Cover Story

These walls have ears

Issue: "China: Caesar’s seminary," Jan. 27, 2001

In southwest China's highlands, city fathers make concerted attempts to cater to foreign travelers. Outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers from Europe and the United States are flocking here in increasing numbers, drawn by the subtropical climate and high elevation as well as open borders with nearby Vietnam and Thailand. At one centrally located hotel, the manager keeps a Canadian teacher on staff to school all employees in English. Hotel cooks know how to fry an egg-any way you like-while all the rest of China eats a breakfast of noodles and buns. A knife and fork take the place of chopsticks, and the table is set each morning with marmalade and butter. The Western touches may seem out of place, but it is the Chinese way to try so hard.

It is also a good setup for the Public Security Bureau. With so much attention to foreign tastes, it is easy to forget that behind the careful service is a watchful eye. Despite its openness to foreigners, Chinese officials remain skeptical of too much interaction, particularly with Westerners. Segregation remains. Hotels serve either mainland Chinese or foreigners, not both together. In this city of more than 10 million, there are only four hotels open to overseas guests.

So when a local Chinese woman, who shall be called Anna, shows up to guide Americans through the budding house-church network, PSB locals are waiting and watching. Soon after she leaves with the group, police call into the hotel. The detective already has full descriptions of the foreigners but wants names (and passport numbers) too. By the time he catches up with Anna at the end of the day, he knows too much for her comfort. History teaches her to fear even a faint brush with authority, and by the time her interrogation is over, she is pale and trembling. There will be no more access to the quiet church activity that is just beginning in this remote ethnic crossroads. And the foreigners are encouraged to get out of town. Fast.

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