The Cult of the President — Part 1: Shanghai

Jan 4, 2007 by

Eurocypria Presidential Flight

THE STEWARDESS SMILED and placed a folded napkin on my tray wrapped in two ribbons, one red, the other blue. I untied the knot and smoothed out the napkin, which read “PRESIDENTIAL Flight – China 2006” alongside a custom design incorporating the flag of China and Cyprus.

The same message was printed on the menu, the in-flight entertainment guide, the cloth placemats, the fabric velcroed to the headrest and the complimentary gift pouch, although the last two involved an expanded version of the in-flight mantra – “EUROCYPRIA Welcomes You to the PRESIDENTIAL Flight China 2006” – presumably to impart hospitality and a subtle touch of self-promotion to the august declaration. This was no ordinary flight; it was presidential, by god.

Aboard the Eurocypria Presidential Flight to China

I had accepted an invitation by the Press and Information Office to accompany the President of Cyprus, Tassos Papadopoulos, on a trip to China. It was a free flight to China and a chance to see some presidential hoopla up close. I would not be disappointed. The human species will require centuries and maybe even millennia of evolution before it manages to shed itself of that deferential gene that results in a proliferation of red carpets and corny accoutrements like presidential napkins. The era of the ballot box and of elected representatives may have replaced that of the bloodline and the emperor, but the bootlicking and legion of yes-men has continued undisturbed.

The journalists had been relegated to the back five rows, which had also been designated as a smoking section. Papadopoulos and the rest of the diplomatic entourage were sitting in the first-class section at the front of the chartered Eurocypria plane (despite its self-perceived status as world power, Cyprus has no Air Force One). Not that there was any second-class section – or ‘economy class’ as it’s euphemistically called – on this flight; everyone on board was offered grilled sea bass with lobster sauce for lunch.

Occupying the bulk of the plane between the diplomats and the journalists were scores of Cypriot businessmen who were seeking to establish trade relations with Chinese businessmen, while a minority of them were also hoping to further promote entrepreneurial affairs between the two countries by scoring short-term deals in the services and entertainment sector with Chinese hookers.

I began to sense what I was in for when we landed to refuel and change crew in India. A hundred-odd Cypriots had to pass two hours in the New Delhi airport. “But where are we supposed to go?” one woman cried.

“This is unbelievable; they just left us here” her companion said, as if they’d been abandoned to bandits. “What do they expect us to do?!”

A group of them shuffled up some stairs to a restaurant, keeping close to one another. “Oh my God, the smell here is horrible,” one woman murmured, muffling her mouth in her coat’s fur collar. “Get out of here, the smell’s horrible!” she said, reeling away. I went up to see what the fuss was all about. It smelled of Indian food.

Down in the waiting room, a couple was debating whether they’d risk their health if they drank the bottled water they’d purchased. Another man was staring at a row of Indians curled in fetal position on the seats, their shoes resting on the floor. “My lord, think of all the shoeless feet that have been on these seats,” he said, crimping his nose. Another woman started smoking, which brought a security guard over. And once our flight number had finally been called up to the x-ray machine, one of the businessmen began berating an airport employee because the queue wasn’t moving to his satisfaction.

Another Eurocypria team would replace the half-dozen or so crewmembers who’d accompanied us to this point. The crew would wait for us here in New Delhi until we returned six days later. They would be paid, housed, and fed for a week to lounge in India, waiting for our return. I envied them. Everyone else pitied them.

“What are those poor people going to do here for a week?” one man said.

“What do you mean?” I said. “They’re in India. What’s not to do?”

“Okay, if you’re organized, fine, but if you just come here for a week, what are you supposed to do?” It was hopeless. And he was one of the journalists.

Tassos Papadopoulos Eurocypria Shanghai

“Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen, the crew of Eurocypria would like to welcome you to Shanghai.” The journalists disembarked out of the rear of the plane while Papadopoulos and Co. exited from the front. We all scrambled to the red carpet that had been laid out at the front of the plane to photograph Papadopoulos as he posed paternally with a Chinese girl. The presidential flurry had begun.

