The No-Show Torch

Chinese reporter Guan Jun has written a story about how the city of Benxi spent tens of millions of yuan and harassed local residents in an effort to welcome the Olympic Torch, only to find out that the relay route had been changed:

39-year-old Yao Ge got a surprise when he was watching TV in his wheelchair on the evening of April 26, 2008. The news anchor announced the names of the 113 cities where the Olympic Torch would pass, and Benxi, Yao’s home city, was among them.

Benxi is an unremarkable middle-sized city in northeast Liaoning Province, a declining industrial area in China. No athletes or revolutionaries come from there.

Many of its million residents felt the same way Yao did when they heard the news that evening— surprised, confused, and also excited.

According to the announcement, the Olympic Torch would pass through three cities, Benxi, Liaoyang and Anshan, in a single day. The three cities were not far apart from each other. People couldn’t help but speculate that officials of Benxi and Liaoyang had lobbied hard to get the cities selected as a host city for the torch relay.

Anyhow, it was regarded as an unprecedented moment of honor for Benxi to get selected. Officials of the city’s municipal government believed that it was a chance for Benxi promote itself in the national media for free.

Painstaking preparations followed the initial excitement. The city vowed to “concentrate all its resources to welcome the torch.” It was not just a slogan. With the high security pressure on the torch relay, the city put employed increasingly tight measures to ensure security, as if it weren’t an auspicious symbol of the upcoming Olympics passing through at all, but rather an armed vehicle from an enemy country.

The torch relay route was carefully planned, and it was eventually decided that it would avoid the city’s most populated districts. It would start from the city’s main stadium and end at a funeral home, where there were fewer people and buildings.

All the entertainment venues in the city, including Internet cafes, massage shops and bathing houses, were notified that they had to close before 11:30 p.m.. Many of these businesses, whose profits come largely from nighttime revenue, had to put up advertisement to sell off their shops.

Government employees frequently knocked on the doors of residents in Pengcheng neighborhood which was close to the place where the torch relay would start. About a hundred households there had windows that looked out onto the torch relay route. Government workers put up posters printed with the five-ring Olympic flag together with China’s national flag on the residents’ balconies. Dozens of flags were put up to show the enthusiasm of Benxi residents towards the Holy Flame of the Olympics.

Police and cadres of the neighborhood committees visited the households often afterwards. They registered all people living in these apartments. They told the residents not to keep the apartments vacant during the torch relay, not to open their windows, and not to stare or walk near the windows. Every household was given a watermelon as a kind of compensation.

What’s more, a policeman or a government employee was stationed at each household to make sure nothing unexpected happen during the two rehearsals of the torch relay in late June and early July.

… A resident who refused to open his doors to cooperate with government workers was detained for several days. Another resident was luckier. When he said aloud that the government had no right to enter citizen’s homes without warrants, the government employees knew that they could make no good argument and quietly left.

A female police officer arrived at an apartment inhabited by an elderly couple at 4 a.m. one morning. It was too early for the couple to open their door for her, and they were unhappy that someone was sent to “look after” them in this way. So the police stood outside of the apartment and waited for the morning light to come. The couple felt sorry for her later on and gave her a stool to sit on.

Another policeman stood on duty for a whole night on the roof of a building by the torch route. It seemed that the city had never been so nervous before. A policeman surnamed Wang told me, “We are being driven crazy. ”

Other government workers were also asked to make sacrifices. A reporter suffered from gout so much that he couldn’t even bear to put on shoes. But he was told that he had to hobble to the torch relay rehearsals since he had registered to cover the event.

15-year-old Tingting had just finished her exams and graduated from middle school. She looked forward to witnessing the significant event. But her excitement immediately went away when her father told her that ordinary residents like them were not allowed to go to see the torch. Like many other residents, the girl felt cheated.

Only a select group of residents in the city were permitted to go to the torch relay as spectators. They were mostly employees of the government or organizations attached to the government. Moreover their political background had to be investigated and they were given special certificates for the relay.

Most employees of the city’s court were asked to be in the audience. They had to be at the starting line at 5:30 a.m. and stand there till 10 a.m. with smiling faces. They were not allowed to take cigarette lighters or bottles of drinking water.

In addition to the enormous amount of enthusiasm, how much money did Benxi spend for the torch relay? An official from the Finance Bureau revealed that it was 50 million RMB. This was just the tangible expenditure from the budget of the city government.

At 9:30 a.m., July 14, several government workers demanded that a copying shop to remove advertisements on its glass window because the Olympic torch would pass there. “Haven’t you heard that the torch isn’t coming to Benxi anymore? ” the owner Yao Ge asked. Yao was selected as a torch bearer by a sponsor so he had well-sourced information.

At 10 a.m. that day, a few workers started to dismantle the newly-built stage for the torch relay in front of the city’s stadium. They had been notified that the torch wasn’t in fact coming to city. Most residents of the city hadn’t heard the news yet.

The news had been circulating among officials a day earlier: The original plan for the torch relay in Benxi and Liaoyang had been canceled.

The whole city of Benxi felt fooled.

Zhang Xuefeng was deputy principal of Benxi No.1 High School. His school was planning to send 750 students to see the torch relay.

“How can I explain this to the enthusiastic kids? ” he said.

The students’ disapointment was understandable. But most of the Benxi residents I talked to were glad that the torch was not coming anymore, including the policemen and the selected spectators.

“Finally, we don’t have to bustle around,” they let out a long breath. It was the second time that the people in the city felt happy about the torch since April 26, the evening when it was announced that Benxi had been selected as a host city for the torch relay.