100-year Anniversary of the Communist Party

July 1st was the 100-year anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC). It was a major event and then again it wasn’t. Let me explain. The whole city was reminded of the upcoming anniversary about a week before the event. Posters were all over the subway stations and 100-year signs were mounted all across the city. There was even a big sign in front my office building in Haidian. Interestingly, while folks were aware of the July 1st celebration well in advance, nobody I talked to seemed to know what the plan for the festivities were until about a week before the event. It was a closely held secret. Even when the information was released it was partial and sparse.

Despite the fact that this was a big event, the 100-year anniversary wasn’t an inclusive celebration. At least not in the way I would have expected it to be. I would have expected this to be a day off for everyone with many organized festivities at a national level as well as a local level, something like the 4th of July in the US or Kings’ Day in the Netherlands, but it wasn’t. It was for the communist upper echelon only as far as I could tell and for everyone else it was a regular workday. Some places, like in my apartment complex, the personnel were watching the live coverage on TV in the morning but that was it. 

TV coverage of the Tiananmen Square celebrations. My apartment is one block over to the right.

The event itself was well rehearsed and the security measures were draconian. Everything around Tiananmen square was locked down. Streets, stores, restaurants, malls, etc. were all closed. I had seen how bad it got during last week’s rehearsal so I decided to work from home this day because I couldn’t get a taxi to come to my hotel because the roads were blocked or get to the nearby subway station on Chang’an Avenue.

The event started with patriotic sing-a-longs (so I assumed).

Thursday’s event started around 7am with a Tiananmen Square filled with people singing patriotic and communist songs, at least that’s what I assumed. My Chinese isn’t that good yet. Around 8am I was expecting the fly-over, like they did two weeks before, and they didn’t disappoint. A helicopter formation flew by spelling out 100 and they were followed by formations of China’s latest J-20 fighters to demonstrate their military and industrial strength. The newspapers made a point of explaining that they showed 20 jet fighters operational where a few months before they had only shown 1.

The helicopter and J-20 jet fighters fly over at the start of president Xi’s speech.

I knew that at 8am President Xi would give his speech. That schedule detail was in the previous day’s newspaper, but that was the only schedule detail I knew. From the news reports after President Xi’s speech, I gathered that it was about the contributions of communism to the country. How they elevated the population out of poverty and made huge technological and military advances. It also contained a warning to the West (really the US) not to mess with China and how Taiwan was and would always remain a part of greater China. All of these were common themes.

This marked the end of the fly over.

China has every reason to be proud. The social and technological transformation it has gone through over the last 30-years is nothing short of miraculous. Many folks see this as vindication for the abuse by the Western powers and Japan in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The opium wars followed by Japanese imperialism have made a lasting impression on the psyche of the Chinese people and they are determined to never let this happen again. I think that in part also explains their desire for self-reliance. They cannot depend on anyone but themselves and the West still reinforces that sentiment as illustrated by China’s recent space lab successes. The reason, according to the people here, that China developed its own space lab technology, 天宫 (Tiāngōng), is because the US didn’t allow China to participate in the international space station programs and so they had to do it themselves.

The perception of the US here is that it’s a dwindling superpower that is desperately trying to hold on to its powers but is rapidly losing out. I’ve repeatedly heard the analogy that the US is a spoiled kid that doesn’t want to share its marbles at the school playground. The fact that the US is trying to attack China on all fronts is only making folks here more determined and more patriotic: Xinjiang, Hongkong, COVID19, trade wars, the lack of freedom of speech, or the more recently Daines’ resolution to condemn the CPC are all seen as coordinated attacks by the US to try to control China and to keep it down.

None of it is very effective as far as I can tell. Xinjiang is a non-issue for most of the Han Chinese people (the majority of the Chinese population). The fact that Xinjiang cotton has been boycotted is joked about and it is used as an example of how powerless the West is. I have yet to run into a Hongkonger who disagrees with the Hong Kong security laws (HSL). I run into many of them, they are the Chinese who best speak English and they are in high demand, and they all view the unrests in Hong Kong as a bunch of rebellious teenagers that are spoiling it for the rest of them. They actually welcome the stability HSL brings. This is quite different from the view we get in the western media. The resurgence of the accusation that COVID19 is manufactured is also seen as an attempt by the US to cover up its own failures in handling the pandemic. I could go on, but the gist is that none of the issues that the western media is focused on really matters to the folks here, except for one.

Access to non-Chinese media is craved by people, or at least the educated people I hang out with. The Chinese firewall is universally disliked and worked around. There is a strong desire to be informed and see what the rest of the world is doing and thinking. Folks have friends and family in the US and Europe, and they are frustrated they can’t go to Facebook or Instagram to keep up with them. As a US citizen it’s easy to see this as Chinese people want freedom of speech and equate that to a desire for democracy but I don’t think that’s what this is about. It’s more about access to and the free flow of information, what political system is behind that is less relevant. If the US really wanted to drive change in China, then this is the area I would focus on because there is broad support for it already. All the other issues, no matter how distressing they may be, simply do not play here.

Wangfujing is typically one of the busiest shopping streets in Beijing. It was deserted by Chinese standards and there was heavily police presence.

