Hong Kong, China. Really?

Way back in 1997 I was the director of a Chinese language program at a major university in Changchun. As the semester was coming to an end, one of the students (they were all Americans) let me know that he needed to go to Hong Kong at the end of June.

This was back in the days before multiple entry visas, so every time we planned to leave the country, we had to obtain exit and re-entry visas before we left. (As you can imagine, this made emergency departures for medical or personal reasons quite challenging!)

The tricky thing in this student’s case was that he was going to Hong Kong the last week of June, and would be returning to Changchun mid-July. During his time in Hong Kong, the city was due to be “handed over” to China after 99 years of British colonial rule.

The fact that Hong Kong was reverting to Chinese sovereignty was a matter of great pride in China, and we had been bombarded with slogans and propaganda about  Hong Kong’s “return to the Motherland” for months and months.  Let’s just say the Communist Party was milking this one for all it was worth!

As for the student, clearly, he was leaving China in June, but would he be ‘returning’ to China in July. If Hong Kong was to become a part of China on July 1, wouldn’t he then already be in China? And if he was, by virtue of the July 1 handover in China, would he need a visa to return to Changchun?

It was a great question, and one that I had no idea how to answer, so off we went to the foreign student office to see what they would have to say about the matter. Since they were the ones who handled visa paperwork, surely they would know.

I handed the passport to Mr. Y. and explained that Mr. G. was going to Hong Kong, so would need an exit visa. “But when he returns in July,” I said, “Hong Kong will be a part of China….so will he need a re-entry visa?”

My question stumped Mr. Y, so he decided to call the local Public Security Bureau, which was in charge of actually issuing visas. The conversation went something like this:

Mr. Y: I have an American in my office who will go to Hong Kong at the end of June, but return to China mid-July. Will he need a re-entry visa?

Mr. Policeman (he was on the other end of the phone, but Mr. G and I could hear him clearly): Of course. Why wouldn’t he need a visa?

Mr. Y: Because by that time Hong Kong will have returned to the Motherland.

We could “hear” silence on the other end of the line as the absurdity of the situation began to dawn on Mr. Policeman. Then he began laughing hysterically, and soon we were all laughing hysterically!

After a few minutes, we regained our composure and waited for Mr. Policeman’s response.

Mr. Policeman: That’s true, but he will still need a visa to return.

And so it is — Hong Kong is a part of China, but it isn’t. Flying from Beijing to Hong Kong is considered an international flight, and thus requires a passport — even for Chinese. And a foreigner wanting to travel from Hong Kong to China must get a visa. But remember, it’s a part of China.

Are you confused? Never fear; this short video explains it all!

(If you receive this post by email, and cannot view the video clip. please click here.)

And now you know why “Is Hong Kong a part of China?” is a tricky question. 

China Divided in Half

It is often said that there are two China’s — urban China and rural China. But according to this map, recently published on Tea Leaf Nation, China can be split in half according to GDP distribution. Here’s the description:

Foreign Policy compiled GDP figures reported by municipalities across China and found that 35 cities contributed just under half of China’s GDP in 2013.

The map (below) merits two caveats. First, the definition of a “city” in the PRC includes all counties, county-level cities, and city districts it governs. (Chongqing, for example, is a megacity in southwest China with a population of just under 30 million that covers 31,814 square miles, netting in smaller towns that lie far away from the bustling, recognizably urban center.) Second, multiple regions will sometimes take credit for the same dollar of GDP, such that the sum of reported numbers exceeds the top-line national statistic. Nonetheless, the below map provides a revealing look at just how much China’s GDP growth machine depends on a few regions:


 There you have it — the two China’s! Wow!



Jesus and Mao on China’s Internet

On April 7, the online magazine Tea Leaf Nation (one of my favorites) published an article titled Infographic: Jesus More Popular Than Mao on China’s Twitter.

The writer set out to determine the prevalence of religious content vs. political content on Weibo and discovered (much to her surprise, it seems) that “the atheist Chinese Communist Party, known for its sometimes heavy-handed policies towards religions, from Islam to Christianity to Tibetan Buddhism, seems far more willing to allow Christian terminology to appear on Weibo than Communist argot, according to data taken from search results on the platform conducted April 3.”

