China trip proves revealing

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The mass of strangers and suitcases pressed against me so tightly I did not have to worry about the sharp turns and rapid acceleration of the train as it hurtled through the Beijing underground because the dozens of people breathing down my neck in the center of the carriage prevented me from falling or moving.

When we arrived at the station, to get on or off the train, passengers ruthlessly shoved each other out of the way, worse than anything I had seen in New York or London.

I do not do well with crowds.

I should have anticipated this when visiting the world's most populous country, but for some reason it did not cross my mind. When I decided last fall to spend spring break in China with my friend Bradley, I expected to encounter a society that was more mild-mannered than our own, more progressive than in previous years and less communist than ever.

However, after spending a few days in Beijing, I began to realize the oppression, censorship and secrecy had not disappeared, but remained in place, covered by several coats of shiny, new paint.

It was almost as if my daily trips on the subway were an analogy for China itself. It was sleek and efficient but also claustrophobic, callous and repressive.

We had to take only a 15-minute ride from the station near our hotel to see this secret society in full effect. The first time we visited Tiananmen Square, the very name of which we were scared to type into an Internet search engine, we were met by a vicious sandstorm that had blown in from the ever-expanding deserts north of Beijing and had turned the morning sky a dark shade of yellow.

As we wandered through the square, an enormous expansive space of gray concrete monoliths and red fluttering flags, I could not escape the feeling we were being watched.

Maybe this was because a dozen plainclothes policemen conspicuously patrolled the area, not caring too much about taxis occasionally veering onto sidewalks or overly aggressive merchants hawking trinkets emblazoned with the image of Chairman Mao, but instead were watching our every move as we snapped photos of the monuments and quietly discussed the difference between a police state and a policed state.

In the center of Tiananmen Square - where in 1989, student-led protests were brutally suppressed but are not mentioned with even the smallest of plaques - stands the mausoleum of Chairman Mao.

We joined several thousand Chinese travelers who, after being thoroughly screened by security officials, filed through the building for what could only be described as a sort of religious pilgrimage.

This was hardly surprising given the fact that adherence to any system of belief other than the five religions officially recognized by the state - Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism and non-Tibetan Buddhism - is illegal.

So when I walked slowly and silently past the glass casket of Mao Tse-tung and saw his face, embalmed and preserved to appear just as he looked when he died more than 30 years ago, many of these observations started to make a little more sense, and Washington state felt a little further away than just 5,616 miles.

This is the first of three columns about a visit to China by Walla Walla University student Martin Surridge. Watch for the next installment April 25.

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