Watching over what we watch

I witnessed a curious scene last night, a minor but telling incident that shows just how far the Chinese authorities are going to keep everybody in Beijing in line during the Olympics.

I had heard from a friend that a highly regarded documentary – “China Blue” about young migrant Chinese women working in sweat shops – was to be screened in a bar normally better known for its live music.

The film has never been shown in China, and its director, Israeli-born Micha Peled, is no longer allowed into the country. This sounded like a rare opportunity for me, so I went along.

There were about 30 people at the screening, and the place was comfortable enough that we didn’t mind waiting half an hour beyond the advertised starting time. The friend of the director who introduced the movie said the screening “fits in the spirit of the Olympic Games of international meeting, mutual respect and human dignity.”

Ha ha ha.

Twenty minutes into the film, which followed one girl’s struggle in a blue-jeans factory that obliged employees to work ludicrous amounts of overtime, there was a loud “PHUT,” the screen went blank, the computerized projector shut down, and all the ceiling fans slowed to a halt.

The police had pulled the plug. A power cut (at the club only – neighboring establishments were unaffected) put an end to the screening.

It turned out the half hour delay had been occasioned by a visit from the local police, who had taken one of the club’s owners away for a chat. He had decided to go ahead with the film nonetheless, it seemed, and the police decided to show him who’s boss.

This was not the only “underground” film event in Beijing to have run into trouble yesterday.

A couple of European activists invited a handful of journalists to a hotel room at noon, to show them a Tibetan protest film on a laptop. Somehow it didn’t take long for the hotel manager to find out what was happening, burst into the room and order everyone to leave; whereupon the police showed up and the organizers fled.

One of them decided to take the next flight home. “He didn’t feel safe any more,” a friend said.

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