By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
BEIJING -- Ryan Horne loves living in China. He arrived in March from Los Angeles to manage the opening of a club in the heart of the city's night-life district. Drawn by the promise of wealthy investors and an ultra-creative founder, Horne set about trying to shape the "it" factor in Beijing, that quality of sophisticated culture that defines such places as Paris, Tokyo and Manhattan.
"Every aspect is history in the making," said Horne, 25, sinking back onto one of his club's black leather couches, dotted with delicate silk pillows. A chandelier lamp and modern sculpture sat to his left. "Some people here always had money, but money without curiosity means nothing. Now there's more willingness to explore."
But not everyone savors the adventure.
With the Olympic Games just nine days away, Beijing is winding tighter each day, and visitors need wander no farther than the city's bar district to experience the preparatory fervor. Police are out in force, carrying out orders to increase security and clean up the district, called Sanlitun, with zeal.
Horne has been summoned to the local police station three times in as many months for somewhat bewildering and intimidating interrogations that last for hours and probe his views on topics from Tibetan separatism to whether Jackie Chan or Jet Li has the best kung fu moves.
The last time the police wanted to see him, an officer came to the club and told an employee to send "the black guy" over.
"I call them my 'special' experiences," Horne said, smiling tightly as he uses his mother's term to avoid saying something negative.
The crackdown has renewed allegations of xenophobia and even racism in Beijing, as well as cries that the police are draining the vitality from a place where foreigners and Chinese have traditionally mixed.
Bar owners report being swamped by new police demands, with rules changing daily and the threat of closure if they are not enforced. It's not just no drugs, no gambling, no prostitution. It's also: no tables on the sidewalk, no excess partying, no displays of affection. No service for foreigners with prostitutes.
"How am I supposed to know if someone is a prostitute?" lamented Phoebe Storm Gluyas, an Australian who manages the Saddle, a Mexican bar and restaurant that just opened at a new mall on the main bar strip. "Am I supposed to ask?"
Dozens of police patrol the area on foot and in cars, frequently raiding bars to check patrons' visas. Dozens more in plain clothes mingle with guests in the clubs, owners say. Their numbers are augmented by private security guards hired by local businesses. There's even a neighborhood watch group, whose members don ill-fitting uniforms and plastic helmets to wander the streets looking for anything dubious.
A deep suspicion of foreigners now pervades the neighborhood.
Horne said he has been asked to sign documents after fielding questions he doesn't totally understand -- there is no lawyer or translator present -- including one that makes him personally liable if any employees' work papers are deemed invalid.
The worst came last week, when police told Horne he had to get rid of two bartenders who are of Tibetan origin. Horne was told no Tibetans could work in Beijing during the Olympics; police apparently fear they might mount disturbances in sympathy with the widespread protests this spring against Chinese repression.
"I don't pretend to understand the government here," Horne said.
The faces of a new China swirl around Horne as he speaks, air-kissing hellos and sipping $11 cocktails -- a steep tab in a city where the average professional's salary is $450 a month.
Outside is a neighborhood feverish with gentrification. The sleek neon displays of high-end clubs such as Horne's China Doll compete with garish Budweiser signs at the joints across the street, where shots go for $1.50 and touts steer customers to beer-soaked banquettes. A chic shopping plaza just opened on the corner, with Beijing's first Apple store. The feel is reminiscent of Manhattan's Times Square a few years back, when the city began kicking out the peep shows and bodegas to make way for a Disney theater and a Mars candy store devoted to M&Ms.
The Olympics, which many here thought would bring thousands of customers, has instead driven many away, and business owners say they are counting the days until the closing ceremony. Thousands of foreigners have had their visas canceled or been blocked from obtaining one for fear they could be troublemakers, or worse, terrorists.
The Ministry of Culture this month banned performances by any foreign entertainer who had ever attended an event deemed to "threaten national sovereignty," such as a Free Tibet rally. Police now require foreign singers to produce performance licenses that used to be an always-overlooked formality, and the Culture Ministry decreed that the words of all songs must be approved in advance.
Paramilitary guards at the embassies and diplomatic residences near Sanlitun are carrying pistols in smart white holsters.
A Chinese woman, proud that she can afford to rent a new apartment near the "bird's nest" National Stadium, said in an interview that she would love to show it off, except that her lease included a clause that she not invite any foreigners to her place until after the Olympics. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she didn't want to risk losing her apartment.
Horne said one of his Chinese managers explained the hardening official attitude this way: The Olympics are like hosting a party in your apartment where most of the people who come are strangers. Of course you'd be afraid they might break something.
One of the more controversial police measures relates to illegal drugs and prostitution. For years, drug dealers operated openly in the area. Many were from Nigeria, bar owners said, and would approach potential customers with the offer, "Hey, bro. You want some stuff?"
In September, police cracked down. They blocked each end of the neighborhood's main street, entered the bars and hauled out every black customer. Many were beaten and arrested, witnesses said, including the innocent son of Grenada's ambassador, who expressed outrage at the time.
This month, the South China Morning Post reported that an unnamed bar owner had been told to sign a pledge not to serve black patrons during the Olympics. The pledge reportedly also barred Mongolian customers. Police are known to believe that many prostitutes are from Mongolia.
In interviews with a dozen bar owners and managers, none acknowledged being asked to sign such a pledge. Government officials denied the report, and bloggers who cover the local bar scene could not find anyone to confirm it. But given September's raid, many could not dismiss the possibility.
"From personal experience, I know Chinese police dislike blacks," said John Nugent, a British citizen who owns the popular Bar Blu. "I was here when they raided the street opposite. There was a huge police presence. They shouldn't tar everyone with the same brush."
Several black bar patrons, interviewed over three recent nights in the Sanlitun area, said they had not been denied service, although some acknowledged that they often felt hassled by police. Buba Dia, who runs an electronics trading business in Guangzhou, in southern China, said a restaurant near the Beijing Dongwai Hotel had refused him service on this trip. "It was very strange for me," said Dia, who is from Guinea. He could not remember the restaurant's name, but when he tried to enter, he said, the staff waved their arms and said, "Mei you, mei you," or "No."
Dia didn't protest, he said. "I know in China, when they say no, it's no. You never get a reason why."
Horne said police have not told him to ban any customers. What he's experienced as a black man in China, he said, is not racism but "unfamiliarity with different kinds of people."
As he lighted a cigarette, he looked approvingly around the China Doll lounge, drinking in its atmosphere, a mix of chic and cozy, contemporary and edgy, with colored lights and mod furniture, its customers a fairly even mix of foreigners and Chinese.
He had fled a budding career in investment banking for a chance to make it in the club scene here. The Sanlitun district is a place he likes, a place that could be showcased as a bold expression of China's openness and modernity when the world's attention settles here next month. It might not turn out that way, but Horne holds out hope.
"It's cool here -- something the West can never provide," he said. "There's so much to be done, a great void in what people think of as nightlife."
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.