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.

Shanghai hospital visit

You would think that at some point I’ve taken enough COVID tests to prove that I’m safe, but no, there is always room for one more. I’ve had five tests over the last 4 weeks already. One test in Austin to make sure I wasn’t caught off guard in San Jose, 2 tests in San Jose (nasal/throat swaps and a blood serum test) that were required to fly to Shanghai, one in the Shanghai airport and another test when I left the quarantine hotel. Now, according to my company, I have to take yet another test in order to catch the train to Beijing.

It’s a little bit unclear whether I really need the test. Friends of mine recently took the train to Beijing and didn’t do a test nor were they asked for it, but the rules change quickly and frequently so I just follow my company’s guidance.

The instruction I got were just that: Get a COVID test within 7-days before you go to Beijing. Because I’m staying in Shanghai for 10-days my quarantine exit test was no longer valid, so I needed a new one. When I asked where I could get a test, I was told they are available everywhere and that it shouldn’t be a problem to get one. Not exactly the step-by-step instructions I had hoped for. I decided to ask my hotel’s reception and they pointed me to the local hospital which is just one block away from the hotel. I asked whether I needed to make a reservation and that wasn’t necessary.

I decided that Thursday afternoon would be a good time for the test and on the Wednesday before I asked my Chinese teacher to practice the following sentence with me: I need a COVID19 test report. I’m taking the highspeed train to Beijing. That came out as: 我需要一份核酸检测报告,我坐高铁去北京 时使用.  I worked on the pronunciation but just to be sure I also took a screen shot of that sentence and kept it on my phone.

On Thursday I walked over to the hospital. The Shanghai Changzheng hospital. It’s actually a very big hospital and takes up an entire city block and it’s at least five stories high. The initial entrance process was straightforward. Show your green health code and that gets you into the registration area. That area was massive, crowded and everything is in Mandarin. My plans to practice my pronunciation were immediately thrown overboard because there was no way I was going to make myself heard. There was an information desk in the center where I showed my practice sentence. They gave me a yellow piece paper and sent me to booth 11. 

Patient registration hall.
I’m registered as an official patient.

At booth 11 I patiently waited in the queue. When it was almost my turn, an elderly man pushed his way in front of me. My first reaction was what the heck but then it immediately dawned on me that this may be a common sign of respect. You let elderly people go first. I just let him do his thing and when it was my turn, I showed them the Chinese sentence. The woman behind the counter asked me for my id. That’s when I realized I should have taken my passport with me. Unfortunately, it was still in my hotel room, but I do always carry pictures of my passport and visa with me and I showed that to her and she was fine with that. After paying 25元 with WeChat (I’m not sure they accepted anything else) I was given a hospital ID card, a receipt and told to go to the third floor.

When I arrived at the third floor it was again very hectic. I waited in line for the information desk and when it was my turn, I showed them my sentence. They simply point to right, which was the other end of a long hallway. I tried to ask questions, but they didn’t speak English and more empathetically pointed to the right side of the hallway. I walked down the hallway in that direction and did cross booths that looked like blood drawing booths. I figured I’d ask them. They swiped my id card, after all I was now in the system, and in broken English told me I hadn’t paid. Confused, I showed them my receipt, but they were very persistent and told me to go down to the first floor to pay. I figured this was for the COVID test itself.

Back at the first floor I went to the information desk and showed them my receipt and id card. They pointed me up to the 3rd floor. I tried to explain to them that I had  already been there and that I had to pay for the COVID test, but they clearly didn’t understand me. I kept repeating that I had to pay and eventually someone got the message and told me to go to counter 3. At counter 3 the queue was much shorter, and it quickly was my turn. I showed them my practice sentence and told them I had to pay for my COVID test. They scanned my id card, charged me 80元, and I paid with WeChat and I got my receipt. Back to the 3rd floor.

At the 3rd floor they were amused that I was back again. One of the nurses got her phone out and showed me a translated message that said: go to the tent in front of the emergency entrance. That meant going back to the 1st floor, outside the hospital and around the block to the emergency entrance.

When I got to the emergency entrance, there was indeed a tent with a small queue. I got in line and waited for my turn. There were a whole bunch of notices at the front of the tent, and I took a picture of it so that I could translate it. A few seconds later the nurses started screaming and I wasn’t paying attention to it, nor did I understand it. Everyone was looking at each other and then someone pointed out that it was directed at me. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to take pictures and I had to delete them. So, I did but I still don’t know what those signs said. I never got the chance to translate them. When it was my turn, I gave them my id, they checked my name, gave me a receipt with a QR code and then took a throat and nasal swap. I then left, like the other folks did, and I assume that I have to get the report after 24-hours by checking the QR code.

