Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Visa-palooza, 1984 style.

I have hesitated to write anything here about the current visa crack-downs in China, because, well let's face it: I don't want to be deported.

However enough is enough.

It has been known for some time that the Chinese Government has been restricting the issuing of Student (X) visas, Tourist (L) visas and Business (F) visas, supposedly to maximise security prior to the Beijing Olympics- sometimes cutting down the length of time they are issued for, and at other times refusing to re-issue them at all. Already several of our friends have already been essentially deported (one friend was literally told "You must leave the country within ten days", which left no time to pack up his apartment or even find a new home for his cat).

Now, I understand that many small business people are working illegally on L and F visas, and, while I know it is the only way many people can afford to make a living, it is still illegal. So if you get your visa cancelled then, well, there's not much you can do about it.
Chinese officials "are concerned that certain undesirables may have come into China and may be residing in the foreign community here, and that some of them may represent risks to the Olympics games," said Peter Humphrey, managing director of ChinaWhys Co., a Beijing-based risk-management firm. Mr. Humphrey said the government may also be motivated in part by a desire to improve tax collection by cracking down on foreigners working without permission.
However, recently the police have been waiting outside popular 'hang-outs' for foreigners in Shanghai (supermarkets selling imported products, international schools, etc) and demanding to see their visas. The Chinese government has for years requested that all foreigners carry their passport with them at all times, however, in reality this is just a really good way to lose your documents (not to mention having them- and your identity- fall into the wrong hands of a pick-pocket).

Now the police are not just demanding to see our visas, but actually carting foreigners off to their local police station to check that they have registered with them, as all foreigners must register with the police within 24 hours of landing in China- NOTE: every time you leave China, eg. for a holiday or on business, legally you must re-register when you return. So, even if you have registered with the police before, if the date on the registration papers does not match the last date of entry to China in your passport you can be liable for up to a 5000rmb fine (US$720), and can be detained in police custody for up to 30 days. Many foreigners don't know this, and the police don't tell you when you register with them the first time.*

FOREIGNERS in Shanghai should carry their passports with them for random checks by police, according to the Exit-Entry Administration of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau.
-Shanghai Daily
A spot check is one thing, and although I resent being selected for inspection based only on my skin colour (yes, 'Foreigners' really means 'Caucasians'), my visa is all in order**, so I wouldn't mind too much if they stopped me for that. But being carted off to the police station like a criminal is another thing completely.

And the stories are getting more and more bizarre.

Last week, my friend K*** was on the treadmill, using a guest pass at her friend's gym. The gym is located withing the compound of a very expensive apartment complex in Shanghai, well-known for housing ex-pats with incredible housing packages from their employers. At the time K was the only non-asian-looking person in the gym, and in walked two police officers in full uniform (and with legitimate ID) who proceeded to walk straight up to her.

The police officers questioned K as to her name, address and telephone number. She told them her name and phone number. At this point they told her, in English, that they wanted to "invite her to a party" the next day, and that they would pick her up from her apartment if she'd tell them the address. Thinking that this was more than a bit unusual, K lied and said that she lived in one of the buildings in the complex, but that she'd rather not say which apartment number.

The police officers kept pushing her to tell them: "It's ok, we're police officers, we only want to invite you to a party... we'll take care of you...", but they were talking between themselves in Chinese, saying "It's ok, we have her name and number, we can find out where she lives".

They turned back to K and told her that they would pick her up in the complex at Building #4 at 6pm the next day, and drive her to the party. They also told her to bring her friends. And her passport.

Needless to say, she never turned up.

The real question is why the lies? The police have the power to cart people off for questioning, so why bother with the story?

As Phil said, living in China is starting to feel very slightly reminiscent of a certain World War II regime...

* Although the Arrival card everyone must fill out at customs when they enter China does say "failure to register with the police department within 24 hours of arrival can lead to you being deported", so there is really no argument in your defense.

** For the benefit of Big Brother- I have a Z visa entitling me to live and work in China. And I am registered with my local police station.

*** Name withheld for obvious reasons.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Update on the Earthquake and EV71

Stories are starting to come out of Sichuan that would bring tears to the eyes of anyone. Some are simply sad, whilst others have the ability to fill you will a renewed sense of hope for humanity (as large-scale disasters often do).

Truly horrific:

Rescuers found Gong in the debris of an Agricultural Bank of China branch in Beichuan County after she had been trapped for 73 hours. They soon found it was impossible to remove the stone from her leg and set her free.

The only way to save Gong was to amputate the leg, the newspaper reported. But surgeons could not do the operation as the space was too small. Rescuers then handed a saw to Gong, who cut off her right leg. -Shanghai Daily
And then the others:
XIANG Xiaolian, a 13-year-old girl, murmured: "The boy clawed me out with his bare hands," as she lay in bed at the No. 1 Hospital affiliated to the West China Medical University.

Xiang was in class at Xuankou Middle School when the 7.8-magnitude quake hit Wenchuan County on Monday.