Continuing along this theme. I’ve been doing round tables with the interns at Microsoft Research (there are about 300 of them) and most of them still want to study abroad, especially in the US. That said, their parents are getting more worried about them, and I had to answer questions in my round tables about COVID19 infection rates and personal safety in the US. I realize that the Microsoft interns are a self-selecting group, but as long as the bright students still want to come to the US to study not all is lost. We have to worry if this stops, because in my opinion an US education is still the best way to guarantee an ongoing life-long dialogue between our two nations. 

Will the CPC ever fall apart like it did in Russia? That’s hard to say. The circumstances are very different and the CPC has shown an amazing agility to transform in very fundamental ways. It moved from a central planned economy, that failed disastrously, to effectively embracing a lightly regulated form of capitalism. The later has brought a lot of prosperity to the Chinese people, especially to the folks in big cities. As long as that continues, I don’t think the CPC has much to fear. 

A Weekend Excursion: 古北水镇

Like a true local, I haven’t done much sightseeing yet. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet, but that changed this weekend. I’ve been trying to catch up with a friend of mine in Beijing for almost a month and we hadn’t managed to do so. He probably felt guilty about that because this week he WeChatted me that he had to go to a corporate retreat this weekend and whether I wanted to come along. That way we could catch up during the 2+ hour ride to the resort and while at the resort I would join him and his team for dinner but otherwise I would be on my own with my own hotel room while they had their gathering.

The resort was in 古北水镇 (gǔběi shuǐ zhèn) a restored city in the shadow of the Great Wall. 古北水镇 means ancient north water town and that’s exactly what it was. It’s kind of like a small rural Venice and it was the garrison town for the north gate of the road leading into Beijing. Today it’s a busy tourist and very picturesque city.

My friend picked me up with a few of his colleagues from my apartment and we first went to an authentic and very good 包子 restaurant near the Bell and Drum Towers. 包子 (bāo zi) are small steamed bread/dumplings with a savory or sweet filling. This particular place was apparently visited by the current US president, Biden, years before and my friend’s colleagues insisted I saw those pictures whether I wanted to or not. This was in contrast with the place itself, I didn’t see any memorabilia. They clearly didn’t care. The place was very busy and frequented by people of all ranks. I saw someone who looked like a government official, pensioners, tourists, parents, etc. The ordering process was also very hectic and I heard the waiters shout 快了(quick) many times. I was glad others were doing the ordering for me. 

Getting brunch at a very popular 包子 place.

Like most Chinese, they order way more food than I could handle even though I had skipped breakfast. The food, the buns and a cup of gelatinous organ soup, was all very good and typical common fair. In China, like most other parts of the world, they use every piece of protein they can get, and they aren’t afraid to eat liver, tripe and other interesting pieces of the animal.

Too much food as usual. Organ soup, tripe and 16 包子.

After brunch we had an uneventful trip to 古北水镇. Around Beijing the area is mostly flat and filled with industry and office buildings. Eventually the scenery changed, and we got into the mountains. The mountains around Beijing are sharp and jagged which probably means they are, geologically speaking, relatively young. It does make them very distinct and recognizable. 

The hotel in 古北水镇 was large and very modern. Despite the fact that the signs were in English, no one seemed to understand English so I had to get by with my pigeon Chinese and the help from my friend. After checking in, my friend and his colleagues went off to their meetings and I started to explore the town. 

古北水镇 is a collection of small villages that are all built in the traditional Qing dynasty (1644-1911) style architecture and have been rebuilt/restored beautifully. Apparently, a developer took over the place a little more than 10 years ago and turned it into an historical amusement park.  You have to pay a fee to get into the park. In my case that was included in the hotel package. Once you are through the gate, which uses facial recognition, you are greeted by a collection of small islands that are all connected by typical Chinese foot bridges. Some of the individual islands have city walls and ramparts while others have houses that go all the way to the water line. Inside the houses are small stores, restaurants and even a distillery that produces the local wine.

A view from one of the villages in 古北水镇 and you can see the Great Wall on the top of the rim.
Some villages have their own walls and ramparts.
Bridges are connecting the various islands.
They produce their local wine that is left outside to ferment.

At the end of the village there is a cable cart that goes up to the great wall. This is the Simatai section of the great wall. Unlike the other great wall sections that are publicly accessible, here they focused on reinforcing the wall while leaving the original look and feel intact. During my afternoon walk through the village I was too exhausted to go up to the wall. It was hot and I noticed I got a mild sun burn. However, after dinner the whole group decided to go up for the night view and I joined them. This is the only section of the Great Wall that’s open at night and the visit was quite spectacular. We took the cable cart up the mountain, followed by an up and down mile long (approx.) hike along the rim with gorgeous views of the hazy valley below.

A view of the Great Wall following the rim of the mountains.

At the end of the hike, we ended up on top of the wall. I’ve been to the Great Wall before but this one felt more authentic. It had uneven footsteps that were more difficult to navigate because it was dark, and the steps are clearly not built for large European feet. Still, it’s well worth the experience and I can highly recommend it.

On top of the Great Wall at night.

Before the evening wall climb, I had dinner with my friend and his colleagues. Chinese dinners are always a sight to behold and so are the Chinese restaurants that cater to them. The restaurants typically have a common area and many side rooms of varying sizes that can accommodate groups and provide you with privacy. Each room has a single large round dinner table with a lazy Susan on top. The larger rooms (ours) even have their own toilet(s) and seating area where folks gather until dinner starts. 

