The Last Visitor: Daniel Bell gets Detained near a Military Base in China

Daniel A. Bell – Dissent

Copyright Dissent
The Last Visitor
Daniel A. Bell – May 20, 2009
The Last Visitor Image
BEIJING IS an international city, but my neighborhood isn’t. I live in the far northwest part of the city, outside the fifth ring road, and in three years here I’ve seen a grand total of two other foreigners. I moved to this corner with my Chinese family because the air is better and there’s more of a community feel to the place. My walks through the nearby migrant worker districts serve as a reminder that China’s economic miracle has yet to extend to the bulk of the population.
Last week, my eighty-one-year-old father-in-law suffered a stroke. He had been in good health, but I could tell something went wrong when he suddenly seemed to lose his balance and his speech became slurred. I pulled him over to a chair and my wife called an ambulance. He was rushed to the nearby military hospital. A veteran of three wars—my father-in-law joined the communists at fifteen in the anti-Japanese struggle—he has taken the whole thing in stride, remains optimistic, and is gradually regaining his abilities. In my view, he is one of the few true communists left in China: meaning that his outlook is genuinely other-regarding. Relatives and friends visit him at the hospital and they want to know how he’s doing, but he seems more concerned about how they are doing. I go to visit him every day at the military hospital, a short walk from our home.
The usual routine broke down one day. I was running late because I had to take my kid to his piano class after the hospital visit. I usually combine the visit with a walk in the mountains outside my home, and I tried to take a shortcut. I should have known from the direction of the setting sun that I was heading the wrong way, but I distrust rational planning and I have an awful sense of orientation. My generally helpful rule of thumb is that I consult my intuitions and then do the opposite. I arrived at one of the peaks, which is surrounded by old bunkers and a run-down military hospice that’s still walled off by barbed wire and prison bars (though I doubt it has been used for half a century). Then I spotted a guy in military garb, and decided to follow him, thinking he might know a shortcut to the hospital. I waited a bit, then went down the same path he followed. It was a very steep and winding rocky path and it occurred to me that I’d be in real trouble if I injured myself and had to explain my location to would-be rescuers (I’ve lost the sense of physical invulnerability that I had two decades ago).
The path led to stairs, which made me feel more secure. I followed the stairs, and arrived to level ground, in what looked like a pleasant neighborhood with five story buildings in good condition. The buildings were strangely deserted, which lent an air of unreality to the place. I continued walking, noticing some small children playing tag and screeching in delight, without any parents (or grandparents) around, which was unusual. Finally, I came across an adult. By then, I knew I was lost and probably a fair distance from the hospital, so I asked him where I could get a taxi. He replied, in Chinese, “I don’t understand.” Now I may not have a perfect accent, but there’s no good reason I shouldn’t be understood. In remote Guiyang, a man had once reacted that way, apparently because it seemed impossible for him to conceive of the possibility that foreigners can speak Chinese. But in Beijing foreigners are usually expected to speak Chinese. I repeated the question, using three or four different ways of making the same point. He just shook his head and said “there aren’t any taxis around here,” and he pointed to what looked like the way out.
I kept on walking and came across a building with several uniformed soldiers standing outside. One of them saw me and exclaimed “foreigner!” Again, that was a first. Young children in my neighborhood sometimes say that, but not adults. By then I realized I had probably stumbled upon a military base. I turned to the group of soldiers and asked for directions to the military hospital. One replied that it wasn’t near here and I should quickly head to the front gate and get out of here. Which is what I had planned to do, and I walked at an accelerated pace.
I passed a group of female soldiers, one of whom said, “hey, there’s a foreigner!” I turned around and asked for directions to the military hospital. One of the soldiers asked me to come with her. She brought me to a store and said she would have to call her leader. At that point, I knew things would get more complicated. In China, dealings with officials can range from extreme flexibility to extreme rigidity (with hardly anything in between). The response usually depends on good luck, social relations, and personal attitude (modesty works best). I’ve been generally lucky, but this time I suspected we were headed for extreme rigidity.
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