Archive for April, 2008


It’s Everywhere You Want To Be, Except For China

Getting a visa in China has, as I’ve mentioned before, become a very complicated process, and I’d cite it as another example of the whole Paradox of the Police State that I’ve mentioned before. Based on advice I’ve gotten from Westerners and locals alike, I finally decided to keep the tourist visa (for now), and simply try to extend it for the standard 30 day increment. This seems to be the easiest and cheapest option, given that the alternatives were either massive payments to private “visa agencies” or an even more expensive trip to Hong Kong.

Well, it appears that now, my options may be about to get even more limited. I’ve heard about this from rumors and even after chatting with one of those agencies again yesterday, but this is the first news story I’ve seen written up about it. For reasons that are, unsurprising for China, opaque, it’s suddenly become extremely difficult for foreigners to get and extend their Chinese visas. It’s been speculated that this is all part of a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment (the other side of the nationalist coin) that has swept the country since the Tibetan protests and especially since the protests of the torch rally. I think the cincher was probably the idiot who successfully grabbed the torch out of the hands of a wheelchair-bound athlete in Paris. The athlete herself was elevated to sainthood in the local press, explicitly identified as an angel. Meanwhile, the idiot, who I doubt represented any of the pro-Tibet protest groups, has come to symbolize not only the Tibet protesters, but even Westerners as such.

Bracing for Games, China Sets Rules That Complicate Life for Foreigners
Published: April 24, 2008

As the story mentions, it’s especially become problematic for the French, who are now being associated with the torch-grabbing idiot to the extent that they are having the most problems with visas now, and are about to have their Wal-Mart-like superstore chain Carrefour boycotted nationwide. Why a boycott? Officially, the people leading the boycott are citing a rumor (which they seem to assume is uncontroversially true) that one of Carrefour’s main investors has donated to the Dalai Lama. There doesn’t appear to be any truth to the rumor, but there it is. It strikes me that the real reason is to punish “the French” – largely because of the idiot, but also because of Sarkozy threatening to boycott the opening ceremony. Allison has speculated the culture is still deeply collectivistic, and that despite a few encouraging signs of individualism popping up here, that the collectivist-style of thinking is still dominant.

So what does this mean for me? Well, it means that I may actually be returning to the United States in the first half of May, instead of the end of July. I may have time to see the other things I wanted to see here, like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but visiting Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Shanghai, the Wollongong Nature Reserve and of course Tibet will be out of the question. And now, I’ve got to replan my entire summer. Still, there is one plus – I’ll get to go Rand Camp after all. But as much as I’d like to go, my fiancee comes first, and I’d rather be here with her.


Not that we’re trying to scare you or anything…

I was already worried that I may have difficulties extending my visa for the full time that I wanted to stay here, knowing that I could probably only count on early June, instead of late July. But now it sounds like foreigners are having visa requests denied left and right. Could this mean that I have to return as early as the second week of May? Even going to Hong Kong for three days, or getting a business visa, may not be enough. Well, anyway, here’s the email that Allison received today from her program, warning Fulbrighters to be careful here in China. Carrefour, by the way, is the closest thing to a Wal-Mart or a supermarket near where I live. Yes, Wal-Mart is here in Beijing, but hell if I know where it is. I shop Carrefour all the time, because it’s only two blocks from my apartment. And here I was thinking this is a great opportunity to shop there even more often…

Dear China Fulbrighters,

As you all probably know, recent events in China and abroad have created a very tense situation with regard to many Chinese citizens’ attitudes toward foreigners – particularly Western Europeans and Americans. A grassroots campaign encouraging a boycott of the French-owned supermarket chain Carrefour is currently underway, and has resulted in dramatic protests outside Carrefour outlets in different cities. A few days ago, an American volunteer teacher was targeted by protestors as he left a Carrefour outlet – here is a link to one of the more thorough stories reporting on this incident:

We wanted to bring this incident to your attention as a reminder that during such tense periods in China it is important to consider all your actions carefully and be sensitive to the possible ramifications of even the most innocent behavior. You cannot predict how people might react to you, so do your best to avoid any situations where a confrontation might develop. For the time being, it is best to avoid places that are or might become the target of grassroots protests. If you encounter such protests or demonstrations in the course of your daily life, get away from them as soon as possible. Do whatever you can to minimize the risk that you might become the target of protestors’ actions.