Xuankou is a boarding school, and more than 1,200 teachers and students fled to the mountains after the quake. How many were killed is not known.

"The whole building swayed as we were in chemistry class - the teacher asked us to run from the third floor classroom," recalled Xiang, who was buried underneath a concrete slab and lost consciousness.

Time passed, and when Xiang re-awakened, she could sense light but fainted again. The next time she awakened, it was dark. "I knew it was night then," she said

"I missed my parents," said Xiang, adding that "I had to see them again before I died." Xiang fell into a coma.

Xiang was awakened by the voice of Ma Jian, her classmate.

"Xiaolian, where are you?" the boy shouted in the open air. "You must hold on," Ma encouraged her as he clawed at the rubble with his hands.

Xiang cried:" Don't leave me, Ma Jian, at least, not until after I die."

"I will not, you are the youngest in our class," Ma replied, digging.

Each time Xiang fell asleep, Ma would call out to her to wake up. After about four hours, Ma freed her. By then, his hands were badly hurt.

They both cried as she was freed, and Ma carried her on his back, out through the school gate. The wall suddenly collapsed.

"If it had been a few minutes later, neither of us would have escaped," said Xiang. -Shanghai Daily
So far, the death toll is at 21,500 people, with very real fears it will reach over 50,000 people. I just cannot fathom that number, especially when day-to-day life in Shanghai is going on much the same as normal.

Here in Shanghai people from all groups in society have been wonderful about donating blankets, clothing and money. Yesterday, a colleague and I were walking through a local market when all of a sudden deafening music began playing through the loudspeakers, and all the shop owners and customers lined up in the main entrance way. Rebecca and I were just about to leave anyway, so we strolled passed them to see what was happening. When we approached the front of the line we stopped and turned around. There was a TV crew, and people were proudly lining up to put 100RMB notes in an elaborately decorated donation box, clearly displaying their generosity for all to see. At this point we felt that we could not just walk out of the mall (seemingly) uncaring, yet neither of us felt comfortable to join the line and have our 'generosity' calculated and deconstructed by all. We ended up skirting the crowds, and sneaking out behind the cameras, getting dirty looks from people in the line- none of whom knew that we had both donated money to the Red Cross the day before... in sealed, anonymous envelopes.

On the other front mentioned in my last post: Hand Foot and Mouth Disease. So far, there are no cases at my school, and I cannot find any more information about the number of cases in Shanghai as all news reports of EV71 ceased when the earthquake struck (reporters are busy covering other stories). We are keeping our fingers crossed that the extra measures the school is taking will hold away the virus, though there is absolutely no guarantee of that. In the meantime, 10 out of my 17 students have been off sick with a nasty flu, and with only 7 students it has seemed like somewhat of a holiday.

"Soldiers from the People's Liberation Army try to move a huge block of concrete in a bid to rescue people trapped in Pengzhou, Sichuan Province, yesterday. Tens of thousands of troops have begun rescue and relief work in quake-hit areas." -Shanghai Daily

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Eathquakes and viruses

Ok, so the very fact that I am posting this should be enough to say that I am ok, and neither Phil or I were affected by yesterday's earthquake in Sichuan province.

In fact, neither of us even felt it, although many people in Shanghai's high-rises did notice tremors from the quake. Sadly, the quake has killed many children (1000 at present but the tolls are still rising), as the 7.8 magnitude quake struck in the middle of the school day, collapsing schools and burying the children alive.

Map showing Chengdu and Chongqing (the biggest cities hit in Sichuan province), and our location to the east in Shanghai.

At the moment however, my school is actually more concerned about the death toll from Hand Foot and Mouth Disease (more specifically the EV71 strain which differs from the more common strain infecting children worldwide).

PLEASE NOTE: The following information on this post is intended for your personal interest only, and should not be substituted for advice from trained medical practitioners!
SHANGHAI Center for Disease Control and Prevention has detected enterovirus 71, or EV71 in 18 patients suffering hand, foot and mouth disease.
Shanghai Daily 12 May 2008
Every morning, the concerned parents of my 2-3 year old nursery students question me at the door of our classroom. They want to know what measures we are taking, and should they keep their children at home.
HFMD has infected 24,934 children on the Chinese mainland, of whom 39 died in the provinces of Anhui, Guangdong, Hainan, Hunan and Zhejiang, and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Shanghai Daily 13 May 2008
So far our school has taken the following measures:
  • All children wash their hands with anti-bacterial gel when they arrive at school;
  • No parents are allowed to enter the classroom;
  • No games, toys or books from home will be allowed into the classroom;
  • The children eat lunch and snack provided by the school;
  • There are no swimming classes, and no borrowing from the library;
  • School assemblies have been cancelled;
  • Extra curricular activities involving staff, parents and families have been cancelled.
It is certain that should a child in our school contract EV71 the school will be shut. What remains to be seen is whether or not it will stay open in the coming weeks even if no children fall ill.