We are getting ready for a Chinese dinner.

Dinner starts with appetizers that are placed on the lazy Susan, which in this case rotated by itself. The effect is that every dish passed by every dinner guest, and you grab what you like. Sometimes you are given two pairs of chopsticks, one for taking food, one for eating, but in this case, we were only given one pair for both functions. I prefer that because it’s quite a hassle changing chopsticks all the time, especially when the alcohol starts flowing and you forget the etiquette.

Alcohol tends to flow royally during these kinds of Chinese dinners. Especially 白酒 (bái jiǔ) which is a strong liquor (35-60%) and it’s distilled from fermented sorghum. The good ones have a nice floral taste while the cheaper stuff tastes like cleaning fluid (in my opinion). 

At this party it was no different. When the other dinner guests came walking in, they unpacked the 白酒 they brought for the occasion. They had brought different kinds, a Beijing brand whose name I forgot, the famous Moutai and then a government brand that was very special. They started off with the cheaper stuff and progressed to the better stuff as the night grew longer.

A very special government 白酒. Not quite sure what that meant but it was good.

There is a fascinating toasting culture in China. 白酒 is served in small glasses that fit about the size of a thimble worth of liquid. You don’t really drink it alone, you always toast with others. Either with the whole team or with individuals. The evening typically starts off with a group toast by the most senior person at the table. In this case my friend, who had joined the company about 2 months before as the SVP of sales, started with the group toast. Then it became a free for all where every 5 minutes or so someone or a group of people would stand up and toast someone else at the table. My friend received the brunt of it because everyone wanted to introduce themselves. I got a decent amount of toasts too because I was sitting next to my friend and everyone wanted to test the 老外 (lǎo wài) for his drinking ability. Fortunately, I can hold my liquor and I stood my ground.

On the topic of toasting, there is a fascinating ritual where your status is conveyed in the way you touch someone’s glass. If you are toasting with someone who is senior to you, or you want to show your respect, then the rim of your glass has to touch the middle of their glass. If you are of equal social standing, then the two rims touch. If you are senior tot them then they have to touch the middle of your glass. I don’t know about you, but I can imagine that feuds or even wars broke out over incorrect toast etiquette.

The dinner and toasts last for about 2-3 hours. All the while food is served. After the appetizer you typically get soup, followed by more and more lavish dishes, until fruit arrives. That is the last dish and a signal that the dinner is over. At that point the head of the table makes one final toast and then everyone departs.

Daily life

After almost a month I have found my daily routine. In the mornings, I get up around 6am, have breakfast at 6:30am and I’ll start my US calls from 7-11am and then head for the Microsoft Research office in Haidian, Beijing. If I have a late office start like this, then I tend to grab a DiDi at 11am because its faster and traffic isn’t too bad at that time. If I don’t have a 7-8am call, then I grab the subway (line 1 and 4) at 7am to the office. During rush hour nothing beats the subway. It’s packed but it is still the fastest and most reliable way to get from A to B. In the afternoon I typically take the subway home although if I must be in another part of town then DiDi is a more convenient mode of transportation.

The subway is fully packed. Face masks are mandatory and guards in the train make sure you wear them properly.

During every US conference call I’ve had during these last few weeks, the first question on people’s lips is: How is the COVID19 situation in China? Well, it is basically none existent. There is no COVID19 in Beijing or most of China. There are some outbreaks in southern China, largely brought in by overseas shipping crews, but as soon as those are detected the Chinese government clamps down on them in full force. I’ve seen photos of folks with blankets and pillows queuing up for their quarantine facilities. They don’t take half measures. You must give the Chinese government credit, they do understand the power exponentials.

Talking about the Chinese government, the 100-year anniversary of the China Communist Party (CCP) is coming up on July 1st. There are posters and signs across the city to remind folks of this. There are also a lot of festivities planned around the forbidden city, but only for the folks that are invited. None of the regular Beijingers are invited, nor are they aware of the exact plans that day and much to my surprise it isn’t even a national holiday.

These and similar signs are all over the city, reminding folks of the upcoming 100-year anniversary.
Regular advertisements in the subway have been replaced too.

I’ve decided to take July 1st off and use one of my Well Being Days. I’m not sure this is a global concept inside Microsoft, but I’m taking one anyway because the situation around my Beijing apartment will be a madhouse. I’ve already seen the practice flyovers of military fighter jets last weekend and this morning they were putting up the fences just behind my apartment to block off the streets. They are closing off most of the area around the forbidden city and it’s no longer the police who are guarding the street corners but it’s the military. I’m expecting a full military parade that I remember from the old communist Moskou May 1st celebration news reals, but no one can tell me exactly what the plan or schedule is.

I’m pretty sure though that if I go out my apartment on July 1st, I better take my passport with me so that I don’t cause another incident.

It nice to be able to grab dinner/drinks with colleagues after a working day is done.

A smoldering Sunday afternoon

I’m a bit behind with my blog writing. In part because I got a cold that was more persistent than I had originally thought and in part because work got in the way. Here is the blog entry I started last week and didn’t finish until the week after.

Sunday afternoon, June 6th, I decided to visit some local sites I had not seen yet. I was out most of Saturday with a cold but I felt better on Sunday and decided to visit Beijing’s old observatory and visit friends afterwards at the Great Leap Brewery #6.  Around this time of year Beijing gets pretty hot ~90F (32c) and surprisingly humid, at least it felt that way, and therefore an easy visit to a small observatory followed by refreshing drink afterwards seemed like a good idea.

