Road Trip Dreaming: Minnesota to Beijing

As I have written on this blog before, I love a good road trip. I have road-tripped my way around the US and Canada, Europe, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and taken a few trips around China.

One dream I have always had is driving from Minnesota to Beijing (I’m getting sick of that flight).


So you can imagine my excitement when I read on a site called (yes, such a site exists) that the president of Russian Railways has proposed building a superhighway that would link New York and London, and run right through the Twin Cities.

The proposed route doesn’t actually enter China, but I’m sure that there will be a junction with a highway heading south.

I wonder if it’s too early to start packing the car….

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Image Credit:

10 Things to Know About the 10-Year China Visa

Since writing with joy about obtaining a 10-year tourist visa to China last November, I’ve fielded a steady stream of question from friends (and strangers) about the new visa and how to get it. So I decided to put a post together about some things you need to know about the visa. They are in no particular order.



1. It’s real. I admit that when it was announced that China would be issuing a 10-year tourist visa last fall, I was skeptical. But I applied for it and got it, so I know first hand that it is real.

2. This new validity period is the result of a bilateral agreement between the United States and China that was announced in November and designed to encourage more travel between the nations. Visa requirements for Chinese tourists and students coming to the US have been relaxed as well.

3. In section 2.1 of the application form, check “tourist.” (see an application example here)

4. In section 2.2 of the application form, check “other.”

5. This 10 year visa seems to be the new standard issue visa; however, the embassy/consulate reserves the right to issue it at their discretion.

6. You need to submit evidence of a booked flight itinerary. This can be a ticket or evidence of a booked, but not necessarily purchased reservation.

7. You need to submit evidence of confirmed lodging. You can book a hotel online, and cancel it later, if need be.

8. The visa is multiple-entry; this means that in the 10 years of its validity you can enter/exit China as many times as you want, staying up to 60 days at a time.

9. It is valid for 10 years even if your passport expires, SO LONG AS you retain possession of your expired passport and have it with you upon entry into China.

10. The cost is the same as the 1-year tourist visa, which means its ten times cheaper!

I used the good folks at Allied Passport in Washington, D.C. to obtain my visa. They were great to work with and I had my passport in hand in less then one week. You can visit their site for a detailed explanation of the requirements to obtain this visa, as well as a sample application form.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I have signed on to their affiliate program. When you apply for a visa through Allied, you can write my name (or the name of this blog) on your order form to get a $5.00 discount. In addition, I’ll get a referral fee.

The way I see it, everybody wins!

Image credit: Coming Up, by ronx ronquillo, via Flickr

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The Power of a Tweet

In a follow up to yesterday’s post about the disappearing pollution documentary in China, it’s interesting to note that it was a US Embassy Twitter feed that jump-started the conversation and concern about the growing problem of air pollution in China.

cctv in smog


A recent article in Wired tells the story in a post titled How the US Embassy Tweeted to Clear Beijing’s Air. Here’s a short excerpt:

WHEN THE US Embassy in Beijing started tweeting data from an air-quality monitor, no one could have anticipated its far-reaching consequences: It triggered profound change in China’s environmental policy, advanced air-quality science in some of the world’s most polluted cities, and prompted similar efforts in neighboring countries.

As the former Regional Strategic Advisor for USAID-Asia, I have seen first-hand that doing international development is incredibly difficult. Billions of dollars are spent annually with at best mixed results and, even with the best intentions, the money often fails to move the needle. That is why I was so inspired by the story of the US embassy’s low-cost, high-impact development project. They tapped into the transformative power of democratized data, and without even intending to, managed to achieve actual change.

Here’s how it happened.

In 2008, everyone knew Beijing was polluted, but we didn’t know how much. That year, the US Embassy in Beijing installed a rooftop air-quality monitor that cost the team about as much as a nice car. The device began automatically tweeting out data every hour to inform US citizens of the pollution’s severity (@beijingair).

For the first time in China, publicly available data focused on one of the most dangerous types of air pollutants, PM2.5—airborne fine particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter or about the thickness of a spider web’s thread. These tiny particles are small enough to penetrate your lungs and even enter your blood stream, causing serious cardiovascular and respiratory ailments. In fact, experts have recently shown that air pollution is responsible for more deaths worldwide annually than malaria and HIV combined.

In 2010, it became official: Beijing’s air quality was deemed “crazy bad” by the Embassy when the pollution exceeded the bounds of the EPA’s air quality index. This inadvertently undiplomatic tweet reached a growing audience via third-party apps that circumvented China’s twitter firewall. People were attracted by the reliability of the Embassy’s data, which helped them make daily decisions—whether it was safe to let their children play outside, for example.

