At first I don’t really notice.
Sure, they take our temperature with a laser to the forehead before letting anyone off the plane, but with our health declaration signed, our entrance forms and visas completed, they stamp our passports and welcome David and me to China.
And at the Beijing hotel just across the street from the red-light district (just imagine our concern as the cab slowed in this area) they take our temperature again, this time with a thermometer to the ear, and photocopy our passports and visas.
Then, when we arrive the next day at my sister's house in an ex-pat enclave outside Dalian, we have to register with local police and I think, well, they really want to keep track of us while we're in town.
We can't access certain internet sites, Facebook and Twitter. Other sites are blocked (hint, spell Tiananmen Square wrong on Google in China for a sampling of blocked images) and my sister reminds me that "they" could read anything I send by email. In other words, "Be careful, Little Sister."
But Big Brother pretty much leaves us alone as long as we allow every hotel to photocopy our passports and visas each time we check in; as long as we don't cause any trouble.
On the hot, humid summer afternoon when we visit The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, however, Big Brother is watching and he wants us to know.
His signs warn us NO STOPPING, NO BURNING as we walk toward Mao's portrait. Along with thousands of Chinese we pass beneath Mao as he stares out at Tiananmen Square. We walk beside soldiers standing at guard every ten feet, but not all guards are in uniform. These soldiers stand at attention but are dressed like tourists. Big Brother wants us to know that there are soldiers among us.
They check our bags before we enter the square and as David and I mill around watching families snapping photographs with Mao or in front of the Chinese flag, we also watch men watching us, men not in uniform but taller than the average Chinese man, walking slowly, saying nothing; watching.
There are cameras on each of the light standards all over the square. Cameras watch, soldiers watch, civilians watch, and thousands of people move in and around this open space.
Scarred tiles cover the square and I imagine fires burning, blood shed; the echo of bullets raining down on peaceful protesters. I picture tanks lining this space where families and tour groups walk and imagine these same civilians hurling rocks at soldiers who fire back with live ammunition on these same streets where buses, taxis and bicycles rush past us on this Wednesday afternoon.
There in this peaceful crowd, I begin to understand the significance of the student and civilian protests staged here in Tiananmen where Mao is memorialized and government buildings flank the square and why there hasn't been significant protest since. Even though, according to the documentary "The Tank Man," 1 in 10 of Beijing's citizens took to the streets to protest government corruption and limits to free speech that May and June, this well-behaved crowd here in Tiananmen Square understands the consequences of acting out.
No one in China acknowledges the violence from the crack-down in 1989 publicly. University students filmed for a 2004 documentary feign ignorance of Tank Man's image. But if twenty years ago 1 in 10 of these same citizens flooded the streets to keep the military from entering their city, if they watched as soldiers opened fire on students, friends, brothers and sisters; if they saw citizens arrested, tried, imprisoned, and disappeared after the events in Tiananmen Square, they know the cost of protest. They understand the price and because this growing middle class risks losing so much they teach their children what has happened and understand what could happen again.
Even though the 20-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre passed peaceably nearly two months ago, I imagine conversations around kitchen tables all over China, in hushed voices from living rooms and dorms, conversations posted in code on proxy servers because Big Brother is watching. He is watching so The People can never forget.