Today the company where my office is located had a certain visitor.
Yesterday, as I was leaving to meet Rob to go home, Chinese protestors had lined the main intersection on the Microsoft campus where I cross the street, and a very polite young woman gave me a pamphlet. I read it quickly as I scurried off, as you do, and became thoroughly unnerved and horrified by claims that organs are being harvested from imprisoned Falun Gong members in China while they're still alive. It sounds like a horrible movie, or that plot of Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go."
Today was the actual day that the president visited campus. Morning was pretty normal, except that Rob said he could hear helicopters flying overhead all day, and we would occasionally entertain ourselves by peeking outside and spotting what appeared to be SWAT team members wandering about in large groups. Then in the afternoon, traffic around the campus seemed to be coming to a standstill. I cut out to try and meet Rob at a building across the way. I was able to walk to a major campus intersection, near the freeway, but there I encountered barricades, polite but omnipresent protestors holding large signs in Chinese and English, vans with large signs claiming "The Chinese Communist Party Is Falling Down" (Rob couldn't help but hum that to the tune of "London Bridge"). And there were policemen everywhere, wearing patches from numerous nearby cities, none of them matching. Not only were they stopping auto traffic, but they weren't letting pedestrians cross the street either. One young kitchen worker became a little panicked when told she couldn't cross the street to pick up her daughter, but all the police would say was "Wait."
We didn't have long to wait. Rob and I happened to have attempted to leave campus almost exactly when the Chinese president, his entourage, and presumably, Bill Gates himself, were heading to Gates' Medina mansion for this fancy dinner. Suddenly the dozens of cops busied themselves, and shortly thereafter, about 20-30 cops on motorcyles from various law-enforcement agencies came roaring past. After a slight break, 20-30 more came.
Then we waited again, and all of a sudden, about 20 black vehicles -- limos, town cars, SUVs, and, scarily, two ambulances and one haz-mat van -- came tearing down the long street between Microsoft and the freeway. One car carried Chinese and American flags, and although Rob may be right that it carried the Chinese prez, I wondered if it wasn't a decoy car. I had an incredible view of the entire situation, and let me tell you, everyone behind a wheel of one of the cars in the motorcade, women and men, were dressed head-to-toe in black, had MIB style sunglasses, and were driving with a grim determination that would not have looked out of place in the Indy 500. They didn't look happy (though Rob said he saw one guy laughing and joking), instead they looked as if they were in the middle of a painful dental procedure and just had to grit through it. I can't imagine that driving in a controversial motorcade like that can be a lot of fun -- like the Secret Service, you've got to be ready for anything, and you've got to be uttering a silent prayer that nothing happens to the car you're in, or the other cars in your line.
Nothing happened. One of the protesters began yelling in Chinese, the same phrase, over and over, as the motorcade passed. It flew through the blocked intersection and onto the freeway and the long black line of cars was gone. While it passed, we all seemed to hold our breath, but once it was gone, things immediately started to be packed down and put away. The cops immediately broke down the barricades, the protestors immediately rolled up their signs, the kitchen worker got to fly across the street to her little daughter, wherever she was.
The world is an enormous and complicated place. I don't pretend to be an expert on politics of any kind, much less Chinese politics. But this little intrusion into my ordinary American world has certainly piqued my interest, and although I don't know how much it will help, I'm definitely inspired to learn a little bit more about what's going on in that faroff corner of the world. And I'm never, ever, going to drive a limo carrying any head of state. Too damn much pressure.