The Cult of the President — Part II: Beijing
The first part of this essay is the January 4 posting
THE NEXT MORNING we flew to Beijing. Upon landing it was the same routine as in Shanghai: the press disembarked from the plane’s rear and then rushed towards the red carpet, which this time was flanked on each side by a row of soldiers at attention. As soon as Papadopoulos stepped out of the plane, two of the photographers jostling for position got in a brief spat because one was blocking the other’s viewing field. The two didn’t pause photographing during the squabble: you couldn’t allow petty grievances to interfere with your professional duty to capture that fleeting presidential expression or gesture that might in a single pregnant image of stately poise convey to the public back home the diplomatic sublimity and significance, both factual and symbolic, of this historic visit.
This time the diplomats were staying at the State Guesthouse – a kind of exclusive resort for visiting officials – while the press and businessmen were staying at the five-star Kempinski Hotel. I had again made reservations at a cheaper hotel nearby but my baggage, which had been transported with the rest of the luggage to the Kempinski, had been mistakenly delivered to someone’s room. I would have to wait for the guest, who was apparently out, to return. There was a reception that night for us in the Kempinski banquet room and I didn’t want to be scurrying between hotels for the next few hours due to a missing bag. I finally canceled my reservation at the other hotel and, securing a discount from the manager due to the baggage fiasco, checked into the Kempinski.
On top of the discount, I was upgraded free of charge to an “Executive Room” because the “Superior Rooms” (the cheapest ones) were fully booked. It was outfitted with designer sofas, sleek architectural chairs, bedside electronic consoles, and a bathroom nightlight that was discreetly placed under an overhang at ankle level so that sleepy guests wouldn’t bang their shins as they traveled in the night to relieve their bladders and so that there was sufficient illumination down low to ensure that male guests didn’t miss the toilet bowl – which though an easy target by day can prove deceptively elusive by night – the light also strategically positioned by the floor to ensure that darkness always prevailed in the bathroom’s upper stratum so as not to offend the sojourner’s dilated pupils with a contraction, whether sudden or gradual, that might hinder a prompt and luxurious return to sleep. I had reached the distinguished summits of presidential correspondence, at least in terms of accommodation.
The reception, which was a dressy affair, was beginning in a half hour and my bag still hadn’t been located. I asked one of the supervisors if they could begin randomly searching rooms (it wasn’t until 9pm, hours after the reception began, that my bag was finally discovered) and also if I could borrow a jacket for the next few hours during the reception. He nodded politely and did nothing, despite my repeated requests. It wasn’t until I told him that due to his uncooperativeness I was going to call the manager – his immediate supervisor – that he darted off to find me a jacket. In most organizations, especially those that are rigidly hierarchical, one need only threaten to bypass the lower levels in the ladder of authority and the disobliging bureaucrat will transform into a keen assistant, the master into a butler.
But the supervisor ended up getting the better of me. He returned, smiling maliciously, with a knee-length black coat draped over his arm that had vertical blue stripes and buttons the size of silver dollars. It was a jacket all right, a doorman’s jacket. It would do for a masquerade but not the reception. Conceding defeat, I began asking around among other staff workers. It turned out that one of the taller employees had an extra black suit jacket in his closet. I was able to get into it, although I felt like an unoiled Tin Man: the motion of my arms was so restricted that a robust sneeze would have split the jacket down the back.
Outside of the reception hall a group of Cypriots were handing out free copies of a 175-page color publication in English and Chinese titled “A Passage to Cyprus.” Dominating the cover was a headshot of Papadopoulos with an expression as if the photographer had asked him to visualize that it was the late 1800s and he had just won a pistol duel outside an Arizona saloon. The reception had been underway for about a half hour and the speeches were over. Most of the other journalists were clustered like flies on a cow paddy around Papadopoulos, who moments later left the room. I shirked the buzzing cloud and instead headed straight for the bar and buffet. It was the first sensible event of the visit.