The old observatory is small and gorgeous. It dates back to 1442 and continued its role until 1929.  It was built on top of a city wall’s watch tower, and it’s surrounded by typical Chinese courtyards. On top of the watch tower there are many instruments that were produced by Ferdinand Verbiest, a Jesuit from Flanders (current Belgium) who lived in China from 1659 until 1688 when he fell from a horse and passed away. He was in China during the Qing dynasty. Ferdinand introduced western astronomy to China, which was more precise and better at predicting celestial events than the competing Chinese technology. He eventually built a close relationship with the emperor and even became the director of the observatory. He is still commemorated in the observatory to this day. This is an example of early technology transfer between the West and the East.

The observatory’s watch tower with instruments, some of them designed by Ferdinand Verbiest.
A view of the observation tower from one of the courtyards
The central courtyard that houses exhibits
The foreigners haven’t been forgotten yet

After my observatory visit, I’d gotten more thirsty than I had bargained for and I headed for the Great Leap Brewery #6 for refreshments and to meet with some expats. It’s kind of funny how everyone knows everyone here. The expats were introduced to me by a friend in Shanghai, who hired the person I was meeting back in Brazil (!), and that person is now working for Microsoft research in Beijing. Isn’t this a small world?

One of the expats was given a present by another expat. A 香包 (xiāng bāo, fragrant package), which is part of the dragon festival ceremony, but none of them seemed to know what it was. I explained the meaning behind 香包, and they were skeptical. How could a foreigner who had been here for just a month know this better than them? Afterall, they had been living in Beijing for 9+ years and they even held a Chinese permanent residence card. At that point a Chinese couple at the table beside us, who had clearly been listening in, confirmed my explanation.

Unbeknownst to my drinking buddies, my Chinese teacher had given me a culture class the day before and explained the Dragon boat festival to me. The Dragon boat festival commemorates Qu Yuan, a poet who lived during the warring states period (340-278BC).  He is revered because he is regarded as the first author of verse, and he exhibited great patriotism. He committed suicide by wading into a river after he heard his country’s capital was defeated by the neighboring Qin state. 

According to folklore, folks started to float small boats with food on the river so that the fish would leave the corpse alone. This, combined with other folklore elements, eventually grew into the Dragon boat festival.  Central to the festival are a number of customs such as the 香包 (xiāng bāo) which is a package of fragrant herbs to ward off the evil spirits, the 粽子 (zongzi) which is a little package of sticky rice with either a salty or sweet content to commemorate the food floating on the river, and the 5 colored threads (五色线), wristbands, which too are intended to ward off evil spirits.

Dragon boat celebration at Microsoft Research in Beijing.

The Dragon boat festival is celebrated in mainland China, Taiwan, Hongkong and Macau and in Chinese communities around the world. The impression I got is that its celebration is mostly about tradition and patriotism although that meaning seemed to be lost on some of the younger folks I met. For them, just like young people anywhere else in the world, it was more an excuse to drink and be merry. 

Attempt to visit Tian’anmen square

Friday afternoon, June 4th, I had some spare time after a morning filled with calls and I decided to walk up to Tian’anmen square which is around the corner from where my apartment is. I had already noticed that there was increased security around Tian’anmen square and the forbidden city since I arrived the Wednesday before. I figured it had to do with the upcoming 100-year celebration of the communist party and I didn’t think much of it.

In my mind this was a quick visit, and I didn’t bother to bring my passport. In general, I don’t like to travel with my passport because I don’t want to lose it. Instead, I bring my passport card around and bluff my way in. It is an official id, but it has a different number than my regular passport, so it doesn’t match up with the official records. Like usual, using my passport card worked for the first security checkpoint into Tian’anmen square. By the 2nd security check, it got more complicated, and they asked for my regular passport. I do carry photos of that around on my phone, so I showed them that as well. After a few checks they let me through.

I then proceeded to the next line. After 20min or so a police officer walked up to me and asked me for my id. I was the only foreigner in the line, which I assumed was why I was picked, and I showed her my passport card. She left and then returned with a few of her colleagues, and they pulled me out of the queue and checked my id’s again. This time I showed them my passport card and the pictures on my phone of my regular passport. They started asking me questions about my business in China, where I worked, etc. etc. The person in charge also went to his phone app, logged in through facial recognition and right on his phone he had access to my entire file, all in Chinese but I could clearly see the picture I had submitted for my visa application. He took pictures of all the id’s I used and added those to the file. All the time he was saying that there wasn’t a problem, which didn’t make me feel any better. Eventually, he was satisfied that I was only planning to visit Tian’anmen square for selfies and I was allowed to get back into the queue.

The next id check was easy, they accepted my passport picture on my phone. By now I had wised up and decided that I shouldn’t confuse them with multiple id’s, especially one that isn’t registered with them. After an hour wait, I got to the last and final check point. They needed a scan of my passport, and a picture of my passport didn’t work. I tried but no avail. This is where they sent me back.

