Big trouble in little Hangzhou: G20's tight security, and what it suggests about China

A security guard gestures outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

I never should have brought so much lipstick to the G-20.

I was assigned to cover the international summit in China, as well as the business-focused "B-20" taking place over the next few days in Hangzhou. This is the first time China is hosting the G-20, so the authorities are taking the event very seriously. The city has been in virtual lock down to ensure the country puts on a good show for world leaders—including U.S. President Barack Obama.

Yet perhaps China is taking things a bit too seriously.

I got to the security checkpoint outside the hotel where Obama is staying, and Chinese officers waved me to a body scanner while two beefy American agents stood behind. After going through the usual checks, I pulled my handbag off a conveyor—only to be told by the Chinese officers to take out my make-up kit, which contained five different lipsticks (Normally I don't carry so many, but in a rush that morning, threw in everything I had. I began to regret my decision.)

The officer uncapped each tube, twisted it to expose the color, and then carefully set the lipsticks aside. The officer proceeded to open my mascara, eye pencil, eye shadow and eye liner—all while announcing what the items were to another guard blocked from my view. Unsure of what the officers were looking for, I offered my phone battery and my iPad but was told to put them away. Instead, one pulled out my black patent Prada heels and studied them closely. I was starting to feel very self-conscious.

The American security agents appeared to find the display very amusing. I heard one exclaim: "Those are nice shoes!" When I looked up and expressed regret about bringing so many lipsticks, one quipped: "Well, you never know what color you might need."

When I asked if the Chinese security officers were this strict with everyone, they nodded and one lamented, "They do that to us, too."

Source: Avon

That statement became more apparent as the day progressed.

President Obama arrived at the airport, where chaos ensued between Chinese and U.S. officials. A staircase had not been properly arranged for the president to disembark from the main door of Air Force One. While White House staffers scrambled to find a smaller set of stairs, a Chinese official ordered the U.S. press corps to leave. American officials intervened, which prompted a heated exchange with the Chinese delegate.

Tensions had also flared at the state house on Hangzhou's West Lake, where President Obama eventually met with China's President Xi Jinping. In advance of President Obama's visit, White House staff, protocol officers and secret service were blocked by Chinese security, who challenged them on how many Americans could enter. The disagreement nearly led to a fist fight between one Chinese official assisting the American diplomats and the Chinese guards.

Even an evening stroll for the presidents didn't go without a tussle. Chinese officials had drastically cut the number of U.S. journalists allowed to witness the walk, frustrating reporters as well as White House staff.

At a press briefing Sunday with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, Obama attempted to play down the conflict while redirecting attention to broader issues such as climate change.

"We think it's important that the press have access to the work that we're doing - that they have the ability to answer questions. And we don't leave our values and ideals behind when we take these trips," he said. "But none of this detracts from the broader scope of the relationship."

Figurines of G-20 country leaders made by folk artist Wu Xiaoli for the G-20 Hangzhou Summit.
Long Wei | VCG | Getty Images

China wants to showcase its rising stature at the G-20. The country is the second largest economy and has accomplished much in a relatively short span of years. China has been a major player in world affairs, and aims to increase that profile. However, the extreme security measures leave the impression of a country insecure with its standing rather than ready for the top job.

To prepare for the G-20, authorities have ordered factories to close, businesses to take a week long holiday, sewer grates to be completely sealed off. Checkpoints and road restrictions have prolonged travel times around the city by hours.

Beijing's heavy handed approach is familiar to those who live and work here. Businesses—international or local—tell me they can hardly speak freely about China without fear of retribution. The security apparatus also impacts their productivity, these people say, because of Beijing's ever tightening control over the internet.

I was reminded of that when I opened the G-20 swag bag and was most excited about a card that would grant users unfettered access to the web. You know you have been in China a while when you get excited about accessing Google without a VPN.

That access, though, comes with a price: All journalists are assigned an individual—and traceable—login and password.

The intrusive monitoring is also offline. At some of the security checkpoints, police asked not only for my hotel name but the room number. My CNBC colleague Sri Jegarajah had an unsettling experience of his own: While going through security to the G-20 venue, he had his breath mints confiscated by police. Later, the same mints showed up on a table in his hotel room. That's the kind of thoughtfulness that gives you chills.

China wants to persuade the world that its rise on the global stage is peaceful and harmonious.

Yet the image left here by its dealings with diplomats, staff and journalists is one of a country with an inferiority complex— an inconsistent and sometimes downright unpleasant police state unwilling to stick with prior arrangements. It's a land of the officious official.

That doesn't mean that Hangzhou isn't pulling off a successful event. The volunteers have been lovely. Hotel staff has gone out of their way to help find taxis to navigate the restricted roads, and staff at the G-20 venues are coordinating to get me to the right place. The authorities have enlisted young people to assist in translations - all of whom have varying levels of English skill but the same high level of earnestness and enthusiasm that you see across a country that wants to show how far China's come and how far it can go.

Even public security officers I spoke with at the checkpoints hailing from Fujian province and the capital Beijing spoke of how they looked forward to September 7 –when the pressure will be over – but were also so excited to be part of such a world event.

Perhaps the next time China hosts a G-20, Beijing will feel comfortable enough to relax around the foreigners in their midst.

Or maybe I should just carry one lipstick.