This post has been updated with more info on HFMD:

Hand foot and mouth disease (HFMD) is quite common in China, and indeed in the rest of the world. Cases of HFMD crop up nearly every year at my school, and while the affected children stay home and their class is quarantined (plays in different areas, does not attend school functions, etc), it is not very serious. However, in those cases, the HFMD syptoms are caused by the more common Coxsackie A16 virus. The Enterovirus-71 (EV-71) is more serious, and while the initial symptoms are the same, the EV71 virus can cause viral meningitis, and, less commonly, encephalitis (both of which can be fatal). It is the EV71 virus that has caused the recent deaths in China.

Hand, foot and mouth disease is mainly a childhood disease, occuring rarely in adults, unless they have weak immune systems. It is not uncommon among infants and children, and it spreads easily through contact with mucus, saliva and feces. It is characterized by fever, sores in the mouth and a blistery skin rash.

It has an incubation period of 3 to 7 days and it usually starts with general listlessness, poor appetite, and a slight fever, often accompanied by a sore throat. One or two days later, painful mouth sores develop, starting as small red spots that blister and turn into ulcers. They usually appear on the tongue, gums and the inside of the cheeks.

The non-itchy skin rash usually breaks out on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet and develops over 1 or 2 days, starting as red spots that can be flat or bumpy, sometimes with blisters. Some children also get the rash on their buttocks. In some cases no rash is present, only the mouth ulcers, and in other cases, the mouth ulcers occur with no rash.

In a few cases it can lead to high fever, meningitis, encephalitis, pulmonary edema and paralysis.

Paralysis is more common in infants under two years of age, while meningitis is more common among infected 2 to 5 year olds.

Unfortunately there is no vaccine and no cure, and there is a high rate of death among children seriously ill with the disease.

Hand, foot and mouth disease is not to be confused with foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle, sheep and pigs. -source


Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is an infection of young children in which characteristic fluid-filled blisters appear on the hands, feet, and inside the mouth.


Coxsackie viruses belong to a family of viruses called enteroviruses. These viruses live in the gastrointestinal tract, and are therefore present in feces. They can be spread easily from one person to another when poor hygiene allows the virus within the feces to be passed from person to person. After exposure to the virus, development of symptoms takes only four to six days. Hand-foot-and-mouth disease can occur year-round, although the largest number of cases are in summer and fall months.

An outbreak of hand-foot-and-mouth disease occurred in Singapore in 2000, with more than 1,000 diagnosed cases, all in children, resulting in four deaths. A smaller outbreak occurred in Malaysia in 2000. In 1998, a serious outbreak of enterovirus 71 in Taiwan resulted in more than one million cases of hand-footand-mouth disease. Of these, there were 405 severe cases and 78 deaths, 71 of which were children younger than five years of age.

Hand-foot-and-mouth should not be confused with foot and mouth disease, which infects cattle but is extremely rare in humans. -Source

Friday, May 09, 2008

Teach them well...

This morning a three-year-old boy in my Nursery class pulled up my t-shirt, and gazed wide-eyed at my stomach and, in the kind of voice you'd use to ask why someone had just sprouted another head, exclaimed:

"Wow! What's that?"

I wish I could say that I had an awesome tattoo on my stomach, or even a piercing or a wicked scar, but no.

He was referring to my white belly flab.

To add insult to injury, I've actually LOST 9kg this year. To be fair the child's mother is a svelt gorgeous South Korean woman, who wouldn't know what belly flab looked like if it smacked her in the face. However, something tells me that I should perhaps stay on the diet...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Tai Lake

Phil and I just returned from a long weekend with our friends Carolyn and Brian at Tai Hu (Tai Lake). Although rather polluted, the massive lake and associated islands near Suzhou were a welcome step back into nature. The village on the main island on the lake (the true Island, as opposed to the others linked by bridges) was quite rustic and undeveloped. It was filled with fruit trees, and the only mode of transport was motorbike (with a 4-passenger trailer contraption attached like a golf cart) or bicycle. It was such a pleasant change not to be surrounded by cars!

Phil on the speed boat to the Island

A woman working on the shore of the lake

We are still not quite sure what or where the Dimly Discernible Peak was...

Picking (and eating) strawberries at a road side farm

"A strawberry picking we'll go, strawberry picking we'll go..."

The view from one of the mountains on the Island

Another sunset...

Phil in fine photographic form

We loved exploring the mazes of old buildings and courtyards

This notice on the public message board officially proclaims that the mentioned couple has been granted government permission to have a second child... a rare event under China's One Child Policy.

Old buildings amidst the fruit trees

Carolyn and Brian riding one of the tandem bikes we hired to get around- much more fun than I even imagined!

Work going on as usual

Phil saturated by the over-exuberant waves.

Back on the mainland, a "theme park" with a pirated Minnie Mouse at the gate... with Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb" blasting out of the speaker above here head. What would Walt Disney say?

We're not quite sure why Santa was still there in May... but he looked exhausted.