The next morning we again tagged along with the president, from a seminar on “Cyprus – an International Business Center” – a replica of the Shanghai event – to a visit to the Forbidden City (which “deserves a day, or even several, all to itself” one guidebook recommends) and then to the Temple of Heaven, all of this by noon. As usual the roads were cleared for us and the tourists herded out and cordoned off as our guides ushered us at a 21st century pace through the various ancient structures.
But the main event of the day, and of the visit in fact, was the afternoon ceremony at the Great Hall of the People where Papadopoulos was to meet with the President of China, Hu Jintao. I thought that black pants and a button-up shirt would be suitable dress but when I went to the lobby, most of the journalists were in black suit and tie. I went upstairs and got my jacket. I returned to the lobby.
“No tie?” one of my colleagues asked. I rushed back upstairs and put on the emergency tie I’d packed. I couldn’t have counted the years since I’d last worn one. To willfully place a noose around one’s own neck has always seemed to me a bad move on both practical and philosophical grounds. But considering my latest role as presidential duckling, a physical expression of spiritual strangulation seemed only appropriate and so I raised my chin and tightened the slipknot.
The van dropped us off at the Great Hall of the People about an hour before the ceremony began so that we’d have ample time to pass through security. Only minutes after I’d gone through the metal detector, I heard a tremendous shouting from behind me. One of the reporters, an older Greek man, was screaming: “That Mandarin! That Mandarin wouldn’t let her in!” The guards had apparently not allowed our young female Chinese guide to enter the building with us and he had taken chivalrous outrage over it.
He seemed oblivious to the fact that the National Congress is held in this building. It is the ceremonial seat of Chinese power and, as one would expect, heavily staffed by military guards. This did not dissuade him. Flecks of saliva flew from his face, which was deepening from crimson to purple, as he continued ranting in Greek about the “stinking Mandarin.” There was no calming him. He didn’t seem to consider that some guards might come and usher him out if he kept it up much longer. Tiananmen Square was a one-minute march from the closest exit. A smooth public execution could probably have been pulled off, from arrest to cleanup, in about 20 minutes. The Chinese authorities have executed people for offences like bribery and stealing gasoline, so an analogous response to this indelicate act of national defamation didn’t seem impossible. But of course, as guests of the president, we had diplomatic immunity and so his tirade was nervously endured until it fizzled out.
I have yet to give an adequate sense of the commotion we made everywhere we went. Cypriots aren’t cut out for the meditative life: if Cypriots aren’t arguing, yelling or laughing, they’re either sleeping or dead. Discussions are conducted by shouting over one another, as if volume carries with it truth and accuracy, while good humor is typically conveyed by volleying curses to and fro.
But the press entourage I was with took Cypriot boisterousness to a new decibel level. Anytime we were together in a confined area, either an argument would break out or there would be cries of outrage over some injustice that had been committed against us, all to a dissonant chorus of hollering and shrieking laughter. And of course the ideal place and time for venting this fury and loathing was while traveling in the van. Stepping out of it was like emerging from a live pressure cooker; you needed time, preferably in a dark silent place, before the furious bubbling between your ears subsided. I could tell by occasional uneasy glances from our driver in the rearview mirror that he was afraid of us. Never mind SARS; this group was rabid.
A handful of journalists from the Chinese press were also there for the ceremony. They were in jeans and t-shirts, while we were dressed as if it was us whom Hu Jintao was about to receive, not Papadopoulos. Standing alongside them in the press area in such formal attire, we were a group of dapper misfits. One needs no sense of fashion to see that the camera and notepad clash with the jacket and tie. It was the last time I would violate the unwritten journalistic dress code that recognizes that casual dress is to good journalism as political freedom is to good literature; neither is a prerequisite, but they usually go hand in hand.
The ceremony that preceded the signing of agreements was a show of military discipline and uniformity. The two presidents stood to the trumpeting of the Chinese and Cypriot national anthems and then walked side by side along red carpets, flanked by four orderly rows that comprised over 100 Chinese military guards, all six foot four and all standing in strict and orderly immobility.
