China Visa and Paul Theroux’s New Book

My mind is fried; too many choices to be made within the next month about where I’m headed and what I want to do.  I received my visa, and to my surprise have been issued a pretty sweet deal.  With this small addition to my passport, I can enter and exit China at will for the next year, with a maximum stay of 120 days before I must exit and reenter the country.  This is pretty nice for a tourist visa, as the best I was hoping for was a three month single entry.  I don’t intend on staying in China for all of that time, but it is nice because it opens some options should I decide to move the trip back (God I hope not). And yet part of me wants to stay; I’ve got a stable job, the opportunity to move up and a good relationship. Things are going well, and I honestly have no idea how I will make a decision.

I’ve recently lost all sense of self preservation, and have become completely addicted to twitter.  What started as an attempt at self promotion has become a full-fledged habit.  Despite it’s grotesquely vapid nature, I do periodically find some interesting things that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise.  This morning, I got to read an interesting interview with Paul Theroux on his newest book, a collection of his favorite travel stories and moments.  I love Theroux, but these sorts of books tend to be lacking, an easy way of scrapping something together and getting paid.  I have high expectations of the man who sets even higher expectation for everyone else.  If you feel like checking it out, it’s well worth your time.  He is cynical as ever, and speaks freely of his dislike of blogs.

Paul Theroux on Blogging, Travel Writting and ‘Three Cups of Tea’

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Getting an Expedited China Visa

I feel like I have been duped.  Having only a short amount of time to get to the city and apply for a visa, I did not want want to get sucked into the endeavor that was sure to come if I went to the Chinese Embassy and tried to apply for a visa directly.  An expediting service seemed to be the next best option.

Lets be clear on this matter;  I knew that going through a visa service would be expensive, compared to taking care of the matter on my own.  The service takes your pictures, files your papers and personally takes your passport to the embassy to wait in line to speak with a visa agent on your behalf.  Beyond all of this, they do it fast, expeditiously fast.

And because of this service, I paid.  Every other service that I looked at required that I provide a professional travel itinerary as created by a legitimate travel agent.  I do not wish to use a travel agent, as travel agencies are incredibly expensive and provide trips for individuals seeking experiences that tend to flood your face with ‘culture’.  No no, if I am to go, I intend to run on no itinerary but my own.

The visa agencies that I spoke with did not seem to like this plan. I kept hearing, “No sir, it is much easier for us to get you a visa if you have an itinerary”, to which my mind kept saying “Yes, I’m sure it would be much easier, but I am paying you a whole stack of greenbacks to figure this thing out for me, so I don’t want to hear that you don’t want to put in extra effort”.

This is where ‘Same Day Passport’ came in to the picture.  They charged quite a bit more than the other services, but told me not to worry about providing an itinerary, that they would take care of that end of things.  While I was in their office, I watched as the agent entered a random Beijing hotel name into the application.  A very Chinese trick for an American agency.  But trickery and legal back-doors come at a price. In the case of this visa (processed and mailed back to me in exactly one week), $270.  Exactly the price of the camera lens that I had wanted to buy.  How lovely.

The Verdict: If you have the time to do so and are able to invest a little bit more time in preparation, going to the embassy on your own will save you at least $100.  If you are in a tremendous hurry, or cannot be around to collect your visa at a latter time, an agency is for you.

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Brooklyn 8th Avenue Chinatown

Directions: Take N Train toward Coney Island. Get off at 8th Avenue.  3 Hours for a good visit.

I was in New York City yesterday working toward getting a visa, and had some time to head out to the Brooklyn Chinatown, an offshoot of the much larger and better known Manhattan Chinatown.

I didn’t have much time to spend out there (It takes about a half an hour by subway from Midtown Manhattan), and as such did not get a chance to have lunch and really complete the experience, but here are some pictures that I got.

This Chinatown started to grow in the 1980s from an exodus of Cantonese residents of the Manhattan Chinatown, as well as some new immigrants from mainland China.  In more recent years, however, this population has been overshadowed by a large influx of immigrants from Fuzhou province, to that point that it is frequently referred to as ‘Little Fuzhou’.  8th avenue, almost empty in the early 80s, made a good, cheap starting point for immigrants, as well as a cheaper alternative for those looking to escape the increasing prices of Manhattan Chinatown.