I didn’t protest, although I did see a Chinese person in front of me carrying a picture of his id card on his phone and he was let in. While waiting in the queue and checking the news I realized what day it was. Boy, had I been naïve. I picked the worst possible day to visit Tian’anmen square as the only foreigner in the queue and, to add insult to injury, without proper identification. No wonder security was so tight. I will try again next week when things are quieter and bring my real passport this time.

The closest I was able to get before I was sent back because of lack of proper identification.

Health and travel codes

In the fight against COVID19, China mobilized its mobile infrastructure (pun intended) to track its citizen and foreigners alike by introducing health and travel codes. Although these are all apps, I decided to dedicate a separate blog entry to them because they are such an important part of today’s society.

You cannot go anywhere in China without a health code (健康码) and/or travel code (通行码). I got both while I was still in quarantine but in a convoluted way that I’ll explain below and there are probably easier ways to get them that I’ll point out here as well. Also note that because my Alipay app is linked to my old passport (see the Simplifying your life with Chinese Apps blog entry) things are more difficult than they should be.

Before I go into details, I found that it is critical to have a mainland China phone number. I tried and failed to register these codes on my US phone number. The system simply would not accept them.

Everywhere you go, restaurants, hotels, work, subway stations, etc. folk are asking you for your health code. Or better, they should be asking for it, but my experience was that folks in Shanghai were much less strict in checking them than the folks in Beijing. In Beijing your health code and temperature are checked whenever you enter the subway, a hotel, a mall, a restaurant, etc. There is no escaping.

Health codes are issued by region or city, and each region has different requirements and uses different apps or mini apps to track them. For the Shanghai health code, I was told to go into my Alipay app, select Shanghai and then based on my phone number it showed me my health code. Interestingly, when I was still in quarantine my Shanghai health code was already green. Health codes can be green, yellow, and red. Green obviously means you are ok, yellow means that you have to self-quarantine and red presumably means you have to go to a hospital and seek help immediately.

My Shanghai healthcode from the Ali app. The QR code is intentionally pixilated.

For Beijing I had to get a new health code and I was told again to go into the Ali app’s health mini app and select Beijing and that I would be all set. That turned out not to be the case. The Beijing health code app apparently also requires my passport number and because Alipay is keyed to my old passport it couldn’t locate me. Instead, I went into the WeChat app, installed the Beijing Health Kit mini app and I was able to get the health code there after I entered my passport and phone number.

WeChat’s Beijing Health Kit mini app that shows my Beijing health code.

The Beijing Health Kit has a convenient English option for foreigners. This is especially useful because occasionally alerts pop up. Right now, China is very worried about a COVID19 outbreak in Guangzhou, a city far away in southern china. Yesterday morning, while walking to the subway and looking up my green health code, I had to reauthenticate myself in the Beijing Health Kit app after which I had to attest that I had not been in Guangzhou or its province for the last 14-days. Once I did that, I got my green health code.

Apart from showing your health code to get into a place, I’ve also run once into a scenario where I had to scan a QR with the health app before I was allowed to go in. From the terms you agree to, it sounds that this tracks what, in this case, restaurant you’ve actually visited. It isn’t clear to me when to do this and when not. Most places just care that your code is green.

Besides a health code, there is also a travel code. This is administered by the central government instead of the local government. Curiously, I haven’t had to show my travel code while travelling on the train from Shanghai to Beijing. I’ve only had to show it when I checked into my Shanghai and Beijing hotel.

The way I obtained my travel code was by turning on the COVID tracking on my iPhone. I was curious whether this feature was supported in China, and I figured, why not try it? It worked but it pointed me to a companion app on the Chinese Apple app store that I also had to install. That app asked me for my Chinese phone number and passport number, queried its database and turned yellow. That didn’t surprise me because I tried this all out when I was still in quarantine. The day I was released from quarantine it turned green. 

My travel code when I installed it during quarantine.
My travel code just before I was released from quarantine.

It is unclear to me how much of the Apple/Google technology of continuously exchanging anonymous ID’s is incorporated in the China travel code app and whether the Chinese government uses that together with its app data to correlate the two. No doubt folks are already tracked based on their cell phone location, which happens pretty much everywhere in the world, but this feature could add a whole new level of finer-grained correlation.

The whole health/travel code framework is an interesting microcosm of how the Chinese society works. First of all, it shows how powerful local governments are with respect to the national government. The local governments put their own tracking mechanisms in place with their own registration requirements despite the fact that the national government already has a global system. As a user, it feels like the two could easily be combined but they are not. Second, the various folks I’ve talked to all assume that the tracking system will continue to stay after the COVID19 outbreak is over and they are ok with that. Obviously, they don’t have much choice in the matter, but it doesn’t seem to bother folks either. This is a very different attitude compared to my home state Texas, where we still haven’t even accepted voluntary anonymous tracking that is so commonplace in Washington and California.

Simplifying your life with Chinese Apps

China is the most automated and cell phone app-based society I know of. Everything is online and everything can be arranged through an app. While the US has good apps as well, I have the feeling China got there earlier and its app ecosystem is much better integrated and more pervasive. While these Chinese apps may appear daunting to a new user, after all most of them are only in Chinese, they are less intimidating than you think, and more important they can simplify your life as a foreigner in China a lot.