This data often painted a bleaker picture than did the Chinese official pronouncements. Beijing residents, dissatisfied with the crudeness of China’s air quality monitoring efforts, put pressure on Chinese officials to acknowledge the scale of the problem and start taking proactive measures to tackle it.

I was living in Beijing at the time and followed this Twitter feed right away (although there were many days I wished I hadn’t). We knew the smog was bad (we could see it and taste it), but now we knew just how bad!

I remember the day a tweet declared the pollution in Beijing to be “crazy bad,” and the subsequent temper tantrum thrown by the Chinese government. As the article notes, they demanded the embassy stop monitoring and publishing the air quality measurements, to no avail. They even threatened to do monitor and publish information on the air quality in Washington in retaliation, to which the embassy responded, in effect, “go ahead, make my day.”

With the publication of this data, the jig was up for the Chinese government. No longer could they tell the people that the murky air was just fog.

It wasn’t long after all this that Twitter was blocked in China.


Friday Photo: Reading the Bible

In March of 2012, I travelled with Noel Piper in Sichuan province on a research trip. On the second Sunday of our journey, we found ourselves in the Protestant Church in Huili, Sichuan. Even though the church is in the heart of a city, most of the parishioners were peasants from the countryside, many of them elderly. During the service I spotted this woman intently reading her Bible. I couldn’t pass up the shot.


Reading the Bible

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A Ten-Year Visa!

This afternoon the good folks at FEDEX delivered a small package to my house, and it wasn’t even a Christmas present. In fact, it was something better — my passport, with a brand-spanking-new TEN-YEAR, MULTIPLE ENTRY TOURIST VISA to China.


I first got wind of this new visa from a report in the Wall Street Journal back on November 11, 2014. It came during President Obama’s trip to China:

President Barack Obama unveiled the new visa arrangements in a speech to business executives in Beijing. According to both governments, the length of tourist and business visas would be extended for each country’s citizens to 10 years from the current one-year limit. Student visas would be extended from one year to five years.

I must admit that my first reaction was skepticism; it just sounded too good to be true. But since I have a trip to China planned for the end of January, and the visa in my passport was set to expire the day BEFORE my departure, I figured I was going to find out.

In the three decades that I lived in China, I saw numerous iterations of visa requirements. When I first went as a teacher in 1984, we only got work visas for one semester at a time. I guess the thought of having a foreigner in the country for a year at a time was just too overwhelming. And, for extra fun (and red tape) we had to get exit visas in order to leave the country. The government gave us permission to be there, but they also granted (hopefully) permission to leave. This was especially harrowing if there was a family or medical emergency that required a swift departure from the country. I can remember more than one late night call to the local police asking for permission for a colleague or a teammate to leave the country. These ended sometime in the 1990’s.

Tourist visas have never had a validity of more than one year, and only in the past 5 or 6 years have multiple-entry visas become standard issue.

And now, suddenly, it’s ten years!

As I do my happy dance, I am also chuckling at the turn of events — I lived in China for nearly 3 decades on 1 year visas. Now that I no longer live in China, I have a 10 year visa!

Now, some of you may be thinking, “hey, how do I get one of those?”

Well, the easy answer is….just apply. It seems that the 10 year tourist visa is now the standard issue visa.

One thing I discovered in the process is that even though US residents are instructed to apply at the Chinese consulate that serves their region, the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC can issue visas to applicants from anywhere.

I used the Washington-based passport/visa service called Allied Passport, and I’d definitely recommend them. I called in advance to ask if these visas were real and they told me they were. I sent my passport off, and had it back within a week.

Here is the Q&A about this visa on their site:

Do I qualify for a China 10 year visa?
Answer: You must hold a USA passport and apply as a tourist or business person. Your passport must not expire within 12 months and you must have at least two blank visa pages. If you do receive a 10 year visa it will allow for you to stay in China for up to 60 days per visit.

There isn’t a 10 year visa option on the application form, how should I apply?
Answer: In section 2.2, please mark “other”. The Chinese Visa Office in Washington issues validity at their discretion. Obtaining a ten year visa is likely, but is not guaranteed. If you qualify for this visa they will automatically issue you a ten year visa no matter which box you check.

I want a 10 year China visa but don’t have a trip planned. I see an itinerary is required, what is this about?
Answer: The Chinese Embassy still requires a flight itinerary with your application. However, the itinerary does not have to be a confirmed or purchased ticket. What you can do is go online and hold a flight reservation, or simply go on a booking website such as Expedia or an airline’s website and make a tenative flight itinerary. The printout must include:

A) The applicant’s first and last name.
B) Specific dates and the Chinese cities you’ll be flying in and out of.

