Friday, March 28, 2008

Fun with Visas

The local police have taken an interest in our Chongqing sublet of that famed (within China) teaching brand, Aston English.

Last weekend, I was disturbed to notice that Walter, our new Chinese manager, was closeted in the managers' office with about four policemen. Later, I discovered that they were inquiring about any teachers we might have teaching at our school who didn't possess the proper residence permit and work visa. Since I have that documentation for myself, and our new contracted teacher Tony should have his soon, I didn't worry too much about it. Of course, we also had a part-time teacher from New Zealand.

Today I was awoken by Walter who was in a bit of a panic. It seems that this morning the police came back, and they were specifically looking for a Kiwi teacher who didn't have the proper visas/documents.

Now some background on this Kiwi fellow: He's quite nice, excessively gentle. He sometimes likes to proclaim his Christian values, but at other times demonstrates a bit of hypocrisy in that regard. He's forty. He has/had a Chinese fiancee living back in NZ whom he recently dumped for a 20-yr-old spicy girl who doesn't speak a word of English and works in a bar.

I had made an apparently prophetic statement that China would devour this poor fellow alive. China isn't perhaps a wise destination for overly-gentle, passive, foreigners who come here on a whim and a mid-life crisis. Cynical, Machiavellian foreigners who come here on a whim and a mid-life crisis do much better. It also doesn't help that this fellow's ex-fiancee is a Chongqing local with very good connections to the city's government (including, I imagine, the police), businesses, and universities. I can't honestly blame the unfortunate lady.

This particular SNAFU does highlight, though, the difficulties of living here and providing such language services, tourist spending, and foreign investment as the Chinese people have come to expect. The visa situation--which has involved at least a half-dozen of the damnable things gobbling up space in my passport over the past two years--isn't good to begin with, but special visa controls have been put in place for the year of the Beijing Olympics. My friend and sometime roommate, Jon, recently realized this difficulty when he finished his contract and embarked on his planned vacation journey across the length and breadth of China. His journey (more of a sojourn, actually) only took him to Hong Kong, however, after Chongqing's visa service told him that they'd only provide him a visa that lasted as long as his proveable funds (he has to prove he has the ability to spend $100 USD every day he spends in China... ridiculous!). In Hong Kong the news was not much better: the only tourist visas available to him would last a few months at most, and would require him to get the visa reissued each month.

It seems that the PSB (Public Security Bureau, China's version of the KGB) wants to keep tabs on the expected inrush of Olympic foreign visitors, and have instituted the aforementioned visa controls. Boy do I feel glad to be on a work visa/residence permit valid until after the Beijing Olympics are a soot-stained footnote in the annals of history.

In any case, let us send our best wishes out to Jon, the Kiwi, and all the other would-be travelers of China this year. With the troubles in Tibet and possible boycotts whispering on the wind, I expect that we're in for a rough year even if all the t's have been crossed and i's dotted on innumerable visas and proof papers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


>In my posting about the New Year's Ball thrown for foreigners by the CQ government, someone was wondering the name of the new mayor. Here are further details, as told to me by Mr. Felt in a recent email:

" The City leadership has several facets. The mayor, who is much of a ceremonial post. The vice mayor or mayors, who runs the business. The heads of the various commissions as the Investment and Foreign Relations Commission. Then we have the CPC (communist party) office. There is also an independent anti corruption office.

The final power lies with the CPC. The guy who was sent from Beijing and who we know stands very near Wen Jiabao [Wen is China's Premier, sortof like a VP] is Bo Xilai. He has a reputation to be hands on and no nonsense. He is a former minister of commerce and a popular politician. "

So it seems I had the details wrong. The CCP (communist party) would naturally be more powerful than the general mayor. This is China, after all.

>I've been helping some of my students with their applications to study abroad in the US. I forgot to mention this before, but one of those students, a bright young fellow by the name of Wang Lifeng, was accepted to attend the University of Michigan. I'm quite proud! In any case, some of these students are currently working on a project (self-initiated) to study the reasons for failure in foreign-owned businesses in Chongqing. I thought that the same Mr. Felt mentioned above--and in a previous post--would have some interesting analysis to start them on their project. His response:

" Problem one. English teachers. Very summarily, Chongqing is perceived, with certain right, as a very hostile city to foreigners. No services, unpleasant officials, common visa difficulties, expensive to live (relative income) and low standards with little choice. CQ does not attract teachers. Some of Chongqing's bad reputation is unfair and wrong.

There are about 2,000 "English schools", and many examples of schemes by Chinese, most of them not from Chongqing, who have stolen money from students. They take the fees, give one lesson, then disappear with the money leaving the students and teachers behind with nothing.

The rules surrounding the establishment and operation of schools discourage overseas qualified people to come here and starting and investing in education in general and in English schools in particular.

Another reason is the business side.

In Chongqing I often see a real estate developer put up some money for flash premises, a few foreign faces, and a franchising name, and think that will create quick profit. Then pay minimum possible, and treat especially the foreigners in a degrading way. (I have some material I can give out). Unfortunately, the substance is missing. Much more is needed. "

I guess that gels well with my impressions, thus far. Aston hasn't treated me badly, of course, but neither have they offered a highly professional environment in which to work. I'm sure it would be worse with most of the Chinese companies (perhaps barring New Oriental or Owen) present here. And Aston, large company that it is, has still had a very difficult time entering this particular market. A local English training school down the street is partially owned by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) which could account for the hostility of the police who have also come by numerous times--asking for bribes when we put up our billboard advertising, or threatening to cause problems for our accreditation when we changed addresses. I think the main problem, though, is that Chongqing is a very parochial city (despite its massive population) that nonetheless supports sky-high expectations. Thus we have a perfect environment for fly-by-night entrepreneurs and decadent local government.

