China Beat Archive



Alex Pasternack

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October 8, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright October 8, 2009 Alex Pasternack. Used by permission.


My second day back in Beijing, and I was already under house arrest.

It was a sensitive time — the day before China’s 60th birthday — and I found myself stuck inside the gates of the city’s oldest diplomatic compound, where many foreign newspapers and television stations now have their offices.

Granted, this was partially of my own accord. The compound sits near the eastern end of the parade route, on the city’s legendary Chang’an Jie (Avenue of Eternal Peace), and a friend’s balcony offered a good vantage point. But because of high security, I had been told that if I left the compound, I wouldn’t be able to re-enter without a special ID card, and would have to watch the parade on television.

Getting my visa had been hard enough. My first application for a tourist visa had been rejected. “They’re very sensitive right now,” a travel agent in New York told me. I hired her as a line of defense against the Byzantine process, which includes filling out a form that asks about your itinerary or if you are a leper. I wrote a letter to the consulate, explaining that I wouldn’t be writing as a journalist while in China. I would be writing essays, I said, which was enough to convince them. On the verge of my flight, just to make it harder on myself, I misplaced my passport. When I checked in at the airport for a rescheduled plane a few days later, the computer that scanned my passport said, “Visa is not valid.” The computer was just kidding, it turned out.

Now the joke was that after struggling to get in, I couldn’t really leave.