As of now the dates of your itinerary must be within 90 days of your initial depature and you cannot be in China for for than 60 days at a time.

In my case, I was able to submit an airline ticket and a hotel reservation. The company told me that it was better to have a hotel reservation as opposed to a letter of invitation from a friend. Their rationale was that an invitation letter to visit a friend might incline them to issue a different kind of visa. I just made a hotel booking through (one that can be cancelled, of course).

Be sure to check TOURISM in Section 2.1, even if you are going to visit someone.

Finally, what if your passport expires within the then years of the visa validity? Here is the note that was stapled into my passport:


In other words, the visa does not expire with the passport!


East and West and Hong Kong

Like many others, my journey to being a Sinophile began in Hong Kong. In the summer of 1979 I spent 3 months in the city on an internship, teaching English and working in the office of the Chinese Church Research Center. When not working, I explored the city, taking random bus lines to the far-flung parts of town. In the course of the summer, I fell in love with the city. I remember seeing a t-shirt in a tourist shop that I thought captured the essence of Hong Kong. It said “There’s east and west; and then there’s Hong Kong.”


During the years I lived in China, I returned often to Hong Kong — for meetings, conferences, and to visit friends. I have the fun things I like to see and do when I’m in town: a trip across the harbor on the Star Ferry; ride Bus #6 from Central to Stanley Market (it’s better than a roller coaster); eat fried rice or fried noodles in one of the seemingly millions of mom & pop noodle shops; stroll the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Because of my love for Hong Kong (and my love for China), I am watching with great interest and unease the situation unfolding in Hong Kong this week. It’s hard to explain what is going on in three sentences, but let me try. As part of the “One Country, Two Systems” formula agreed upon by China and Britain, the Chinese government promised direct elections in 2017. Recently they announced that the candidates would be chosen by Beijing. This did not sit well with Hong Kong citizens.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that, and there are issues of economics and national identity at play as well. Fortunately there is excellent reporting coming out of Hong Kong that delves into these complexities. If you’re interested in some good reading on what is going on and what it might (or might not) mean for the future, I recommend the following articles to get you started:

Fate of Hong Kong Rests in Xi Jinping’s Hands (September 29, 2014, Toronto Globe and Mail)

What happens in Hong Kong over the coming days will tell us a lot about where China is heading in the era of Xi Jinping. A negotiated solution that appeases some or all of the protesters would suggest China finally has the kind of leader that the Communist Party’s undemocratic “meritocracy” was supposed to produce. The sidelining of Mr. Xi’s enemies – and his own genuine personal popularity among ordinary Chinese – gives him the power to surprise everyone in how he handles the Occupy Central movement.

A crackdown, particularly one that involves use of the People’s Liberation Army, would tell us China is in for another dark decade of stifling repression.

The Day that China Came to Hong Kong (September 29, 2014, China File)

Beijing has no good choices. The resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, one of the protestors’ many demands, is no longer unthinkable; the Special Administrative Region’s first Chief Executive, shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, stepped down in 2004 after massive protests. But Leung’s resignation would not solve the governance problem that entombs Hong Kong, that of a wealthy, well-educated city without an accountable government. If Beijing acts true to form, and in line with what we have seen to date from Xi Jinping, sustained protests could see Beijing order the Hong Kong government to end the protests, whatever that takes. On Sunday night, the government was forced to put out a statement denying that PLA troops, who are stationed in the city, were moving tanks in for action.

Hong Kong is different now.

Hong Kong People (September 29, 2014, The New York Times)

This past Sunday — when the phalanxes of riot police moved aggressively to clear the streets of peaceful protesters — Hong Kong became just another Chinese city. It was the moment when the “one country, two systems” formula Hong Kong was promised on its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was finally laid bare as unworkable.” […] But even as the protests continue to swell, Beijing seems to hold all the cards. Yet even if it succeeds in tamping down the anger in Hong Kong — which is unlikely — its gains can be fleeting at best.The moment that Hong Kong citizens have been dreading for 17 years has finally arrived. 

The slogan I saw on that t-shirt 35 years ago seems even more true today.

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Stealing Tea and Saving Face

On our 5200-mile road trip last month, I listened to the audio version of the book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.


For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

Here is the Amazon description of the book:

In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish Botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to the British plantations in India. Fortune’s danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.