She did a search for “Bible” and “Quotations of Chairman Mao,” and discovered 17 million recent mentions of “Bible” and only 60,000 mentions of Quotations of Chairman Mao.”

A search for “Xi Jinping” (China’s President and General Secretary of the Communist Party) yielded 4 million mentions, while a search for “Jesus” yielded more than 18 million mentions.

She found 41.8 million mentions of “Christian Congregation,” while “Communist Party” only turned up 5.3 million mentions.

In other words, the words “Bible,” “Jesus,” or “Christian” are NOT considered to be sensitive words on Weibo. This is something that I wrote about on this site last year in an article for ChinaSource titled China’s Online Christian Community.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the Tea Leaf Nation article veers off course a bit when the writer highlights the results of her search for the term “underground church:”

“That’s not to say that Christian content is free of censorship. A search for the term “underground church,” referring to Christian congregations in China that refuse to register as one of the state-sanctioned churches, produces a blank search page with a notice reading, “results cannot be displayed due to relevant laws and regulations.””

The implication is clearly that these un-registered churches are outside the bounds on Weibo (and by extension, the Internet in general), and therefore fall into the ‘not permitted’ category.

Here’s the problem:  people in China generally do not use the term “underground church” (地下教会) to refer to congregations that are not registered as state-sanctioned churches. That’s a term used almost exclusively by foreigners. The common term for these unregistered churches is “house church” (家庭教会). This is true even if the church meets in a venue other than a house, such as rented office space.

If she had used the term “house church” instead, she would have discovered thousands, if not millions of mentions, something that would have actually bolstered her findings.

That mistake notwithstanding, her conclusion is spot on:

“Chatter about religion may make the Chinese government queasy, and occasionally terrified, but it’s politics that keeps its leaders (and censors) awake at night.”

Note: This post first appeared on the ChinaSource Blog.


Laughing is Happiness

So says the darling little boy in this video:

(if you receive this post by email, click here to watch the video)

It is a clip from a popular TV show in China called “Amazing Chinese.” Obviously it’s along the lines of America’s Got Talent, or other such shows. As in the west, this genre has become quit a hit in China.

When Little Zhang talks about dancing with his mom in the plaza everyday, he is referring to the spontaneous (and sometimes loosely organized) dancing events that spring up in city plazas and parks in China. It’s mostly grannies who are out dancing (one of the judges makes reference to them), but anyone can join in the fun.

It’s one of my favorite things about Chinese society, and I have often thought that if we spent more time dancing with our neighbors, we’d probably have a less violent society.


Ode to St. Albert’s Fish Fry

Last night, a bunch of us trudged through the newly fallen snow to partake in a great Minnesota tradition, the Friday Night Fish Fry. Sponsored every year by local Catholic churches, clubs, and bars, they are the community event of choice during the Lenten Season.

For the past few years, my family and friends have gathered at a VFW post in St. Paul, but this year we decided to branch out and try one of the dinners hosted at a Catholic Church.

An online search led us to a Mpls. St. Paul Magazine article which proclaimed that St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Minneapolis serves the best fish dinner in town: 

St. Albert the Great is the big dog, feeding a ton of tilapia to some 800 people on Friday nights without breaking a sweat (two lines, people). Plus classic bingo twice nightly, cash raffles, and real homemade church-lady desserts. Extra parking one block to the north with a looping shuttle.

With a recommendation like that, who could resist? The fish, mashed potatoes, spaghetti, coleslaw, and yummy homemade desserts did NOT disappoint, and everyone was so friendly. A good time was had by all. 

St. Alberts Fish Dinner

In honor of the occasion, my brother-in-law set the evening to verse:

Ode to St. Albert’s Fish Fry, by Jeff W.


A few said, “We’ve had enough, that’s all!

Not another visit to South St. Paul!”

From the city of sin they heard the call,

Should we try St. Albert?


At the VFW the fish was fine,

And sure you could order both beer and wine,

“The macaroni is awful” was a common whine,

And tipped the scale toward St. Albert.