There is no way around WeChat or Alipay.  I mentioned this in my previous blog about payments in China, but they are so much more than just payment tools. Both apps are really an integration platform for a whole ecosystem of, what they refer to as, mini apps. Within WeChat, for example, you can pay merchants, pay your utility bills, manage your bank account, make an appointment with a hospital, check your health and travel codes, find and book a restaurant, order a Taxi or Didi, manage your subway card, keep track of news, instant message with all your friends, build social networks, etc. etc. etc. It’s almost as if you need only a single app on your phone to concur the world.

Didi, the Chinese Uber, is in English in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

By far the most popular app/platform is WeChat from Tencent. It’s the most commonly used app and its power stems from the fact, I think, that it started out as a communication tool for friends and family and then expanded beyond that. Alipay is the competing app/platform and it’s produced by Alibaba. While Tencent’s business model is more focused on the end user (payments, communication and gaming), Alibaba is more the equivalent of Amazon and Ebay combined. Ali (as its affectionally abbreviated here) focuses on payments, Cloud services, and B2C/C2C services. Alibaba is far bigger than Tencent, but both are a critical part of the modern Chinese society. It’s hard to live in China today without using them.

I personally use both apps because sometimes things work in one app while not in the other, but that’s in part because I’m a foreigner which makes my life more complicated. I know of some Chinese people that use WeChat exclusively and that works just fine for them. The reason things are more complicated for me is because Alipay verified my RealID based on my passport. This allows me to rent bikes and other things where they want to make sure that I am real. Unfortunately for me, that RealID verification was with my previous passport, and I’ve since then gotten a new one. Updating my passport is not trivial in some of these apps. I haven’t managed to do this yet in Alipay but I have been able to do this in WeChat. For most things this isn’t a problem, my previous passport is still valid, but it creates a problem for the COVID19 tracking database because that information is all based on my new passport that I used to enter the country. Consequently, I can look up my health code in WeChat but not in Alipay because it still has my old passport information. Confused yet? 🙂

Another really useful feature of WeChat is the translate button if you set it to the English language. I use the WeChat app from the Chinese Apple app store, and I found that it has more features than the one available in the US app store. (In general, it’s a good idea to create a Chinese Apple account because not all apps are available in the US.) The WeChat app often redirects to web pages in its built-in browser and those pages are often in Chinese. With the translate button it’s a breeze to turn these into understandable English. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s great. Both WeChat and Alipay provide English language settings but be prepared for Chinglish because most of the mini apps are only in Chinese.

Another very helpful tool for me is the translator app. It enables me to take screen shots of apps and then scan and translate those pictures in the app. Google translate used to be able to do that too, but they removed that feature for some inexplicable reasons. BTW Google translate, unlike the other Google services, is not filtered in China, which is quite nice.

While it feels like you don’t need any other standalone apps, they do exist, and I find them quite useful because the mini app ecosystem isn’t always that clear to me. Among the other apps I use are 12306, the official (highspeed) train booking app. It’s all in Chinese but with the translator app I’m able to book my own tickets. Another useful app is Dianping. It’s the Chinese Yelp but much bigger in scale. I use it to find interesting restaurants around me for dinner and I do that by just looking at the score and the food type. Occasionally I translate a review but mostly it’s just the closer it gets to a 5-ranking the better it is. It’s also convenient that from that app you can get the directions to the restaurant, make reservations and even book a DiDi.  There is a Dianping mini app for WeChat, and I use it occasionally, but the standalone app has a lot more features.

The 12306 app allows you to booked (high speed) trains at a click of a button.
Dianping is your friend when finding restaurants in your neighborhood.

I don’t buy subway tickets anymore. Instead, I load the transport cards onto my phone. Apparently, you can also do this through WeChat as well, but I use the Apple Wallet features. In order to see the metro card for your city you have to temporarily change the country setting to China and it will pop up in your wallet. More recently I’ve also seen the Apple wallet pop up a suggestion that the card is available in your region and whether you want to install it. With the card installed, I literally just tap my phone on the subway scanner and enter the subway station.

I use Apple’s wallet for my subway card, both on Shanghai and Beijing.

More and more restaurants have switched to online ordering. In the restaurant itself you’ll find a QR code on the table and you scan that with WeChat or Alipay. That will identify your table and pop up an ordering menu from which you can select. Once you feel you have ordered enough food you can hit pay and the food will be delivered to your table. It’s very convenient, you don’t need printed menus, and for the merchant its directly integrated with the payment system.

In more and more restaurants you order dinner by scanning the QR code at the table in WeChat or Alipay.
After you follow them a set of chat messages pops up, and you click on your table. W03 in this case.
Ordering is easy, just select what you like and hit okay. I my case I got the first item: Abalone dumplings.

Taking the train to Beijing

The highspeed train system (高铁) in China is second to none. It rivals airplanes, especially for 2-4 hours flights, like the one from Shanghai to Beijing. By the time you have checked into the airport, gotten through security, dealt with the inevitable delays that plaque China’s air transportation network, the 4 hour and 28 min train ride from Shanghai to Beijing doesn’t look so bad anymore.

My trip started last week when I bought a ticket through the 12306 app. This is the official Chinese highspeed railroad app and it allows you to book and pay for tickets, rebook them, cancel them, etc. The only complication is that its entirely in Chinese. Fortunately, I knew my way around in the app, and between the translation apps and my knowledge of Mandarin I was able to figure things out. I bought a single first-class ticket from Shanghai to Beijing at 10am. This was train G10 and it is their fastest option available with 4 hour 28 minutes. There are slower trains (5 or even 6 hours) that stop in more places along the way.