If you are ever in a situation where you feel your safety is threatened, please contact the Embassy or the nearest Consulate immediately at the following numbers:

· U.S. Embassy Beijing: tel. 86-10-6532-3431

· U.S. Consulate General Chengdu: tel. 86-28-8558-3992

· U.S. Consulate General Guangzhou: tel. 86-20-8518-7605

· U.S. Consulate General Shanghai: tel. 86-21-3217-4650

· U.S. Consulate General Shenyang: tel. 86-24-2322-1198

You may wish to save these numbers to your cell phone address book for easy access, along with the IIE Beijing Office number (listed in my signature below).

Finally, if you have not done so already please take a moment to register with the U.S. Embassy or Consulate closest to you. This can be done on-line, and will ensure that you will be provided with up-to-date information about any emerging security issues in your region of China.

In case of difficulties registering online, please contact the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

You can also access all recent travel advisories and other important notices for China on the Embassy website here (new travel advisories are automatically sent to those who are registered with the Embassy/Consulates):

Take care and let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

Update: I was just in the process of posting this, when I found this update from the Shanghaiist blog. The American may not have been as injured as badly as the original story suggested, but as the Shanghaiist says, it’s probably still worth exercising caution if we encounter angry mobs. I’m still going to go to Carrefour, maybe on May Day, when the biggest protests are planned. If I’m lucky, the boycott will reduce the typically huge lines and over-crowding at Carrefour, and I’ll be able to shop quickly and in peace. But if I see a protest or a mob… well, I’ll just have to use my best judgment.


Chinese Trumpet Creeper-shaped Ornaments for Inlay Mutton-fat Jade, and Other Delights

Despite the fact that they’ve decided not to allow Allison to stay at their place as of the beginning of June, Allison’s host parents offered to take the two of us out to the Capital Museum of Beijing. (For the full story, check her blog.)

Beijing has about as many museums as you might expect the capital city of the world’s most populous nation to have, but Allison and I had yet to visit a single one yet. This one seems to be focused on the history of Beijing itself, at least, up until the end of the Xing Dynasty and beginning of the Republican era in 1912. It used to be in an old Buddhist temple, but it’s now housed in a new exercise of architectural insanity. You might call the building Lovecraftian, as the bulk of exhibits are in a cylindrical tower of non-Euclidean geometry, where spending too much time would drive you insane with its very shape.

But words can only tell so much of the story, so as with the Tiananmen Square visit, I’ve posted all of the photos I took up on Flickr. Much of the Museum allows cameras, so unlike most museums, I have plenty of photos of the visits. Click below, and you’ll see one of the Lovecraftian corridors, a view of the outside with Allison and I posing, statues from a visiting exhibit of indigenous Chilean arts, a faux-bamboo jungle indoors, the “One World, One Dream” exhibit of art gifted to the People’s Republic by foreign embassies, and my personal favorite, “Chinese-trumpet-creeper-shaped Ornament for Inlay Mutton-fat jade.” I knew my trip to China was worth it when I saw that!

Oh, and we were posing almost directly into the sun, so that’s why it may look like Allison and I have weird looks on our faces.