The new place was rated on a pescatarian blog,

Endorsed by Clifford the Big Red Dog,

The dear Saint’s statue cradles a frog,

On the corner near St. Albert.


A German theologian honored by Rome,

An odd combination under St. Peter’s dome,

They all should have returned to their Orthodox home,

Not that stubborn Kraut St. Albert.


Within the walls of the church was a smoking ban,

The fish isn‘t smoked, it is cooked in a pan,

They even locked the pipe smoking Prince in the can!

Such is the way of St. Albert.


Fish baked or fried, spaghetti too,

Leave room for dessert when the main course is through,

You may want a chocolate chip cookie or two,

Sweets for the sweet at St. Albert.


Dress is casual, you can wear jeans,

All types of folks, oldsters and teens,

They pack ‘em all in like a bunch of sardines,

Ten bucks per plate at St. Albert.


A whole bunch of friends and a table of food,

Piano music playing to set the mood,

They even serve Baptists, they don’t exclude,

Thanks be to God, and St. Albert.

Related Post: Friday Fish Fry

Taking in the Mountain Air


This is definitely my favorite story out of China this week — residents of Zhengzhou (my original China ‘home town’) lined up to take shots of O2 from bags filled with mountain air (from the Wall Street Journal):

“Proving that China’s fight against pollution has moved decisively into the realm of parody, bags containing mountain air were shipped into one particularly smog-addled city over the weekend.

Residents from the elderly to young children lined up for a chance at the bags. Reuters

No, it wasn’t a scene from Spaceballs. According to the organizer, a Henan-based travel company, 20 bright blue bags of air were shipped to Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan province, as a special treat for residents. The air originated from Laojun Mountain, some 120 miles away from the city, and was brought as part of a promotional gimmick to show oxygen-deprived city residents what they’re missing.”

To be honest it’s hard for me to take all this newfound concern about pollution too seriously, given the fact that 70% of Chinese males smoke!

In fact, while I was in Beijing last month, I was chatting with our bus driver as we waited for the students to board. The driver was surprised to learn that I had been in China for so many  years, and commented on the changes I must have seen in the city. Inevitably the topic of pollution came up.

Cigarette in hand, he launched into a rant about the terrible smog and how it was killing the quality of life in the city and that the government really needed to work harder to solve the problem.

“But you’re smoking,” I said. “How can you complain about the smog while puffing away on a cigarette??”

He just threw his head back and laughed.


Related Posts:

No Smoking Room, Please!

No Smoking!

What are the Chinese Characters on that Sign?


Photo source: Wall Street Journal

Curling in Beijing


I’m back in Minnesota now after a great three weeks in China, but a part of me wishes I were still in Beijing for this weekend’s World Curling Championships!

The Wall Street Journal Reports:

“China is warming up for its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics with an event of almost equal stature: the World Men’s Curling Championship, which kicks off in Beijing on Saturday.


The home team will have high hopes after placing fourth at the Winter Olypmics in Sochi, emerging from nowhere as a heavyweight contender with the help of Canadian coach Marcel Rocque, a former champion curler himself.


‘China has an outside chance,’ said Bob Weeks, author of ‘Curling For Dummies.’ ‘A few years ago they were very good technically, but they didn’t have the strategy. Now they’ve got that down.’”

I’ve written before of my strange fascination with the sport of Curling, and how I missed watching the wall-to-wall coverage of the Chinese Curling teams during the Olympics last month. And now I’m missing the chance to see it LIVE.

This is especially disappointing because the venue is just walking distance from where I used to live and a bunch of my friends will be going!

I’d consider taking up the sport myself if it weren’t for these pesky screws in my knees!

Photo: AP, via Wall Wall Street Journal

Are Most Chinese Really Atheists?


It’s an interesting question, and, as the saying goes, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘Atheist’ is.”

Earlier this month Pew released the results of survey that tried to determine people’s beliefs about the relationship between believing in God and morality. According to their results, 75% of respondents in China said that it is “not necessary to believe in God to be moral,” and 14% said that it is “necessary to believe in God to be moral.”

In a state controlled by the Communist Party, and in which Atheism is officially taught in the schools, this result may not seem surprising.

