Do Ya Think?

The China Daily had an article today about the Tourism Bureau's announcement that the number of foreign tourists coming to Beijing in April and May dropped by more than 5% compared to last year. Here's the money quote:

Beijing saw a marked drop in the
number of overseas tourists in April, which fell by 5.3 percent
year-on-year, according to official statistics revealed on Tuesday. Yu Xiuqin, the bureau's spokeswoman
attributed the decrease partly to Beijing's tightened business visa
approvals on foreign visitors for international exhibitions and
conferences, because of safety concerns for the coming Olympic Games. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin
Gang said on May 6 that the tightened visa approval ahead of the Games
was in line with international practices, and came from the need to
guarantee security in the national capital in the run-up for the event.

Talk about stating the obvious.  Even tourist visas, which China has been giving out like candy for the past dozen or so years are now difficult to get, and the list of documentation required to obtain them now reminds me of what it was like to get a tourist visa to come here in 1984.  In fact, there seem to be numerous ways in which China is reverting to 1984 these days, but I'll save that for another post!

Let me get this straight.  The biggest world event is being held here this summer, and they are making it hard for the world to come. I imagine a room
somewhere in the foreign ministry where the visa regulation working group sits.  They
all have revolvers in each hand, and they are shooting away at their feet saying
"this should work out just fine."

China welcomes the world… 2009!

A Nation Mourns

The Chinese government today declared 3 days of national mourning for the victims of last week’s earthquake.  The official death toll has now passed 30,000 and is expected to reach at least 50,000.  Hundreds of thousands are injured.  Five million are homeless.  The observance began today with nearly a billion people stopping at 2:28pm to observe 3 minutes of silence.  Sirens blared.  Drivers stopped their cars and blared their horns.  Everywhere people bowed their heads in honor and remembrance. I decided that the place I wanted to be at 2:28 was Tiananmen Square, the closest thing that an atheist state has to a sacred space.  There were thousands who had the same idea.  At about 2:20, the loudspeakers started directing people to face the flag, which is now flying at half-mast (something I’ve never seen in my 20+ years in China) and prepare for the moment of silence.  At exactly 2:28pm the sirens went off, and the thousands of cars and buses on ChangAn Avenue came to a halt and started blaring their horns.  It was both moving and eerie.  I bowed my head and said a prayer for mercy and comfort for the afflicted.  When the 3 minute observance was finished, people just stood around wondering what to do next.  Wanting to demonstrate their solidarity with the victims, some students in the crowd started chanting ZHONGGUO JIAYOU (China! Go!).  The crowds joined them and soon there were thousands marching around the square, waving flags and chanting.  The folks in uniforms were definitely nervous, but did nothing to stop this spontaneous outpouring of patriotism.  Below are some photos that I took at the square today.


Earthquake Relief

By now you’ve all heard about the terrible earthquake in Sichuan province on Monday.  It was so strong that it was felt all over the country, even in Beijing.  I was out of the country on Monday so I did not feel it.  I’m glad, in that I’m quite terrified of earthquakes!  The stories and the pictures and the statistics pouring in on an hourly basis are really too much to comprehend. The scale of the lives and livelihood lost is staggering.  If you would like to donate to disaster relief in the area, here are some recommended agencies:

Operation Blessing

World Vision

Heart to Heart International

For some good reporting on the disaster, check out these:

NPR: Chengdu Diary ( a blog by NPR reporters who were in Chengdu at the time of the earthquake)

After the Earthquake, by Peter Hessler (New Yorker Magazine)

Beichuan: A Vision of Hell, by by Clifford Coonan (The Independent)


A Must-Read Article

The cover story in this month’s National Geographic is about China.  The article, titled "Inside the Dragon" was written by Peter Hessler, one of my favorite writers about China. He always seems to be writing the articles and books that I wish I were writing!  Here’s a teaser:

Perhaps this awareness of a painful history was also why the 1990s
turned out differently. It became modern China’s first decade without a
major upheaval, and thus far the 21st century has also been peaceful.
And yet despite the lack of political change, the nation has been
radically transformed. For three decades the economy has grown at an
average annual rate of nearly 10 percent, and more people have been
lifted out of poverty than in any other country, at any other time.
China has become home to the largest urbanization in human history—an
estimated 150 million people have left the countryside, mostly to work
in the factory towns of the coast. By most measures the nation is now
the world’s largest consumer, using more grain, meat, coal, and steel
than the United States. But apart from Deng Xiaoping, it’s difficult to
credit these critical changes to any specific government official. The
Communist Party’s main strategy has been to unleash the energy of the
people, at least in the economic sense. In today’s China, government is
decentralized, and people can freely start businesses, find new jobs,
move to new homes. After a century of powerful leaders and political
turmoil, Chinese history has become the story of average citizens.

The two books by Hessler that are must-reads:
Rivertown:  Two Years on the Yangtze
Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

Beijing–The Forbidden City

For the past year or so, as we have been watching the Countdown clock for the Beijing Olympic Games wind its way towards 8-8-08, the question on everyone’s mind has been, what will it really be like here this summer, in the run-up to the Games, and during the Games themselves. Of course no one really knew, but that never stopped us from speculating; however, we did know for certain that once we got within that magic 1oo days, whatever interesting things might happen would probably start. 

Well, here we are at 93 days, and full-scale zaniness has broken out.  Keeping track of the rumors of new regulations is practically a full-time job.  New visa regulations over here.  New security procedures for this.  No more doing that.  I’d like to list out all the rumors I’ve heard just in the past 48 hours, but there’s even a regulation against spreading rumors.   Actually the regulation is against spreading false rumors, but the problem is that as the rumors are spreading no one knows if they are false or simply preludes to reality. Only time reveals which it is.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the folks in charge of this fair city are in a state of high anxiety, and if they can make it through August without having collective heart failure, it will be quite an accomplishment.  I’ve been here a long time and haven’t seen this level of nervousness since the early 1990’s.  The world is coming to town and they are suddenly afraid of what the world might do.

Slowly, but surely, Beijing is becoming The Forbidden City!

Here are two interesting articles about the mood in town (especially as it relates to foreigners):

China’s Fear of Summer (Time)

For Chinese, A Shift in Mood from Hospitable to Hostile

To the Top

While the main Olympic Torch has been making its way around the world, and finally arriving back on home soil today, there is another torch that is being taken up to the summit of Mt. Everest, or Qomolongma, as it is called in Tibetan (and Chinese).  There’s a large contingent of reporters (Chinese and foreign) at the base camp tracking the story.  Reuters has a team of reporters covering the story and they are blogging about it.  It’s very interesting reading, and the photo shots are great.  Check it out.

Temple of Heaven

Last week I hosted some visitors from the USA for 8 days.  One of them is a semi-professional photographer, so one of the added benefits of being their tour guide was learning some photography tips, both in shooting and editing (something I didn’t know anything about before).

On a single day last week we climbed the Great Wall in the morning, and walked around the Temple of Heaven in the afternoon.  The morning was clear and gorgeous, but by the time we got to the Temple of Heaven in the afternoon, showers were rolling in.

Since this was my umpteenth time to the Temple, and since I was very tired, I was tempted to just put my camera away.  How many different shots can I have of this temple, I wondered.  But I was inspired by my photographer friend who kept challenging me to look for shots I’d never seen before.

By the time we got to the Hall for Prayer of Good Harvest (the famous round one), a heavy rain shower was upon us.  We sought shelter on the porch of a side temple to wait it out.

And it was here that I got a shot of the Temple that I had never gotten before, with the sky getting lighter from bottom to top as the shower moved by, and was thus reminded of the importance of always having my camera with me.