Introducing the Softer Side of Statism

I’ve been working on a political cartoon with Gimp using the Olympic Fuwa. For those who don’t know, the Fuwa (roughly, “Friendlies”) are the official mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, and they are being heavily marketed here in China on all sorts of merchandise. I already purchased a Jing-Jing (the panda) teddy-bear type doll for Allison, who loves these guys. Amazing, really, that a totalitarian regime can come up with such cuteness. Their names, by the way, when put together, read out in Chinese, “Beijing welcomes you.” Have you guys back in the US seen these guys yet? I don’t know if they are marketed only here in China, or worldwide as well. In case the YouTube embed doesn’t work (it hasn’t the last few times I’ve posted here), the direct link is here. Watch the video, and you’ll thereby be introduced to the Fuwa. No knowledge of Chinese is necessary. It’s about 4 minutes or so long.


The Chinese Government Would Like You To Know That On This Spot in 1989, Nothing Happened! 2

As promised, I started up a Flickr account, and you can see all of the photos I took at Tiananmen Square. The mock-up photo of me holding the US Constitution didn’t turn out quite as well as I would’ve liked, but it’s okay. On Wednesday, I believe the plan is to actually go to the National Museum of China, the outside of which you can see in some of these photos. Otherwise, enjoy the pics I’ve taken thus far. Make mine Mao!


The Chinese Government Would Like You To Know That On This Spot In 1989, Nothing Happened!

It took almost exactly three months, but yesterday, three months to the day I departed from Chicago, I finally visited Tienanmen Square. This was in the early afternoon. We were a bit late to do any of the more lengthy tours of the nearby sights, like the Forbidden City, Mao’s Tomb (where a Lenin-like preserved Mao corpse rests – not the official name, but I call it the “Mao-soleum”), several museums and such, so we’ll have to return another day. But at least yesterday, we were able to take in just a walking tour, and that proved fascinating enough in its own right. The YouTube video above shows some of what we saw, and pictures will be coming soon.

One of the first things we noticed was perhaps not so surprising. That is, that the authorities keep Tienanmen swarming with policemen and guards. The story I’ve heard is that they apparently have things organized such that if anyone so much as sneezes in a way that suggests they are going to be protesting there, no matter how large your group, no matter who you are, the cops will have you removed in no more than four minutes, tops. Indeed, Allison and I saw several paddy-wagons kept at odd corners of the Square, and should anything go down, they can be on top of you in a lot sooner than four minutes. The Lonely Planet Guide to Beijing put it well when it characterized the Square as a charming combination of old school Chinese architecture and history with Soviet-style bigness and alienation. The ever-present cops certainly suggest a Soviet-style of doing things. And there are also perhaps some elements of the East German Stasi, in that it seemed pretty obvious to Allison and I that many of the “tourists” there probably secret police in plainclothes, or at least people trained to spot any protesters and to alert the police before anything could start. If that wasn’t good enough, there were video cameras everywhere, and those were just the ones we could see. I don’t know about the Square itself, but I did read that the Forbidden City has a ban on xeroxed documents – perhaps so as to prevent anyone from distributing papers from within its walls?

So, if you didn’t have any doubts before, this certainly wasn’t subtle: China is still very much a police state, ruled by the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years. And they will not tolerate a repeat of 1989 or the various Tibetan or Falun Dafa protests that have popped up since. It certainly gave Allison and I a very different impression than what the Chinese government really wants to give tourists. The police did not inspire a sense of comfort, a sense that we were being protected. Rather, they were there to protect the State, and in particular, the Communist Party – from negative publicity.

Before coming into the Square, there was a police checkpoint of sorts. We weren’t searched or frisked or anything, but other people were. I think they were probably looking more for people carrying signs, or perhaps ethnic Tibetans or Uyghurs. We saw plenty of fellow foreigners, as well as Han Chinese, everywhere in the Square, but certainly no Tibetans or Uyghurs. (Though to be fair, I doubt very seriously that members of either ethnic group would have any desire to go there, even if the police could be expected to treat them fairly.)