The train departed from Hongqiao in Shanghai. This is a massive train station right next to an actual airport. The station is about a 30-minute drive outside of downtown but it’s still in the middle of what most folks consider prime residential area. The train arrives in Beijing South station (北京南站) which is right around ring 2, so its centrally located within Beijing as well.

My usual check-in procedure was that I would buy the train ticket with the app and then at the station I would go to the counter to collect my paper copy of the ticket after they checked my passport. Only then could I proceed to the track itself. This time around this was all changed. I realized that when I bought the ticket. The tool actually gave me a QR code. I still didn’t quite trust it and exchanged it for a paper ticket when I was in the station, but I don’t think that would have been necessary.

Getting into the Hongqiao train station is always a bit of a hassle. There are huge queues for the entrances. This is where they check your id and scan your luggage. For Chinese citizens this is easy. You just swipe your id card and pass a turn style. For foreigners they have to check your passport manually. It’s always unclear to me where the manual queue is, so I just go with the flow and once I hit an automated turn style there is usually someone there that points me in the right direction. At the manual queue they literally do just that. They checked my passport and then wrote down on paper my information. Once done, I could enter the station.

Because I had a first-class ticket, I was able to use the lounge facilities. Don’t get your hopes up, this doesn’t amount to much. It’s a cordoned off area where they serve water and some packaged snacks. It doesn’t have a roof, so you aren’t shielded from the loud terminal hall noise. You also get priority boarding and that is useful, especially since the number of people on the train is huge. When you are carrying two large suitcases it’s nice to avoid this stampede.

The first-class cabin is spacious and seats about 24 persons. The chairs fully recline, and you can sleep like some of my fellow passengers did. You do have to wear a mask the whole time although few folks followed that rule. They keep the mask on but more as a chin protector then that it covers their mouth. There is also a drink and meal service in first-class but that’s water, tea, coffee, and a reheated packaged meal. 

The high speed trains zips by at speeds over 300km/h.

The ride was a quick and an uneventful 4 hours and 28 minutes, as advertised. We only stopped in a few places along the way (Nanjing and Jinan). When we arrived at Beijing Nan the mass of people deboarded the train and we were all lead through, what’s best described as a small funnel, where we had to walk through a temperature sensor. Once we walked through that I followed the signs to the tax stand and before I knew it, I was outside in the taxi line.

Arrival at Beijing South Station.

This surprised me. With all the commotion around health checks, COVID tests, 14+7 quarantine requirements for Beijing, I was expecting many more checks. There were none. Not a single time was I asked for my health or travel code, nor did I have to show my COVID test.

There were probably 100 people waiting in the north-station taxi line, but few taxis showed up. One taxi every 10min or so. Folks started to walk out of the queue and after 30-minutes I followed suit. I decided to walk to the main road, and I was fully expecting another health check or something, but no, when I walked down the ramp, I was in the middle of Beijing, next to a busy road. There I ordered a DiDi Premier and it showed up within 3 minutes to take me to my hotel. I should have done this 30-minutes earlier.

The hotel check-in was pretty expedient as well. They did want to see my COVID and quarantine documents, but only after I pointed that out to them. They simply assumed I had been in China long enough. Once I had alerted them, they had to take photocopies of everything.

I have noticed that Beijing is a lot stricter about checking your health code though. In Shanghai nobody cared but here you need it before you get into the hotel or even a restaurant. That afternoon I went for a walk down the main shopping street next to my hotel. Much to my surprise I realized how close I was to the Longfusi Hutong area, which is where one of my favorite Beijing breweries (京A) is located. I couldn’t let that pass.

When I realized how close I was, I couldn’t pass up on my favorite Beijing brewery.
Busy shopping street in downtown Beijing.

On the way back home, it started raining and I sought shelter in a local restaurant. It was tucked away in the bottom of a modern office building, but it looked cosey enough. The restaurant was so local that they didn’t even have a photo-book menu. Those are very common in China. Instead, I used a translation tool to ask the waiter to pick something small for me: 你能帮我挑一顿简餐吗? She did that and showed me the price. I had no idea what I ordered but it was surprisingly good. A combination of mushroom, spring onions, bacon, red peppers, whole grain rice, and cooked peanuts and some pickles.

My surprise meal in a random restaurant.

When I left the restaurant the rain had subsided. I decided to try my luck with one of the many rental bikes. It took a bit of a fumbling to get it working. The bike’s app refused to work for me but its mini app inside the Alibaba app worked just fine. I’ll write more about that in my upcoming blog entry about simplifying your life with Chinese Apps.

Impressions from Shanghai

This has been a busy 10-days in Shanghai. With the exception of Saturday evening, each evening was filled with dinners and typically I had meetings during the day as well. Rather than describing each day individually I figured I jot down some of my overall impressions to make it less boring.

Shanghai is about making money. This is probably an over-simplification but everyone I talked to was either in the process of setting up a new company or already running a company. Some of these are startups, others are 10-year-old established businesses with 30+ employees. It was fascinating to listen to these folks. They were all looking for my feedback, new ideas and in some cases, they wanted me to join.