>That segues perfectly into the next bit, wherein my girlfriend Cherry has been attempting to get her passport. She and her father went down to the bureau responsible for that matter last Friday, and were told that the police usually take Friday afternoon off. What exactly is their excuse for that, I wonder? Are the government employees secretly Hasidic jews or Seventh Day Adventists who need to stock up on basic supplies before sundown and the Sabbath? Or are they avid trophy fishermen preparing for weekend trips to the unpolluted streams of the high mountains?

So she and her father returned yesterday to get the job done. It seems that the 200 rmb process, however, doesn't give them the right to ask questions about the details of the passport. Cherry couldn't even find out the duration of the passport. Whenever her father or her tried to ask questions, the government workers studiously ignored them. Apparently their attitude was that their lofty position makes them a class above the toiling plebs, and so needn't be polite to those less fortunate than themselves. I guess I could have told her that its par for course, but I guess such things are better found out for oneself. So much for Hu Jintao's vaunted 'Harmonious China'.

>It continues to be, that none of my mainland Chinese friends have heard anything about the current situation in Tibet. Both students and friends just meet me with blank stares when I mention it, then assume that I'm referring to the situation there 'in general' and the usual foreign stance on it, rather than a specific situation that is continuing to unfold at this very moment. I guess it doesn't surprise me any longer that an annual 70,000 (at least) riots go unreported in this country. Neither does it surprise me that as a result of the news blackout, most Chinese think that their country is far safer than, say, the US with all its reported shootings. I guess the unfortunate, opportunistic Hui shopkeepers of Lhasa would beg to differ, now.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


I'm closing in on almost two years spent in China. Can tempus really fugit so fast?

And in all that time, probably the majority of my postings about China haven't been terribly upbeat. You know, here among the warts it may seem that the picture I'm painting isn't of an amphibian at all.

Sure, the children are roller-blading down the pedestrian mall, laughing and jeering at each other like kids do. The old grandmas are hanging clothes out to dry on a line strung through the center of the condominium's corridor. Those things certainly don't make the news. But here in China, neither does the imposition of martial law on Tibet. The only reason we're hearing about it at all is that the advent of cellphone cameras and blogging makes it nigh impossible for the police to keep an airtight media lock-down as they've done so many times in the past. But like I said, the upper-middle class children and grannies are having a hell of a good time. Spring is in the air.

I guess the reason why foreigners aren't in the habit of writing more optimistic stories about China could be that good news doesn't sell. Good news doesn't have that wonderful apocalyptic, cliff-hanger quality that news about Chinese environmental and humanitarian conditions often hint at. Good news also isn't too exciting, if it's only good for your competitors. That's what China is shaping up to be, after all, and just as the American economy starts slipping down a slope, we're not too pleased to think that Santa's newest workshop is not only chugging along, but is set to move up the technology/value-added tree to compete in more lucrative industries.

But I often wonder if there really is any good news for China. It may not seem so, but I do look for it. But even as the English-language propaganda channel babbles on about 'robust market' this, and 'Beijing Olympics' that, it seems that every happy story I find here has something of a thin veneer. I think the happiest story that China has to tell, is that many people here can now afford to consume the world into environmental collapse one purchase at a time, just as Americans have been doing for the past hundred years or so. Eventually, China will also become more moderate--progressive, even--in its policies, I've little doubt. That's good news, if it does come true. But at what price? The country is walking a high-wire towards success and power. Considering that twenty floors beneath my feet, seven people were trampled to death by a mob intent on buying discounted cooking oil, I don't think I want to be here to see what happens if China slips off its high-wire.

I guess that's when the real muckraking begins.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Modeling a City

Some of you may recall my enthusiasm for the (fourth version of) famed Simcity simulation. Well, my interest has reached a new level with a project I've just undertaken to model the city of Chongqing. From the simmering spires of Jiefangbei through the industrial jungles of Dadukou to the banyan-lined avenues of Shapingba (the district where I currently reside), the city slowly comes to life like some manner of Brenneisen-stein monster.

This is actually the sort of project I've had in mind to create for the last four years. Ever since I first laid hands on the simulation game, the intricacies of city design have unfolded before my eyes. I could never look at a city the same way again. Cities are an art-form. Collective thousands, millions, even billions of people may have helped to shape the ever-changing, ever-evolving shape of a beast that can encompass both the airy heights and the rotting lower shanks of the human urban existence. The city is an unceasing work that has devoured some of the best minds of so many generations, and spun out world-changing cultural, political, educational, and economic centers. How would the American view his or herself, without Broadway, Wall Street, or the Washington Mall? Likewise, how would today's Chinese view themselves without Shanghai's Pudong District or Beijing's Tiananmen Square?

We create our monstrous wakening urbs through vast, concurrent exercises of need, greed, and whimsy. The results, after layer upon layer of such mixed impulses have been applied upon one another, are phenomenal--capable of creating phenomenon.

So, in Capetown, in NYC, in Seattle, Chicago, and now Chongqing, I have always viewed the metropoli around me with a calculating eye. What exactly is the impact of that shoreline elevated rail that pierces the heart of the city? How are the remote hillside lairs of the wealthy stockbrokers connected to the steel and concrete labyrinth of the CBD where they work? What would be the impact of turning a leafy, suburban enclave into a high-density forest of condos with high-speed monorail and highways to downtown? These questions make my trips into the city more interesting, certainly, but I really do want more concrete answers to the hypotheticals in my head. Plus, there's just the joy of modeling a complex artifact of modern humanity.

The city is alive.