Once in the square, we encountered several people trying to sell us products of various kinds. There were a few people selling beverages from the outskirts of the square, in large trailers. But we occasionally had people come up to us to sell us postcards, pirated Fuwa and Olympic merchandise, and believe it or not, cheap copies of the “little red book” printed in both English and Chinese. This is already odd on many levels: capitalism in the middle of a monument to communism and Mao, and even more strange, the pirated Fuwa and Olympic merchandise sold openly in the middle of the square, when the Chinese government has made it an official priority that such goods were the target of a massive crackdown. Intellectual property rights suddenly seem to mean something once it’s the government’s own copyrights at risk. Or so one would think, but I didn’t see any evidence that for all the surveillance in the Square, that these people were being bothered at all.

We spent a total of two or three hours total in and around the Square, just looking around, examining statues, and taking in the sights. Against Allison’s better judgment, when no one appeared to be looking, I pulled out my pocket US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and posed in front of one of the massive group-statues in front of the Mao-soleum, trying to strike a pose similar to those you see in Cultural Revolution propaganda posters, where some heroic looking man or woman holds a copy of the little red book. My reasoning was that this was relatively safe. The cops there don’t really care about western tourists clowning around in a subtle way, and probably wouldn’t know what the book was, or what we were doing. They’re looking for the not-so-subtle protesters. Besides, if they’re worried about bad PR, how would it look if they arrested an American tourist for holding out a copy of the US Constitution? The only thing I regret is that I didn’t think to hold out an utterly non-political book, like the great Robert Hamburger‘s Real Ultimate Power: The Official Guide to Ninjas.

We also tried to pose a picture of me looking back at the giant painting of Mao with a look of incredulousness and disgust. Again, Allison urged me not to look too obvious, so I may not have quite the look that reflecting the true extent of my disdain for a megalomaniac and mass-murderer who is one of only two people who were able to pull off killing more people than Adolf Hitler. Say what you will about the complicated relationship that the Russians have with Stalin. Many Russians show a kind of nostalgia for Stalin, some revere him, and engage in historical revisionism to defend him from real historians who exposed the depths of his crimes. Tragically true enough. But even the Russians don’t put Stalin on their currency, much less all paper currency worth more than 15 cents, and statues of Stalin, even if they do exist, are not common.

As for the protests of 1989, I had a hard time thinking of anything else. I kept thinking of the unknown Tank Man, and the hundreds killed, and the thousands imprisoned. And yet, I can’t help but think that regimes of this nature can’t last forever. Since the death of Mao, and the decision to turn China toward a more pragmatic economic policy, and opening up to the west, China has changed substantially. It still has a long way to go, but it’s already virtually unrecognizable from how it was a mere generation ago. It’s perfectly kosher, for example, to say in public that the Cultural Revolution was a bad idea, so long as you don’t directly lay it on the feet of Mao. You can say he was sort of wrong, or misguided, or given bad advice by colleagues like the Gang of Four, who were later blamed for the “excesses” of the Cultural Revolution. But as long as you aren’t making the tyrannies, both petty and nation-wide, part of a criticism of Mao, you’ll be okay.

So perhaps the most likely outcome for the People’s Republic of China is not an end with a bang, but a whimper – a slow, drawn out, gradual whimper as the police state apparatus becomes more and more unsustainable. As it is, Allison and I share the perception that Something Big is on the way. The Tibetan protests may just be the beginning, and the more I think about it, the more I can’t believe that the Chinese government thought that it would be otherwise. It hasn’t received much press yet, but already the Turkic Uyghurs of Xinjiang are gradually becoming more bold with their protests, after a prominent 38-year-old businessman in Xinjiang was arrested under mysterious circumstances in January, and even more mysteriously, he was returned to his family dead in March, dead, the government claims, of a “heart-attack.” Mass arrests of Uyghur men, to preempt any protests, have had the opposite effect of causing their wives to mount larger protests. Why on earth would all of the dissidents in China pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be seen and heard by an international audience, and force the government to either alienate about half the world by acting in a draconian manner against them, or to allow them to openly criticize the government? In the former case, if they do something too heavy-handed, more boycotts would be organized and implemented. If the Olympics go forward with only the participation of, say, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Iran, the Palestinian territories and Sudan, China would have a black eye that would take ages to live down.