The presidents made a strange couple: one the head of a country of under ten thousand square kilometers with a population of well under a million people, with the other presiding over close to ten million square kilometers and over 1.3 billion people. With China being one of the five permanent members on the UN Security Council and among the world’s largest exporters, it was obvious why Cyprus would woo the red giant. But it wasn’t a one-way courtship: Cyprus offered China a “strategic location” (a stock phrase found in almost every geographical reference to the island) for a trade base in the European Union and, perhaps more importantly, diplomatic support within the European bloc on controversial votes.
But even so, there was no shaking off the disproportion and incongruity of hearing the Cypriot anthem playing in the Great Hall of the People and of seeing Cypriot flags flying side by side with Chinese ones around the perimeter of Tiananmen Square. It would only serve to inflame the farcical yet prevalent self-important opinion of Cypriot politicians that the island is the central subject of interest (usually nefarious) in the foreign affairs department of every global power.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, we traveled to the State Guesthouse for an informal press conference with the president. When Papadopoulos finally came out to meet us, he was visibly displeased; news had just emerged that Ankara had put forth an offer on opening two of its ports to Cypriot traffic with conditions that Cyprus would obviously reject. The offer would displace his meeting with the Chinese president as the subject of tomorrow’s lead story.
It was decided that the two Chinese reporters who had come for the press conference would ask their questions first via a translator so that the rest of the news conference could proceed in Greek. The Cyprus ambassador to China asked the translator what media they worked for.
“It doesn’t matter, we don’t care.” Papadopoulos retorted. The ambassador apparently did not hear him and he asked the translator again. Papadopoulos interrupted him, this time in a sharper tone: “What do you care where they’re from, sir?”
After the Chinese reporters had finished their questions, Papadopoulos turned to the Cypriot journalists. “Now the tormentors,” he said, dryly.
It was a curious statement considering that a number of the reporters here were integral components of the presidential mouthpiece. When you are accustomed to subservient reporting, even the slightest hint of critique or deviation from the virtuous path of presidential truth appears like an abusive affront from a hotheaded malcontent, from a potential Johnny Treasonseed.
Before the questions began Papadopoulos told the sole cameraman, who was setting up his camera, that there would be no video. It was an order, not a request. The cameraman made no objection while folding up his tripod but he went and sat on the floor in the far corner of the room in silent protest.
One of the cameraman’s colleagues asked why there could be no camera.
“So what if there’s no camera,” Papadopoulos said. “You think the camera is something important—”
“No, it’s just that to transmit the information, it would be good—”
“Next, something else.”
Another journalist came to her defense. “The journalists consider these developments very important, Mr. President, that’s why they want the camera to transmit the reports—”
“Look it’s not my fault if CyBC [Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation] decided it wanted to send television coverage, right?”
“Not but they view it important not only for visual coverage but also—”
“Now are you going to ask questions? Please, I have other work here. I just spent a half hour communicating with Cyprus to learn things and I interrupted it to come see you. If we’re going to discuss whether or not we’re going to have a camera or not, I’m very sorry. Come on now.”
A few limp questions about China followed (“what was your overall impression of the visit, Mr. President?”), none of which touched upon Tibet or China’s human rights record or its intolerance of dissent, as doing so might raise uncomfortable questions about the Sino-Cypriot relationship and throw a hypocritical shadow upon Cyprus’ vociferous outcry over the Turkish occupation of the island and human rights violations on its own soil.
It was not long before the question and answer session settled back into the familiar rhetorical bogs of the Cyprus problem, which is its own special sort of Cyprus problem. At one point the Cyprus ambassador to China walked over to Papadopoulos and handed him a slip of paper.
Papadopoulos read the slip and looked up. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am being informed that the police have blocked the roads because I am to go somewhere. The longer we stay here, the longer the roads will stay blocked.”
