China has some intense security — sort of the opposite of what I found not long ago in Kuwait. While heading home from the Middle East, I walked through security boarding a United Airlines plane and the buzzer went off. No problem — I was just waved through and wasn’t searched.
But when flying from Guilin, China to Xian — the home of Emperor Qin’s Mausoleum and a buried army of thousands of terra-cotta warriors — my checked bags were flagged because the inspectors had found three lighters I had packed in them. I did successfully get the lighters from Beijing to Guilin — but the Guilin baggage inspectors were a bit more vigilant.
But when I pulled the first lighter out — and then the second followed by a third — the two inspectors were genuinely upset and didn’t know what to do. I had purchased — after much intense negotiation in a Beijing flea market — three “Mao lighters”. One of them was gold with Mao’s image sculpted on it. The other was like the one shown above, and the other was in the shape of Mao’s Little Red Book, which actually opened up to trigger the flame.
They were impressed that I had purchased anything with Mao on it — and seemed ideologically distressed about taking them from me. They did anyway — and threw the three souvenir Mao lighters into a bin with a lot of other undistinguished trinkets, pocket knives, bottle openers and the like that the Guilin checked baggage guys had caught in luggage bound for everywhere beyond Guilin.
So apologies to my “journalist pal” who asked me to acquire these lighters. Finding them, bargaining for them, sneaking them from Beijing to Guilin — was all nerve-wracking. But it was all worth it to see airline security apparatchiks decide that passenger security was more important than an ideological gesture.
China clearly is changing.
— Steve Clemons