All told, this leaves the Chinese government in the unenviable position of having to strike some kind of balance between pissing off too many other countries, and preventing any public outcry by its dissidents. So even, if, like me, you don’t really care for sports, the next few months ought to be pretty interesting. The Chinese government is learning that it may not have gotten exactly what it bargained for in getting the Olympics, and the true meaning of the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”


How China Gave Me A Taste of Adolescence

One of the places that Allison and I have discovered in Beijing is a neighborhood called Wudaoko. It’s practically expat central, almost as much as Chaoyang District, except that it’s much more focused on people aged 18 to 35. Several businesses there seem to cater specifically to foreigners, and to my great delight, there are several coffee shops that are actually 24 hour establishments with great coffee and western food. Not even Madison or Boston had any places like that. Not since I lived in Austin did I have study spots this nice. The coffee is still overpriced a tad, but just a tad. Many of the blog posts you read here were written and posted at these places, which all also have free wifi.

One of these places is called “Lush.” I don’t know where the name comes from, but I’d be very impressed if it was named for the 90’s British band of the same name, one of my favorite bands of all time. And hopefully not after this international fancy soap retail outlet. My money’s on the former. And this place has something that Allison tells me originates in British pubs – a weekly Pub Quiz. Perfect, I thought, when it was explained to me. This is something Allison and I together would utterly dominate at. A pub quiz involves teams that compete over several rounds of trivia questions for prizes ranging from free bottles of Jack Daniels to “buckets” of 8 bottles of Tsingtao beer.

I gave it a stab last week, with several students here from Uganda and Kenya. We just did okay, but hell, all of us were first-timers. So we agreed to try again the following week with a larger team (we had four members total, but the winning teams had twice that, sometimes more). This week, Allison and some of her friends joined us. And sure enough, this time we kicked ass on questions ranging from geography, music, and movies. Since we didn’t know the name of the guy who played Elizabeth Hurley’s character opposite Dudley Moore in the original 1968 Bedazzled, and didn’t know the make or model of the car in Christine, and since I confused Paraguay with Uruguay, we tied with two other teams for second place. So to disperse places and break the tie, they asked each team to send one person up. My team sent me, thinking that they were going to ask us some questions in a kind of sudden heat. Oh no. It was a competition of a very different sort.

We were each handed a bottle of Tsingtao beer, and told that the placings, and prizes, would be allocated to whichever of us managed to down the entire bottle of beer the fastest. Well, as you may know, I’m not much of a heavy drinker. I’ve never tried to chug a beer before ever. So I gave it the old college try, but alas, the two other guys, who looked like stereotypical college frat guys, easily outdid me. I did pull it off drinking the whole thing, and people seemed to think I did a respectable job, but naturally I came in dead last. Other people in my group noted how last week, when they offered me a tequila shot (a drink I’ve only had once or twice in my life), I actually sort of sipped it and drank it down in two or three gulps. I must not be cut out for heavy drinking or binge drinking, I guess. Goes to show that you can be great at trivia, but you’re only really a master at this kind of thing if you’re good at trivia and you can drink like a fish at the same time.

Allison and I are pretty competitive, so we’ll definitely be back next week. Only next time, if we need someone for a tie-breaker like that, I’ll have to ask whether Allison’s friends or our new teammates if one of them can try the drink chugging portion. For the record, though, I only had about one and a half other beers in addition to that the whole night, so I didn’t quite get drunk. Still, the moment I was finished with the beer on stage, I have to admit something did change – walking wasn’t hard, and I didn’t trip or anything, but it was… different. That’s the best I can describe it. Otherwise, maybe this means that I can now say that I’ve experienced, for the first time, some aspect of an adolescence? Even if only for one night?