The COVID19 testing tent.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but I think the process was more complicated because I’m a foreigner but, in the end, it was not that difficult. It just feels overwhelming because you are in the middle of it and don’t speak the language. The process as far as I can reconstruct is as follows: I first needed to register as a patient and get an id card. For this they charged me 25元. I then needed to see a nurse or doctor to make the assessment that I needed a test, followed by paying for the test and then taking the test. As a Chinese citizen you carry your state id card and since the government pays for everything so you can probably skip two of those steps.

With a bit of luck, I’ll get a clean bill of health and I can take the train to Beijing next week.

UPDATE: I asked various friends after I took the test how I could retrieve the test report. They were all telling me to go back to the hospital. This seemed somewhat weird to me. It was a very modern hospital and I suspected everything was online. That evening I started to navigate the hospital’s Chinese-only website. With the help of Google and Microsoft translation tools I was able to figure it out and get to my medical reports. The results obviously weren’t ready yet, but as promised, the next day at noon they appeared. As expected, I tested negative.

I tried to print out an official report but that didn’t appear to be an option. Instead I made a printout of the screen and folks ensured me that was sufficient even tough I was somewhat skeptical because it wasn’t very official looking. On Saturday afternoon I decided to go back to the hospital and ask for an official print out with stamps and all. The Chinese love their stamps. Every official document has at least one stamp, if not more. Quite often they include some impressive looking red ones too.

As I did the first time, I practiced with my teacher the sentence that I needed to a print out: 请问打印机在哪里. Like the last time, that wasn’t even necessary. Among the many self serve kiosks there were convenience service counters with actual people. I walked over and gave them my QR code, they printed the result, and put an official stamp on it. Voila, I have some that looks official enough to impress the folks when I check into the train station on Tuesday.

Microsoft Research Shanghai

While in the US there is a stigma about COVID and Asian people, here in China it is the other way around: foreigners are potentially contaminated and should be avoided. I was reminded of that today. I had made a coffee appointment with a mentee that I have in Shanghai. We agreed to meet in person, and we had decided on a time and place the next day. This morning he texted me that his wife is not ok with him meeting me. Apparently, the school his kids go to has the requirement that when you meet with foreigners who have been in the country for less than 21-days you have to report that. His wife didn’t want to deal with the consequences of that. While I understand the concerns and I didn’t take it personally, it does make you pause and think once the tables are flipped.

Today’s workday started out early. I’m still waking up early, 3:30am, do email and around 7am I jumped on a conference call, followed by a quick shower at 8am and a 40min subway ride to get to the office. I like to take my showers hot and I made the mistake of wearing a light grey polo shirt that is very absorbent. The problem with that is that any perspiration is very visible, and it made me feel very self-conscious in the hot subway. I was especially worried that people would be concerned that I had a high fever and tried to avoid me. I did get some strange looks but that may also have been my imagination.

The subways are busy. The only sign of COVID is that folks are more diligent about wearing masks.

Finding my way around Shanghai is an interesting problem. I’m obviously very used to using Google maps. While Google maps works, it isn’t very accurate here in China. That is because Google maps improves with more users and there aren’t many of those here because most Google services are banned. It’s really only foreigners that use it because their cell phone traffic uses home-roaming and goes back to the USA. I have been resorting to Apple Maps instead, which is ok, but the real app to use here is Alimaps from Alibaba. The draw back with that app is that it’s all in Chinese but with enough patience and taking screenshots that you can translate with a separate app you can get by.

Alimaps instructions on how to get to the Microsoft lab. Its easier to decipher than it looks.

I knew my trip to the lab coincided with John Hopcroft’s visit. John is a luminary in our field and a Turing Award winner. He is on the Microsoft Research advisory board, and he has been advising the Chinese government on improving their academic education system. He and his wife had just been released from quarantine the day before and they were already touring around. Since I was an honored guest as well, but one of significantly lower stature, I got to participate in all the private conversations with John. It was interesting to hear how he had been working with the Chinese government officials. I did get the distinct impression that some of the meetings with officials he described were more about the prestige of meeting with a Turing award winner than his specific opinions or insights.

It turned out that John knew Robbert van Renesse very well. Robbert and I had the same PhD advisor, Andy Tanenbaum, so we had a connection there as well. I had never met John in person before and I knew him primarily because of the automata and compiler textbooks I had to study in grad school.