However, Ian Johnson, writing in the New York Review of Books, takes a closer look at these results and makes some very interesting and helpful observations. First of all, he observes that these results seem at odd with the growing interest in religion among Chinese people:

“Pew doesn’t explain its findings, but they struck me as extremely odd. If there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing desire among many Chinese to find some sort of moral foundation in their lives, whether by reengaging with age-old Chinese ethical traditions, or by taking part in organized religions. In view of this widely-documented situation, how can so few Chinese believe in the link between morality and a supreme being or force?”

He notes that the 20th century did see a decline in religious belief in China (particularly in the early years of the PRC), but then wonders if that decline still exists:

“Have sixty-five years of Communist rule wiped out religion, or reduced it to such a minor role that the Chinese have done a complete about-face? This is easier to rebut; any casual visitor to China can’t help but be struck by how many new churches, temples, and mosques are being built.”

Johnson then goes on to suggest that the problem lies in the terminology for God that was used in the survey:

“According to Pew’s English-language report, the actual survey asked people to say which of the following statements came closest to their own opinion: “It is not necessary to believe in God to in order to be moral and have good values” or “It is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.” I was immediately struck by the use of the word “God” in the survey statements, capitalized as it is in the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim tradition. Was the question referring solely to the god of these faiths? But I couldn’t imagine that Pew would ask such a narrow question—after all, the study doesn’t describe itself as asking whether belief in an Abrahamic being is necessary to morality, but rather asking whether belief in any supreme being is.”

He wrote to Pew and Horizon (the company in China that did the actual survey) and discovered that he was correct; they had used the Chinese term for the God depicted in the Bible, as opposed to a more generic term for a divine being that most Chinese would be familiar with. He explains:

“I don’t know how the question was translated for other countries (especially Japan or India), but in Chinese, the question used a term for “God” that is applicable in modern China almost only to Protestant Christianity: shangdi (上帝).

In Chinese, the questions were: “不信仰上帝,也能有良好的道德和价值” and “为了有良好的道德和价值观,信仰上帝是必要的.” I would translate these questions back into English as “Even without believing in (the Protestant) God, one can still have good virtues or values” and “In order to have good virtues and values, one must believe in (the Protestant) God.”

Shangdi has a pre-Christian meaning—referring to a supreme deity—but it was appropriated by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century and since then has come to be synonymous with the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions, especially Protestant Christianity. (Catholics eventually changed their nomenclature for God to “tianzhu”; see the Rites Controversy of the early eighteenth century, the dispute among Catholics about how far to incorporate indigenous traditions into Catholic practice.)”

He then explains why the use of the term Shangdi yielded results that are probably not in line with what people in China really believe:

“This is correct in the sense that shangdi is an accurate translation of “God” in the Protestant tradition, but it excludes the religious experience of the vast majority of Chinese, who do believe in higher spiritual forces—and very often link belief in such forces to morality. An alternative way of phrasing this question is found in the 2007 book Religious Experience in Contemporary China by Yao Xinzhong and Paul Badham. It is based on a study of 3,196 people, who completed a twenty-four-page survey. The authors found that 77 percent believed in moral causality—there is a long folk tradition of Baoying (报应) which holds that you reap what you sow, that consequences for moral failure are a form or divine retribution—and 44 percent agree that, “life and death depends on the will of heaven.”

How did Yao and Badham end up with results so different from the Pew survey’s? The crucial difference was that they were framed in a much broader way. One term the authors used was “heaven,” or tian (天), which literally means “sky” or “heaven” but also the idea of a supreme deity or force. It also included fo (佛) or “Buddha.” This is why their findings directly contradicted the Pew poll, which uses an Abrahamic paradigm to survey cultures with completely different religious traditions.”

In other words, if you are trying to determine beliefs about a divine being among the Chinese people, it is important to use the correct term.

Are most Chinese Atheists? Perhaps, but maybe it’s best to say “Atheism with Chinese characteristics.” I remember teaching on a university campus in China and being surprised that most of my students admitted to being afraid of ghosts. As one of them suggested to me, “we are Atheists during the day, but when the lights go out it’s a different story.”