So everyone's been asking me this question, or variations. "How did you end up there?" "What was it like?" "Were you mistreated?" "Were you scared?" I've been relaxing, recovering, and trying to get back into my daily routine the last two weeks since I returned to the United States, and now I'm finally going to try and document everything that happened. Please feel free to prod me with comments for details that seem to be left out or specific angles you'd like to know more about. I'm going to do this blog style in a series of installments, however if I get going, it may end up in fewer installments than I'm planning currently.
First of all, let's talk about how all this got started...
I believe it began with a tweet from a friend that he was wearing his Alive in Baghdad t-shirt. I called to talk to him because it had been awhile and I wanted to catch up. While we were on the phone, or maybe texting, can't remember *exactly* he said something like "Hey would you like to go to China and shoot some video?" I of course thought this sounded like a great idea, as I don't tend to think over consequences so much. As you can see from my exploits in Mexico in 2006, and in Jordan and Iraq in 2005.
Perhaps I should have thought better of jumping on the bandwagon so quickly, but self-preservation and clear-headedness about consequences are not two of my strong points. However, loyalty, trying to have a buddy with me, and of course drag other people into my own insanity are some of my "strong points," so I immediately IMed my buddy Jeff Rae, whom I was arrested with while in Oaxaca Mexico. Here's a transcript of some of my discussion with Jeff:
11:48:13 AM Brian Conley: i just got invited on a nearly all expense paid trip to china 11:48:14 AM Brian Conley: haha 11:49:39 AM Brian Conley: i'm going to get killed 12:15:25 PM Brian Conley: so 12:15:28 PM Brian Conley: you want to go to china? 12:15:35 PM Brian Conley: its an indymedia-type thing 12:15:51 PM [Jeff]: sure is my way being paid to 12:16:00 PM Brian Conley: i assume so 12:16:14 PM Brian Conley: according to [EM] "you have to pay your food, and who knows you might get kicked out after only a day" 12:16:24 PM [Jeff]: im down 12:16:31 PM [Jeff]: whats the plan and whos paying for it 12:16:47 PM Brian Conley: dont know that yet 12:16:49 PM Brian Conley: just got invited 12:17:51 PM Brian Conley: probably Students for a Free Tibet or someone like that 12:18:08 PM [Jeff]: somehow i doubt this will happen
And 5 months later, we were on our way to China. Of course there was preparation and discussion about what might or might not happen in China while we were there and personal risk and other such things, but most of that is fairly irrelevant for the time being, as stated above, specific comments with questions will be responded to in a timely fashion.
It was nighttime when we arrived in China, and we were hungry, so we wandered around the Dongcheng district where our hotel was located. We went exactly the wrong way for finding food, drinks, and excitement. Eventually however we found ourselves at a hole-in-the-wall traditional Chinese restaurant and had a great meal. On our way back we found ourselves marvelling at a very bizarre building with a huge gate, traditional Chinese overhanging facade, and 2 very imposing stone lions out front. Little did we know we were destined to find out all about this odd building just one long week later.
As we settled into our new home for the next two weeks we did the things all tourists do when they go to Beijing. We went to see Tiananmen Square, we wandered around Wangfujing St (where there are many stores, both chinese and global corporate chains), and ended up at the Night Market. Unfortunately we were there just before it closed, so we didn't get to chow down on any fried strawberries or crunchy scorpions on a stick.
A few days after this we took a tour of the Chinese Ethnic Cultural Park to prepare ourselves for the upcoming banner hang and blockade of the park which was being organized by Students for a Free Tibet. On the 13th we hung out in the Olympics area near to the park. While we were waiting, Jeff reminded me that as we might soon be arrested, it would make sense to check that the locking codes on our phones were set up. Unfortunately, through user error, I ended up resetting my phone and losing any important numbers I had saved.
At around 12:30 we received a tweet from a fellow media maker there to cover SFT's actions from the inside that everyone appeared to be ready and the "mainstream media" or "MSM" was ready as well. Now, what transpired after this is ostensibly the reason I would be "administratively detained" five days later. (more on "administrative detention" later)
So at approximately 12:30 a banner reading "Free Tibet!" was dropped on the footbridge which connects the two sides of the Cultural Park, which is split in half by Anyuan Rd which runs past the old stadium to the east. As the Chinese police were dealing with the banner and two activist who placed it, five other activists, who had been standing nearby and milling around blockaded the entrance to the Cultural Park with two bikes, locked together, and their own bodies. They then proceeded to display "Free Tibet" on t-shirts they were wearing and pull out their own banner
The Chinese have become quite adept at image control and learning how to deal with protesters. Several of the park attendants at the ticket booth quickly found a large piece of sheet metal which they stood in front of Students for a Free Tibet's second banner. The activists who were blocking the entrance began chanting things such as "human rights for tibet" and "free tibet." Though the media had been there before the action began, they were quickly joined by perhaps 2 or 3 times as many Chinese citizens and tourists who happened to be walking by.
It was at this point that the Chinese police appeared to become much more agitated about the events(although this was only perhaps 7-10 minutes after the action began unfolding). At this point they began threatening media and the public. I backed off from filming, deciding that I pretty much had all I needed. It was also at this time I realized Jeff Rae had disappeared from sight. Moments after this realization I saw an unrecognized journalist being manhandled and taken away by Chinese police officers. I was convinced the same must have happened to Jeff as well.
Unsure what to do next, I tried several times to reach my contact with SFT by phone. Because of my phone reset, I had to put the numbers in by hand and from memory. After three failures I rang "Tyler" my emergency contact who was in Beijing and asked him to figure out what I should do next. While waiting for him to get back to me, Jeff suddenly reappeared and we booked it the hell out of there.
So let's recap for a moment, to understand what I had done that would later lead to my arrest. I was milling around in a public place, and when an illegal demonstration occurred, I, like many other civilians as well as credentialed press, began capturing video of the event to show "friends and family" later. Although I was later told that this type of activity is illegal to film, there were no Chinese citizens or anyone else, media or otherwise, arrested at the event aside from one solitary journalist of ITV, who was inside the park at the time of the banner hang.
I, however, would spend just 5 more blissful days enjoying Beijing during the Olympics, eating good food, meeting nice people, and seeing interesting sites before my much publicized detention. Next I'll write about the events of the detention itself. Please if you have other questions about my time in Beijing, feel free to ask!