While it may not be as large or as flashy as its neighbor, the Brooklyn Chinatown, in some respects, had a more authentic China feel.  I saw several old craft workers on the streets, repairing the soles and shoes and adjusting watch bands, using hand powered tools.  I have not seen an equivalent to this in the main Chinatown in a very long time, as these industries have been largely chased away by tourism and City officials looking to discourage the perceived ‘migrant’ appearance.  There was also a much stronger sense of community, with several large groups gathered around bulletin boards with announcements for a variety of services.  Although Mandarin is spoken here and there, Cantonese is still prominent, and the Mandarin that is spoken I found to be almost unintelligible.

If you do have any interest in heading out this way, simply hop on the N train headed toward Coney Island and get off at 8th avenue.  Chances are fair that you will only see one or two non-Chinese, so you may get some strange looks when stopping in for some food!

For an extremely poorly written but more detailed history, check out this wikipedia page:
Brooklyn Chinatown

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Headed to New York

I will be in New York City tomorrow, hopefully getting a chance to head to the Brooklyn Chinatown and possibly to BH Photo to take a look at getting a new lens for the camera.  I would also like to talk to a visa processing agent about what services they might be able to offer, but more about that and hopefully some good pictures to come.

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China and the Memory of Mao

I found a very interesting article in the New York Times that brings focus on the strange relationship that China and Chinese culture still share with their long dead leader, Mao Zedong.  I say long dead, but truth of the matter is that it has been thirty five years.  Depending on how you look at it, these three and a half decades can seem both long and very short at the same time.  Didi Kirsten Tatlow has written a nice article, ‘Mao’s legacy Still Divides China’, that displays the peculiar balance between the opinions that different portions of the Chinese public hold toward the relevance of Mao at present.

If you were to ask members of the older generation, namely those who were born between 1930 and the mid-50s how long, about their memories of Mao and his time, those thirty five year would not be seen as all that long.  The disaster of the Great Leap Forward along with the horrors of the cultural revolution will never disappear from the mind of many of those who witnessed the events firsthand.  For many of these people, as well as many politicians of similar age, Mao is just as relevant today as he was 35 years prior.  At the same time, if you were to ask a current youth, anyone between 15 and 25, on their thoughts about Mao, their answer would be quite different;  For many of them, Mao is a section of history held by their parents and their grandparents.

I occasionally hear people mention the ‘Mao Years’, a mysterious a block of time that can be hard to label.  Are they in the early 20s through the 40s, when Mao was a young leader working to gain power?  Or perhaps they are the years that he spent as the foremost figure in the political scene of the newly founded People’s Republic.  Then again, if Mao still holds such sway within the minds and the actions of the Chinese people and the government, I think it is just as appropriate to consider the period between 1976 and the present as part of the Mao years as well.  I also read an article by   I do not believe that there will be a modern China without the memory of Mao, at least not in this century.  He was brutal, he was decisive, and his erratic policies threw his nation into turmoil on more than one occasion.  The memory of Mao, however, is built on more than just terror; He was a leader like none other, charismatic to the point that it was difficult not to follow his lead.  China, at the time that Mao arrived on the political scene, was at the lowest point it could reach, in terms of societal moral, infrastructure, economy, you name it.  Years of invasion on the part of Western nations had left the Chinese crushed.  Mao come into the picture with a new direction, a plan for a new China, and people were ready to follow.  He grabbed hold of the rural masses and brought them forth through a civil and international war.  For the first time in hundreds of years, China was united under one leader, and this is no small thing to forget.

Mao masterfully pushed his weight around, and happened upon a time that was perfect for his arrival.  The Great Leap Forward, mentioned by Tatlow in her article, was only able to gain the momentum that it did because people were excited. China was thrown into a fervor as Mao pushed to have the nation on par with the United States in as little as 30 years.  The GLF was a complete disaster, collapsing into a famine that killed (by some estimates) as many as 15 million people.  And yet, the crippled nation moved on.  Mao’s launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the most revered and potentially most difficult to understand of his ideological campaigns, marks a great point in the history of modern China.  The Cult of Mao, a group of eccentric followers with an almost evangelical worship of the Chairman, pushed eager masses into a complete chaos.  Millions of students were displaced as their schools were closed; they were not only allowed, but encouraged to change their nation through destruction.  Politicians and young adults alike were sent (by Mao) down to the rural regions where it was hoped that they would be “re-educated” by working alongside the rural masses.  For some, this period of rural exile lasted all the way into the late 70s, following Mao’s death in 1976.

