Diary of a Summit: Thoughts on Life in Beijing During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum

By Mengfei Chen

Last week, China’s President Xi Jinping hosted the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing. For Xi, it was a diplomatic coming out party. Like every debutante, he left nothing to chance. In the weeks leading up to APEC, Beijing implemented a comprehensive plan aimed at presenting its best face to the foreign visitors. Much of this plan targeted Beijing’s infamous smog. As the forum opened, it appeared the efforts had payed off. Beijing residents dubbed the color of the sky during the forum APEC blue, a color one popular commentator called “beautiful but fleeting.”

Thursday, November 6

“Air Pollution Eventually Controlled.” – APEC meme

The sky is blue. Really, really blue. Don’t-bother-checking-the-phone air-quality-app-blue.

Two weeks before, I sat across a dinner table from a man who manufactures many of the blown-glass Christmas ornaments sold in the United States. His factories, usually churning at full capacity this time of year, were preparing to shutdown ahead of APEC.

It wouldn’t do to have the guests, including Presidents Obama and Putin, experience the hazardous smog that often blankets the city. It’s one thing to read about it in the New York Times, it’s another to wipe it off your skin at the end of a night.

I imagine Santa’s workshop silent, his elves idle.

Friday, November 7

Arrive at the office. The reception is unmanned and the building cold. Only government agencies and State Owned Enterprises were supposed to get APEC off, but many private companies have followed suit. We have been told to continue working, though those with children (schools are closed) or transportation difficulties (private cars idled) can work from home. I have neither.

Only one colleague sits at her desk. She needs to use the design software on her desktop. We huddle, cardigans from the office closet heaped around our shoulders. On WeChat [editor’s note: a popular social media platform], colleagues who had taken advantage of the impromptu holiday post pictures of their children playing in the sand.

As I prepare to leave the office, I receive a text from the local district association:

“On the occasion of the APEC meetings, let us build a beautiful environment, provide high-quality service, join hands to be good hosts, display a civilized and fashionable capital, be polite and civilized people!”

Saturday, November 8

I am supposed to meet a friend for dinner. She describes flu-like symptoms and threatens to cancel. I pick up an order of pork rib and daikon soup and plain white rice, wedge the takeout containers in my bike basket and bike to her place.

We sit outside on her roof. I watch her eat the soup. The neighbor’s dog, a well-fed corgi mix, basks in the sun ignoring us. From behind, he looks like a black and white pig.

She is worried about the ringing in her ears. Go to the clinic for a checkup, I say. She refuses: It’s too much of a hassle, a friend had gone the day before and had found the hospital’s pharmacy unable to fill the prescription.

It seems Christmas ornaments aren’t the only items not being stocked during APEC.

That night, the roads are empty. It looks like a weekday at 4am, not 11:00pm on a Saturday night. A few other taxis keep mine company.

At a club, the bouncer asks my friend if he has made a booking.

Friend: “No.”

Bouncer: “We’re full.”

Friend: “What?”

Bouncer: “We’re full tonight.”

Friend: “Since when has this club been so popular?”

Another friend, faster on the uptake, asks the correct question, “Is it okay if we just go get a drink at the bar?”

“Yes,” the bouncer says. We take an elevator. The dance floor is empty. One of the hired models tries to hand me a drink in a paper cup (hot water?).

One wonders if APEC organizers know that there are nightclubs in Moscow and New York, even a few imitations of them in Washington DC.

Sunday, November 9

Forgot to check my Air Quality app again. But sky is blue.

Monday, November 10

City Average Air Quality Index PM 2.5: 151. Moderately Polluted; US Embassy: N/A (PM 2.5 is a common measure of air quality. On average, the PM 2.5 in downtown LA hovers around 50 to 60 micrograms per cubic meter.)

First official day of APEC. The motorbikes in Vladimir Putin’s motorcade drive in a formation. From above, it looks like male genitalia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe are photographed shaking hands, expressions dour. The Internet pairs the photo with a screenshot of the characters Eeyore and Pooh. (Xi Jinping has been compared to Pooh before. Last time, Xi’s Pooh — short, rotund and wearing very high waisted pants — accompanied Obama’s lanky Tigger on a photo op during the Chinese leader’s 2013 visit to the US.

A reciprocal agreement between US and China to grant ten year multiple entry visas is announced. Hallelujah!

The bread shelf at the grocery is sparse. On my way home I realize the outlines of buildings are blurry. Sometime during afternoon, despite all the factory closures, the pollution has crept up.

The reading is over 150, nothing to faze a Beijinger but apparently too embarrassing to show to an APEC visitor. A delicate species. The American Embassy’s air quality index (AQI) reading has disappeared from my app. It is N/A.

Tuesday, November 11

City Average Air Quality Index: 19; US Embassy: N/A

Embassy AQI reading still N/A.

Today is 11/11 or “Singles Day.” A triumph of capitalism and marketing. Bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. Nine billion dollars of discounted cellphones, long underwear and dried squid stuffed with dried roe (all items bought by people I know) shipped via a fleets of motorized tricycles and trucks.

Last year, Beijing traffic and air pollution was noticeably worse on 11/11. This year, it is not.

I meet someone I knew from DC for lunch. He arrives dressed in a blue blazer with khaki pants. He’s just gotten a call from CCTV, the Chinese state network, to talk about APEC on air. I ask him why a man who spent his life working in the free press decides to be a regular commentator on CCTV, the Chinese state network. Because they ask, he says. Well, I suppose there is that.

Wednesday, November 12

City Average Air Quality Index: 42

In the air quality app, the American Embassy readings have been replaced by “Data from this source was censored on the orders from government.” I hope the app’s programmers found this satisfying. How often must people wish to air the dirty laundry and don’t? Censor my book? Fine. Watch me publish a hundred pages of blacked out writing.

Obama and Xi announce a climate change agreement. Most commentators seem to think it’s significant. I’m happy. APEC seems much more productive than these things usually are. Maybe it’s some karmic force from the vacations of Beijingers.

Speaking of vacations, the office ayis are still gone. In the kitchen, mugs clutter the sink and the countertops. Trash cans overflow. Boxes and mail pile up on the reception desk. I look through the mail and wonder if the person who orders The Economist would notice if the November 8th issue (cover leader “Welcome Back to Washington”) went missing. I decide he won’t.

Thursday, November 13

City Average Air Quality Index: 61

I wake in the morning expecting “revenge smog,” as factories make up for lost production, stores restock and people return to school and jobs. The APEC holiday is over. But the sky remains, for now, APEC blue.

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