as a deposit on a wireless translation receiver and earpiece. The receiver does something for the language barrier, but not everything: In a press conference about forestry, an official answered a question about what trees Beijing had planted by offering a list of tree varieties in Chinese—which came over the earpiece in English reduced to “poplar and other kinds of trees.” The online transcript in Chinese left out the list altogether.

The gesture of providing an answer had been enough.

Another gesture: At the BIMC, in a back hallway of the reception tent, there is a ticketing office. Because the blue credential doesn’t grant access to venues, the idea is to allow BIMC registrants to buy tickets to see events with the general public. Or rather—as it emerged when the office finally opened, after three weeks of delays—to allow each reporter to buy one ticket, for one event, in the course of the whole Olympics. (Three days into the sales, a text message went out saying that the reporters could buy more, three days before an event, if there were leftovers.)

Sometimes, news does emerge at the BIMC. It was there, not at the MPC, that traffic and environmental officials first met the press to discuss the fact that five days after a driving ban on half the city’s private cars, the roads were still jammed and the air was full of smog.

But it was at the MPC that a security briefing included official acknowledgement that the city would be setting up official protest zones in three parks during the Olympics. Reporters huddled up afterward to figure out where the third park, World Park, which nobody had heard of, was located—halfway out to Hebei Province, it turned out. The other two parks weren’t bad, though.

It was the BIMC at which reporters were loaded onto buses for what proved to be a six-hour tour of Olympic food-production facilities. It began with a briefing at the municipal agricultural bureau, in a too-small room. Food-safety briefings are among the worst, because the officials are politically obligated to begin each one by explaining at length that testing has demonstrated that the entire ordinary food supply of Beijing is clean and untainted—after which they explain how a wholly separate food-supply system has been set up to protect athletes from tainted food.

Then the buses set out for the countryside. Beijing has set up reserved lanes on major roads for Olympic vehicles so that they can avoid traffic jams, but the BIMC buses couldn’t drive on them. After nearly two hours on the road, the reporters were delivered to an organic farm in which rows of greenhouses were growing green peppers. Peppers after peppers after peppers after peppers, clear down the row, almost to the end, where a few greenhouses were full of basil. Camera crews swarmed through the doorway to surround a woman in a straw hat, stooped over, snipping basil with scissors. The athletes will have fresh basil.

And China will be covered, whether China or the reporters enjoy it or not. America is pledged to the ideal of a free press, even if Americans don’t always approve of the press itself. The Chinese have not even been taught to love the press in the abstract. China is not even good at pandering to the media—as in its failure to install an uncensored Internet connection at the MPC. For many reporters and editors, their first exposure to the Beijing of 2008 was through registering with an intransigent, nitpicking bureaucracy.

 

AT A MUCH higher altitude, that bureaucracy has shown itself in the delicate negotiations with NBC, which will broadcast an unprecedented 2,900 hours out of 3,600 possible hours live to American televisions from official Olympic venues.

Bird’s Nest Soup