Such a legacy cannot end with a death.  The ideas that Mao propagated during his time, the ‘Maoist Utopia’ that he envisioned, a place where individuals would all receive equal rights and social status, were incredibly powerful ideas to say the least.  And yet, despite the great surge of energy that his presence created, China never came to realize everything that he declared would come in the new age.  Mao was, to say the least, at fault in many of the disasters that occurred during his course as chairman.  China of today is heading in a very different direction than what had been laid out by its original founders.  The changes implemented by Deng Xiaoping in the early 80s drastically shifted the political and economic scene; China immediately following Mao had a severely stagnant economy, and something had to be done.  Even if there were a document, as Tatlow mentions, with the intention of removing Mao Zedong thought from party workings, I do not think it would have much effect.

Though China is doing well in many respects, it is difficult to picture that this nation would every find itself without strong elements of Mao present in its culture.  Mao Zedong reshaped Chinese society in a way that has greatly influenced the country’s current position in the world.  He may be gone, but the power that he wielded is still quite strong, even if only in memory.

This is a rather difficult topic to cover in short space, but if you are interested in gaining a better understanding of Mao and his effect on Modern China, these two books are excellent:

Rebecce E. Carl, “Mao Zedong and China in the 20th Century World”
Phillip P. Pan “Out of Mao’s Shadow”

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Zuckerberg, Baidu and Facebook China Vs. American Senate

Gady Epstein posted a nice article bringing attention to a letter written by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durban.  His letter, sent to Baidu CEO Robin Li, directly addresses the concerns that the politician has over the development of social networks that are lacking in their protection of human rights.  He speaks not just about Baidu, but also about the potential partnership that Baidu may be seeking to enter a joint venture with Facebook.  The folks at Facebook have denied any definite plans to band with Baidu, but it seems that all signs are pointing in this direction.  Epstein includes the full text of Durban’s letter within his post, and it is well worth reading.

Senator Asks Baidu’s Robin Li About Censorship, Facebook

What does such a letter actually accomplish?  Durban is bold and direct in the concerns that he addresses, and goes so far as to ask for a reply from Li with the safeguards that his company provides for it’s users.  The letter holds a distorted feeling, one that is characteristic of the interaction between politicians and corporations; it seems both friendly and threatening at the same time.  The first time I read through it, I could not see how it would have any real effect on Baidu.  The government and many Chinese organizations are accustomed to shrugging off the pressures placed by American politicians.  But toward to middle of the letter there is a key line in which Durban points out that Baidu, which is listed on the NASDAQ exchange, is subject to American policy.  Once I read through this, I quickly agreed with Gady.  It will be difficult for Baidu to do anything but reply.

This is an interesting set of developments within the Chinese internet realm.  Social media is on the verge of an explosion, and Facebook really does want in.  But if Facebook places its eggs in the Baidu basket, what then?  New legislation seeking to place human rights requirements in American based social media networks could really put a wrench in the works.  As it has been pointed out by Liz Gannes, international users would have to bypass a warning that states that the Chinese government would be able to monitor interaction between Chinese and non-Chinese users, a warning that is likely to hurt interaction between the Chinese and other markets.  These are crucial factors in the success of Facebook, and if I were to predict, I think a storm is coming.

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Lonely Planet Recommended China Books

Alright, so I was cruising through my copy of the Lonely Planet guide to China this afternoon, just looking at some of their suggested travel routes and daydreaming a bit, when I came across a page of books that the editors feel are good for individuals looking to up their China knowledge before starting a trip.  The list started off great, with Tim Clissold’s “Mr. China” at the top of the list.  I, too, highly recommend “Mr China” and have reviewed it in the past

But then the suggested reading took a turn for the terrible;  It seems that the editors liked Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s “Mao: The Unknown Story”.  For the love of good education, please spare yourself and your mind, and pick a different book.  “Mao: The Unknown Story”  was largely contested across the academic community almost immediately after it was published.  My mom gave me a copy of it one year, and when I asked my professor his thoughts, he cringed.  The next day, I found my inbox filled with multiple seething reviews that he had compiled for me.  I’ve read most of the work, and found it to be unnecessarily long, overly complex and ultimately making claims that can be nothing but speculation.