Now closing down the roads in Beijing, where there are about three million vehicles, is no small matter. Traffic is often at a standstill when all the roads are open, so the effects of shutting down a stretch even for a quarter hour can have an exasperating ripple effect on surrounding streets.
There was at once a flurry of questions for Papadopoulos, all apparently of such pressing import that their immediate consideration justified delaying thousands of Beijing drivers. Over three minutes passed. Finally the ambassador again gingerly approached Papadopoulos, obviously in hopes of ending the press conference.
“Well, sir, what do you want me to do?” Papadopoulos snapped back. “Tell me, please!”
The ambassador backed away. “I’m sorry, Mr. President, I’m sorry.”
“What?… I told them that the roads are blocked for us to leave.”
“Okay, I’m sorry, I apologize, Mr. President.”
“What do you want me to do?” Papadopoulos continued. “Tell me.”
The answer was obvious enough. Apologize to the press and say you must go. But instead the president fielded one more question that had nothing to do with either China or the latest news from Ankara while Beijing went on waiting.
Everything that was ugly about the cult of the president was present in those few moments: the authoritarianism and the subservience, the arrogance and the timidity, the inconveniencing of a population for the convenience of one man. It was more than merely about Papadopoulos, who at the age of 27 became Interior Minister and therefore had grown accustomed from a young age to having others step aside before him. It was about the culture of obedience cultivated in every hierarchical organization – whether it be a government, military or corporation – the unquestioning devotion to authority that exults the few at the expense of the many.
I made it a point the rest of the trip to ignore Papadopoulos. My ethnography as presidential groupie had come to an end. I took only one more photo of him and that was at Tiananmen Square with the portrait of Mao in the background. Despite his reputation as a hardline anti-communist, Papadopoulos rose to presidential power through an alliance with the communist party AKEL (communist mostly only by title), so it was only appropriate to seize this photo-op.
I did however attend the one last press conference that the president held before we flew back to Cyprus. He seemed conciliatory, even apologetic, for his surly behavior the previous day. Of course, most of the journalists did not even need to forgive him as they had from the start justified his short-temperedness by attributing it to presidential stress.
But at one point one of the few journalists who was not among his underlings asked him a question that lacked any deferential pupil-to-professor tone. Papadopoulos snapped back at him. There was no doubt about it: he tolerated nothing but unswerving sycophancy.
I hadn’t asked the president one question the whole trip. In fact I was the only journalist who hadn’t done so. In that sense I’d failed as a reporter. I’d taken none of the opportunities to ask him those unpleasant questions that weren’t being asked. But although it may not be much of an excuse, it was a tough place to do it. It would have been like throwing tomatoes at the celebrity during a fan club outing.
At the end of the news conference most of the reporters clustered around Papadopoulos to shake hands and thank him, presumably for the invitation to join him on the trip. Unable to take any more of this presidential nightmare, I slipped away and watched from the doorway. One of the reporters told him that she hadn’t appreciated the abrupt manner in which he’d responded earlier to her questions. He replied that he valued her reporting and all the good work she did for Cyprus and then stood alongside her in fatherly fashion for a smiling photo. It was all good cheers, one happy family, as the curtains closed on this China trip.
But it wasn’t the end of the presidential fuss; that is one charade that never ends. On the flight back to Cyprus, a stewardess passed out to each of us what looked like a brochure. In fact it was a certificate signed by the Captain and the First Officer. It read:
ON DECEMBER 3, 2006 _______________ PARTICIPATED IN THE STATE VISIT TO THE PEOPLES REPUBLIC OF CHINA ON EUROCYPRIA AIRLINES 737, FLIGHT ECA 001, REGISTRATION 5B – DBV WITH TASSOS PAPADOPOULOS, H.E. THE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF THE CYPRUS.
To see a slideshow of these Beijing photos, plus of several others that I did not include in the body of the essay, click here.
- The Cult of the President — Part 1: Shanghai
- The Bishop
- The Bloodthirsty and the Barbarous
- Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part II)