The journalists were then ushered into a van and given press passes. Those working for the Press and Information Office got to go in another van, which infuriated one of the photographers, who was convinced the PIO staff would be getting exclusive presidential access as a result. A roaring argument broke out between him and the coordinator, which continued most of the way to the hotel.

Shanghai (Photo by Constantine Markides)

The owner of Cyprus Mail, the newspaper I worked for, didn’t give a damn about the President’s trip to China, and as he wasn’t willing to pay for anyone to go, I decided to do so at my own expense (the flight, however, was free for all journalists). I took the week off as leave, though the editor said that if I sent articles I could recover some days.

My biggest expense would be accommodation. All the journalists, the businessmen, and the politicians, including Papadopoulos, were staying at the Westin, a five-star hotel in the Bund district, where the rates exceeded  $200 a night. I instead checked into a nearby hostel that rented individual rooms for $35, dressed in khakis and a striped black shirt, and returned to the Westin lobby. From there a van would take the journalists to the meeting place of Papadopoulos and the Vice Mayor of Shanghai, Feng Guoqin.

Upon entering the lobby I wanted to sprint back to my room. Almost every journalist was dressed in black jacket and pants. Many were wearing ties. It was as if the journalists had gotten so carried away by the presidential hubbub that they’d mistaken themselves for politicians.

Tassos Papadopoulos in Shanghai Museum (Photo by Constantine Markides)

There was no time to run back and change into the black pants and gray jacket that I’d brought precisely for such emergencies. I’d have to go as the ugly duckling, or at least the underdressed one. It made no difference in the end. The journalists were cordoned off behind a rope to observe the tedious diplomatic meeting like zoo spectators. After a few minutes we were ushered off, suits and ties and all. By that point I wasn’t feeling bad at all that I hadn’t dressed up; there’s more dignity in being turned away in khakis and a button-up than in a suit and tie.

The next day, after a morning seminar in which Papadopoulos pitched Cyprus as a desirable trade and investment hub to Chinese businessman, the presidential sightseeing of Shanghai began. Since it was essential to the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual well being of the Cypriot public to be appraised as to the every step and murmur of their mustached leader, the journalists’ van was part of the presidential entourage.

The first stop was the Oriental Pearl Tower, the landmark Shanghai structure that resembles a rocket out of a Pokemon cartoon. Due to a delay on my part, I missed the procession, journalists’ van included, by about ten seconds. A whole city may be kept waiting for a president, but a president waits for no one.

I leapt into a taxi outside the hotel. The Oriental Pearl Tower was only a few kilometers away, on the other side of the Yangtze River, but we spent nearly 30 minutes in gridlock traffic. Convinced that the driver was trying to fleece me due to the length of the trip and the roundabout route, I began grumbling and ranting while tapping at my left wrist to signify I was in a rush.

What I didn’t know, or what I would have known had I stopped fuming and reflected for a moment, was that the authorities had shut down the roads so that the presidential entourage could zip over to the Oriental Pearl Tower in three minutes. The delay was due to the inconveniencing of a city for the convenience of one man.

I paid the driver and ran up towards the tower, which had been sectioned off to the public for the presidential visit. Guards stationed around the base blocked my path. “Journalist… I’m a journalist!” They didn’t understand. I pointed at myself and then at the tower. “President! Me with president!” I waved my press pass at them and they let me through.

I dashed up a set of stairs, nearing the tower precisely when Papadopoulos was stepping out of the building. Several of the journalists were jogging in front of him on the red carpet, whirling around to take a few photos, then scrambling ahead another few meters for more photos.

I climbed into our van. Had I arrived two minutes later, I would have missed that departure too. Outside the entrance to the Oriental Pearl Tower, twenty or so young Chinese women were standing in a line, smiling and waving at us as we rolled off after the president into the empty streets.

Tassos Papadopoulos with Chinese diplomat

We tagged along to three more sites that day: the Shanghai Planning Exhibition Center, the Shanghai Museum and the Yuyuan Garden. It wasn’t until I saw several of the journalists hovering over the Exhibition Center guest book, reading over what Papadopoulos had written (in one case into a voice recorder) to the bemused gazes of Chinese onlookers who probably hadn’t seen such leader worship since Mao that I realized I’d landed myself in a fantastic freak show, a weeklong study in self-degradation, an insane cult of the president pilgrimage, and that there was nothing to do but embrace the ethnographic opportunity and blend in with the savages.