The book is a treasure trove of historical information about China in the mid-1800s, as well as all things related to tea. Occasionally, there are cultural gems to be mined. In chapter 5 Rose describes an incident that took place in Hangzhou between Fortune and his servant, Want. Having failed to follow Fortune’s instructions, they find themselves in the city of Hangzhou, where if it is discovered that Fortune is a foreigner and not a Chinese official (he was disguised as one), he could be killed. So he gives the servant a public scolding. In the course of describing this incident, Rose (perhaps inadvertently) gives one of the best descriptions of the Chinese notion of “face” that I have found anywhere!

But Fortune’s recriminations had little effect, for a master’s scolding his servants publicly only served to build their self-esteem, or “face,” as even a reproach was a tacit declaration that the servant was important enough to merit the notice of a wealthy mandarin. In China “face,” or mianxi [sic] was a concept that a Westerner like Fortune did not instinctively understand, describing as it does the prestige and reputation one gains from every human interaction. Relationships in China were defined by the reciprocal obligations between people, whether of the same or a different status, and every individual existed within a network of influence, a matrix of duties and social connections, or guanxi.

The family came first, then the extended social neighborhood. “Face” expressed a person’s position within his or her network and was the mechanism by which the Chinese assessed their obligations: which orders to obey, which favors to grant, and which supplications and apologies to make. A son might perform humble acts for his father, or an employee might bow before his master or a student before his teacher, but in turn the father would have a set of defined responsibilities to the child, the master to the slave, and the teacher to the student.

However subtly they were expressed, mianzi and guanxi were inescapable facts of life in China; then as now they forged the social fabric of the nation. Social connections determined the measure of justice received and discrimination suffered. While no Chinese person was free from these relationships, many peasants had very little face and therefore little access to justice, wealth, or freedom. When social obligations were met, someone gained face and an increase in status; when a person failed those to whom he was socially connected and thereby obligated, he suffered loss of face (diumian) and a downturn in his social standing. When Wang was shouted at by Fortune for failing to follow orders, it demonstrated to the world that he had responsibilities to an important man. Wang lost face with Fortune, while simultaneously gaining it in the wider neighborhood of Hangzhou.

Face was a very Confucian concept. The great philosopher, whose ideas gained influence during the Han Dynasty, 206 BC-AD 220, described a world where familial connections and obligations to ancestors were the highest good and the greatest aim of an individual. A single person was nothing if he did not bring honor to the world from which he came.

A foreigner in China had no network of relationships of prescribed duties and no social capital, and therefore lacked any obvious signifiers of face. Many foreigners handled their outsider status adroitly. They engaged in relationships with the Chinese immediately, offering gifts and favors to officials and higher-ups; they recognized that a servant did not just serve but was owed things other than monetary reward, such as honor and respect. Fortune, however, seems to have paid little attention to the finer points of Chinese social interaction. He treated the Chinese as he would any employee: demanding excellence, refusing to hear excuses, and chastising failure. Wang and Fortune would travel together on and off for years, and the servant valiantly tried to negotiate the workings of guanxi on his master’s behalf. Wang effectively created Fortune’s identity as a mandarin by forging a fictitious network of prestigious connections for him, elevating his master’s face (and, not incidentally, elevating his own status by association). He also bribed and negotiated on Fortune’s behalf, not just for favors, but for face. (p.69-71)

“Note to self,” I thought, as I listened to this passage while driving across the deserts of eastern Oregon, “find a print version of this book and post the passage on my blog.”


Finding Samuel Lowe

On September 2, the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report blog posted an article about a Jamaican-Chinese woman’s search for her roots.


Growing up in New York’s Harlem, Paula Williams Madison knew she had a Chinese grandfather, even though she had never met him.

When people found out, she says, most of them would make comments such as “Really? You don’t look Chinese.” Others would laugh. Even so, she always intended to track down her mother’s father and learn the full story of her multi-ethnic Jamaican-Chinese family.

By the time she found them, her tiny American family had expanded to about 400 living members and a family tree that goes back 3,000 years. A new documentary tells the story of that journey and the discovery of a family that today extends from Shenzhen, China, to Kingston, Jamaica, and Los Angeles, California.

Ms. Madison, 62, spent much of her career at NBC, and retired a few years ago as an executive at NBC Universal, one of the first black women to achieve that rank. She says she waited until retiring to pursue her dream of reconnecting with her Chinese family.

Before, “I did know a handful of my cousins,” she says. “Now there are about 40.”

The story is told in a film titled “Finding Samuel Lowe.” Below is the trailer for the film. (Click here if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video clip.)

What a fantastic story!

To learn more about the film and it’s upcoming premiere, visit