If you really want to read about Mao (your China education will not be complete if you don’t!), I suggest Rebecca E. Karl’s “Mao and China in the 20th Century World“.  It is concise, it is easy to read, and it will give you a strong sense of the infamous leader without delving so far into speculative territory.

If you are interested in purchasing the book, amazon has a good price – just click the link below!

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Applying for a Chinese Visa

I would like to go back to China this coming summer, and such a trip will require that I obtain a new Chinese visa.  Obtaining a visa to head the China is not particularly difficult, however figuring out which one is correct for your trip, and then trying to obtain the one that you would like can take some time.  The most common forms that a Chinese visa will take are; A work visa, a business visa, a tourist visa and a student visa.  Each of these has respective attributes that make it work well for the particular applicant.  A tourist visa is the easiest of the bunch to apply for if you are traveling as, well, a tourist, but typically does not allow you to stay within the country as long as some of the others.  Most student visas allow for a six month to a year long stay (this is the case with the X Visa).  A work visa and a business Visa are different in that the work visa grants you permission to gain employment within the country, while the business visa allows you to conduct business interaction during your stay.  There are various other less common types that you can apply for, but these are the most common.

At the moment, its seems that I will be best suited to the Tourist visa;  In fact, I believe it may be my only option.  My most recent application to Beihang University was denied, and as a result I will not have the invitation letter that is necessary to gain a student Visa.  Hopefully I will be approved for as a tourist for a stay of more than a month, otherwise I will have to pilgrimage down to Hong Kong sooner than I would like in order to reapply.

While there are services that will allow you to mail your passport in to apply for a visa, it is my plan to head directly to the application agency within New York City.  This will expedite the process just a little bit, reduces the chance that my documents will vanish in the mail, and also allows me the chance to head the the Brooklyn and Queens Chinatowns in order to continue on my Megatour.  A visa application time can vary from anywhere between a week and a month, and I would like to get going on the process sooner rather than later.  Whether I apply to my current job or not, I will have at least a month at my disposal to travel, and there is no place that I would rather go than the middle kingdom.

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China Bans Smoking in Public Places

The Chinese government has declared a formal ban on smoking in certain public locations, namely restaurants.  Although they have attempted to do this in the past, it has never been successful, due in no small part to the lack of effort on the part of the government and the deeply ingrained culture of smoking that exists.  As one blog post put it, it would be hard for the typical Chinese to accept the idea of a meal without smoking.  This is also true of Chinese business, where the smoking and distribution of cigarettes runs much deeper than addiction; it is a display of courtesy, acceptance, even socioeconomic class.

China has more than 300 million smokers, and annual smoking related deaths account for a fifth of the total deaths worldwide.  Will the ban succeed?  Doubtful, unless officials are willing to really ruffle some feathers and put force behind the ban.  Beijing has asked local leaders to lay out the consequences for disobeying the ban, but this is a situation where it is unlikely that many people will be willing to comply, thus creating great potential for a loss of face on the side of officials.  Nope, not going to happen.

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Bin Laden, China and Pakistan

I woke up this morning and asked myself how we could ever have given so much power to one individual.  Osama Bin Laden was indeed the keystone not only of the September Eleventh attacks, but of a myriad of other terrorist operations.  When does an individual go from being a criminal to becoming a terrorist?  This label, this connotation, carries so much power and momentum that I cannot but fear its use.  A criminal bombs a convenience store so that he may steal some groceries and cash.  A terrorist bombs a convenience store so that others can watch and stand in fear; action without conclusion is a terrifying thing.

Osama Bin Laden, as most of you have probably read, was found hiding in Pakistan.  Pakistan stands as China’s strongest ally in the Middle East, and one that they are very unlikely to stray away from.  In the last two days, China has defended  Pakistan from claims that it’s government did not do a good enough job of purging terrorists within, claims that have been laid, in large part, by American Officials.  From what I have read, it seems that China has given a positive reaction to the death of Bin Laden, focusing on this positive aspect instead of bringing to light any thought that would suggest shortcomings on the part of the Pakistan government.  Although there has been concern over the possibility of developing tension between the United States and Pakistan, I do not believe it would escalate to a level that would instigate strong reaction from the Chinese, at least not any stronger than the occasions on which we have aided Taiwan.

For some further reading, check out this article

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