As we left the exhibition center, the staff stood smiling at the door, clapping. The routine was more or less the same everywhere we went: block off the streets, expel the public, roll out the red carpets, tour the president, offer him the guest book, then send him off to the next destination with smiles and applause. The journalist’s job – at least so an observer might have thought – was to chase after the president and, along with recording his every utterance, photograph his every move and gesture with such unflagging enthusiasm that one could later arrange the photos chronologically to trace his exact path throughout the day’s events.

So dedicated was one of the photographers that he snapped the trunk of a 300-year-old tree in the famous Yuyuan garden after clambering onto it to get a better angle for a photo. The tree had endured centuries of wars, drought and blight but it could not survive the juggernaut path of a Cypriot journalist on a presidential mission. It had about as much chance as a hiker who strays between a grizzly and her cub.

Yangtzi River, Shanghai, at night (Photo by Constantine Markides)

The day ended with a boat cruise down the Yangtze River. The words “Welcome President of Cyprus to Shanghai Scenery 1” scrolled in bright red repetition on an electronic display as we steamed parallel to the neon skyline, listening to the kind of tinny piano music that is misnamed ‘easy listening.’ The swelling opera music was reserved for when we disembarked, the crew clapping for us on a red carpet on the dock in what was surely meant to be the presidential climax of the day.

Upon returning to the Westin hotel, the ambassador of Cyprus to China told us that Papadopoulos had invited us up to his penthouse suite for an informal meeting. Two security guards were stationed in the hallway. We waited outside his door, making as much noise as a family of mice.

The ambassador went into the suite and then emerged. “You may enter,” he said in a hushed tone. We entered gravely, as if into a shrine. Several bottles of liquor were chilling on ice in the living room. We followed the ambassador into the dining room. Papadopoulos was sitting at the table in a Polo shirt, smoking a cigarette. It was the first time I’d seen him in semi-casual dress.

The meeting was off the record and mostly revolved around the usual dreary details of the Cyprus problem proceedings. It was not what was said that was notable but how it was said: the atmosphere was relaxed but there were reverential undertones. Journalistic façade aside, in this group Papadopoulos was the guru, the wise man on the mountaintop, and the journalists his disciples, the seekers of truth asking questions at his feet.

Journalists who do their jobs well will likely not be invited to a president’s quarters (Putin never invited Anna Politkovskaya to his chambers for a chat) nor would such journalists necessarily jump at such invitations. As soon as you’re on friendly terms with a president, you’re rendered professionally sterile, or at least impotent. You will buddy up without wanting to and then self-censor without knowing it.

The thing you realize about the diplomatic press corps is that most of them want to be close to power not to hold it accountable but to feel powerful themselves. Instead of grilling officials, they cozy up to them like loyal dogs and serve as their stenographers. They earnestly ask questions but only soft ones – respectable, non-confrontational and immaculately dressed, much like themselves. It is enough for them to walk at the president’s side, or to be more accurate, to tag along at his heels.

The ugly business of real journalism – asking the uncomfortable question, writing the impudent article that blacklists you, refusing to be bought by a glass of champagne and a presidential pat on the back – is as compatible with presidential trips as militant vegetarianism is with a slaughterhouse. Just as soldiers on opposing sides don’t show each other family albums before battle, so too do good journalists make sure they don’t get too chummy with those running the country.

Bicyclists in Shanghai

It was a relief to step back out into the hallway. I was eager to change into jeans and roam Shanghai, to see something of the city outside of red carpets and VIP treatments. The important thing was to get out of the hotel.

As were descending to the lobby in the elevator, two of the journalists were discussing dinner plans.

“Shall we go out to eat?” the one said.

“No,” the other replied. “Let’s stay in. It’s safer.”

The second and final part of this essay is the March 4 entry (FOURTH NIGHT took a one-month military leave: I entered Cypriot boot camp on January 10 and was unable to post an entry on February 4.)

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