Following the private meetings, John did a fireside chat with the lab. The lab has about 20 Microsoft Researcher’s and another 20 or interns/collaborators. They are all very young and early in their career and most of their questions were about career advice and John’s opinions on doing pure Research. Serendipity played a big part in his answers. Exposing these young researchers to luminaries in our field is a great motivator for them.

John Hopcroft’s fireside chat. Folks are wearing masks out of a courtesy to John or perhaps because they were afraid to be close to foreigners who were just released from quarantine?

I was invited to lunch with John and the leadership team but I skipped that so I could take my Chinese lessons. That went around the lab like wildfire and folks were quite perplexed that I prioritized my Chinese lessons over meeting John for lunch. I was ok with that. I had already met John earlier that day and I did not want to break my stride of daily Chinese lessons.

In the afternoon I got to do my own version of a fireside chat. More a coffee side chat for just the Microsoft employee and interns. They asked me lots of questions about how Azure works, what are our challenges and opportunities, what are the industry challenges, what problems they should work on, etc. The folks asked very intelligent questions and were surprisingly well informed about what’s going on in the US.

The view of Shanghai center from the lab. Air quality was deteriorating quickly. AQI was 122 at that point.

Over dinner, with a small subset of the lab’s leadership team, the conversation steered more to what I wanted to accomplish over the next few months and the kind of problems that I think are worth solving. Next week I’ll get to repeat all of this in Beijing. It feels like this will be a great and productive summer.

My foray into money laundering

Sunday was a slow day. My body was still recovering from the abuse the night before. It was also raining cats and dogs in Shanghai, so it wasn’t a great time to explore the town. However, there were a few things I had to take care of, one of them was to get money on my Chinese bank account so I had enough funds to continue to use Alipay and WeChat pay.

In a previous blog I described how I got my Chinese bank account but the way I put money into it is a bit cumbersome. I use my US bank card at an ATM to withdraw physical money and then I use my Chinese card to deposit it on my local bank account. This has always worked but this time it didn’t. The culprit was a software change that required me to enter a 6-digits PIN code. My US card has a different length PIN code, and the ATM did not want to accept that. This put me in a bind because it’s the only way for me to get money in China.

I knew there were a few banks in the neighborhood, and I tried another. That bank didn’t accept US cards at all. Period. Somewhat desperate and thinking of other ways I could get money, I asked a friend of mine whether he could transfer some to me and I’d pay him back. While we were WeChatting about this I ran in to a Bank of China ATM and tried my US bank pass again. This time it worked, that particular ATM allowed a non-6-digit PIN code and I was able withdraw money. I then walked over to my bank branch and deposited the money.

I know that my “transfer” method is somewhat baroque, and I can probably just do a money transfer money into my Chinese account. However, I don’t remember the SWIFT code for my bank nor am I completely convinced the money would actually make it. Since I typically don’t need large sums, this method has worked well in the past.

Since this time around I need more money than I usually do (for travel, and I need a deposit for my apartment in Beijing), I figured I get into the money trading business. Because of Chinese’s closed banking system it’s difficult for folks here to get money out of China. I think you can only get $50K out per year and even that requires a lot of paper work. So, I offered a friend of mine that if he can transfer money into my Chinese account from his Chinese account, then I’m happy to transfer that same amount into his Western bank account. That way we can help each other.

I’ll figure out tomorrow if this works. I looked at my Chinese bank app and hopefully figured out the correct info I need to transfer money. My friend will try that tomorrow. If that doesn’t work, then I fall back to my more hands-on method of depositing money on my account here.

On my way back from the bank I walked through Nanjing Road. This is Shanghai’s premium shopping street with all the high-end fashion brands lining the street. Here it feels like COVID19 is a distant memory. Things are back to normal with lots of folks walking around, chatting, laughing and window shopping.

Nanjing road. Shanghai’s premier shopping street.

That evening I took the subway to meet up with a friend for dinner. I wanted to make sure that my subway pass still worked. It does and its a great way to get around. Especially when the roads are grid locked during rush hour. I have a transport card on my phone, it’s in my iPhone wallet, and hopping onto the subway is just a simple swipe. I didn’t even have to show my health code.

Update: My friend was able to transfer the money into my Chinese bank account. What’s more, it was there instantaneous. He WeChatted me that he had just finalized the transaction , I went into my app and it was there. No two day delay nonsense.