There’s no VPN in your Jasmine Revolution

The policeman inched towards me with a cold, methodical gaze.

“Do you have a CCTV license?” he asked.

I clutched my video camera and shook my head.

“Do you want to get arrested?” he said in a flat voice.

“I don’t want to cause any trouble.”

“Leave now or I would have to take you to the police station.” You could tell he’d memorized the line and that it was not the first time he was using it. In any case, I left, hauling my video camera and tripod through the crowd. Apparently, that day I got too close while filming the gates of Peking University High School on the first day of “gaokao,” the national college admissions test.

Making a documentary about higher education in China was harder than I thought.

In February, I had arrived in Beijing at the height of the Jasmine Revolution, a series of pro-democratic protests that took place in several Chinese cities. Even though the revolution was crushed without a whimper, everyone in the country experienced stricter censorship from then on — even expats like me.

In May, the Guardian reported that state-run telecommunication companies had interfered with people’s virtual private network (VPN), used by foreigners to evade the Great Firewall.

That same day, I received two more threats of arrest. I had gone to Tiananmen Square to film a few iconic shots of Beijing. Surprisingly, I got through the security standpoint without any questioning. With a chunky professional camcorder slung over my shoulder, I very much looked like a tourist. After recording a dozen shots of Mao’s gargantuan portrait, I headed over to the east side of the square.

Walking past the National Museum, I looked for the empty spot where a 31-foot bronze Confucius statue used to be. The government removed it earlier this year, in late April.

It’s a pity the state has been cracking down on everything this summer — Internet, text messages, Ai Weiwei — as a fallout from the Jasmine Revolution.

Still, little did I know the government was about to crack down on me.

“Hey, kid, what are you doing with that camera?” a security police barked as he approached me.

Not again. I better come up with a clever way to get out, but the June sun had already scorched my brain.

“Well, I’m a tourist.” I lied, stupidly.

He gave me a look of skepticism.

“Don’t use your camera around here or else we’ll have to arrest you,” he warned.

I scurried like a rat to the subway, only to be accosted by a third policeman. This time, I got off by flashing my Peking University ID. Pacing carefully, I ducked into a mass of popsicle-fellating children as I entered the subway station. Even though I lost myself in a sea of people, my eyes lingered on the security camera overhead.

When I returned to my hostel at the end of the day, I discovered my VPN had stopped working. I could not listen to BBC podcasts, read the New York Times, or use Yale’s database to complete my research and only source of income. I swear even Gmail was flaky.

I sighed — Big Brother never sleeps in Beijing.

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