For China, 2008 had been the most traumatic year since 1989, when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred. In March, there had been riots in Tibet, followed by a brutal crackdown by the authorities. Overseas, human-rights demonstrators disrupted the Olympic-torch relay, leading to an angry nationalist backlash in China. In May, a powerful earthquake in Sichuan province killed more than sixty thousand people. Recently, there had been a fatal attack on Chinese military police in Xinjiang, a region in the far west where much of the native Muslim population resents China’s rule. All these events had contributed to the stress of the Olympic year, but I didn’t understand the concern about the Great Wall. “They’re worried about foreigners, people who might want Tibet independence,” Wei Ziqi told me. “They don’t want them to go up to the Great Wall with a sign or something.”
It was fear of a photo op—that somebody would unfurl a political banner and take a picture atop China’s most distinctive structure. The government also worried that a foreigner might hike in a remote area and get injured, creating bad press. For this, the authorities had mobilized more than five thousand people in the region, but labor is plentiful in rural China. And these volunteers were getting paid—another difference from the city, where patriotic students were willing to donate their time to the Motherland’s Olympic effort. Peasants were too practical for that; in addition to the free shirt, each rural volunteer received five hundred yuan a month, about seventy-three dollars. In Sancha, where the average resident earned about a thousand dollars per year, it was good money.