Most of folks I talked to, but not all, were in the semiconductor business. There is a semiconductor boom in China, all fueled by the geopolitical conflict started by the previous and continued by the current administration. What was clear last time I visited, China wants to become self-sufficient, is now in full overdrive. Folks are investing heavily in storage, networking, SOC’s, CPUs (mostly ARM and RiscV), synthesis tools, foundries, etc. This boom is in part made possible by the US when they put Huawei onto the entity list.

Let me explain. What I was afraid of has come to fruition. Huawei through its subsidiary HiSilicon had done an amazing job over the last 10-years in attracting the best semiconductor talent that China had available. The result of this was that all the semiconductor expertise was concentrated in a single company. There weren’t many companies that could even come close to Huawei’s expertise and execution capabilities. However, because Huawei is now on the entity list it can no longer manufacture its products with TSMC, Samsung or others. I get the impression that Huawei is running on fumes and rapidly depleting its inventory with no immediate path to producing more products.

This makes Huawei a less exciting place to work. Many of its experts have left Huawei/Hisilicon. Some moved to other large companies (Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent), but many started their own companies. Where the semiconductor knowledge used to be contained to a single company, Huawei, it has now blossomed all over China. So, while putting Huawei on the exception list was a temporary setback for China, the net effect is that the knowledge has now been spread all over the country and where it matures much faster than what it would have done inside a single company.

Talking about Huawei, I still have some friends who work for Huawei, and I had dinner with one of them last Monday. This is tricky because according to my company’s Legal guidance I can meet Huawei employees on a personal basis, but I cannot discuss technology with them. Now in this case my friend is in sales, so the probability of us exchanging technical information is pretty low but I’m still very conscious of the situation. In this particular case we decided to have dinner in a German biergarten (this wasn’t the first biergarten I visited this week, they are popular in Shanghai) and we talked about each other’s families, jobs, the situation in the world today and how much had changed since we last met. During dinner I couldn’t help but notice that there was a Caucasian man sitting by himself, drinking beer, and fiddling with his phone in direct line of sight of us (40ft or so) the whole time we were there. It’s probably my imagination that’s playing tricks on me, but I couldn’t entirely dismiss the idea that someone was recording our conversation. It made me even more conscious of the situation.

The view from my restaurant during the last night in Shanghai.

Apart from being worried that I’m spied upon, I also hung out with a rather vibrant expat community. Some of these folks have been in China for 15-years and built quite a diverse set of companies. Naively I assumed, as is the case in the US, that these folks were fully integrated in China and preparing to stay. Nothing could be further from the truth. None of these folks were in China on a permanent resident visa. Instead, they were on a 5-year work visa that is renewed every 5-years. As part of this renewal process, they have to leave China for 1 full month. Nobody can explain why, China probably wants to remind folks that they are not part of China and never will be. 

UPDATE: In Beijing someone explained to me why expats are leaving China for 1 full month every 5 years. Not unsurprisingly, its a tax thing. If you leave for a month every five years then you are only taxed for your income in China, not your world-wide income.

By the time you are 62 China stops renewing your visa and you will have to leave the country. It is possible to get an extension but that’s on a year-by-year basis. They described a particular case to me of a 70-year-old who had spent most of his working life in China but now had to leave because his visa was not renewed. An added complication was that this person in question had to sell his house in Beijing (if I remember correctly). While this added up to a nice retirement sum, about $20M, he couldn’t get his money out of China, so he was stuck for his retirement.

It’s interesting to compare this approach to importing foreign expertise with the USA. The USA is very welcoming to top talent, and it promotes folks to integrate and become part of the society and stay. China wants to attract top talent but doesn’t really want them to become part of their society or stay.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that my sample size of expats is really small. I actually know one person who did get a China permanent resident status but it’s also notoriously hard to get.

Should I stay or should I go?

Never a dull moment. After we reconfirmed last week with the company that runs the long-term stay apartments in Beijing that the current Beijing policy is 14+7, I got an email today from that same company that stated that the policy was 14+7+7. Apologies, if this is a repeat from my previous blog, but Chinese regulations require an out of country visitor to stay in a mandatory quarantine hotel for 14-days. Some cities add to that an extra 7-days where you have to stay isolated either in a hotel or in your home. Apparently, Beijing has an extra policy on top of that that adds 7 days for observation. During these observation days you can work, but you can’t be in public places or have dinner. I’m not quite sure how that works if you use public transport to get to work.

The problem is that it isn’t entirely clear whether that policy is currently in effect or not. It was in effect in March and the Beijing city government webpages state that clearly, but when my Chinese admin called the hotline, we get the response that it isn’t in effect anymore.

Obviously, I’d rather stay in Shanghai for a few extra days where I can live in freedom instead of going back into isolation in Beijing. That would require me to rebook my train ticket. I’m not quite sure how to do that yet, but I’m sure I would figure that one out. I would also have to get yet another COVID test that falls within the 7-day validity window of my arrival, but I’m now an experienced and registered patient so that shouldn’t be too hard either.

I’m now waiting for the residence company to figure out what policy they are adhering to …

UPDATE: A friend of mine, who was on the same flight over from the US as me, went to Beijing by train today. He arrived this afternoon. When he checked into his hotel it was 14+7. I think my long-term residence place is a bit more catholic than the pope by insisting on 14+7+7. Besides, when I arrive it isn’t really 7 days of observation anymore. Only 4 days. So, I decided to go ahead with the original plan and go to Beijing by train on Tuesday.