China business trip

01 February 2017
In the latter part of last year I was on a company secondment to Shanghai. This had been in the pipe-line for quite some time, but since as a rule I don't write publicly about either my professional or personal life any more, I decided to only do a single hindsight article. This article is a collection of notes about the trip and feelings about going to the Peoples' Republic.


Having already done Tokyo, Taipei, & Hong Kong, mainland China is somewhere that I needed to visit, and doing so as a business trip for a major international company makes things so much easier. I had in the past given China a miss because I did not want to have to mess around with visa applications, but felt that I should finally bite this bullet.
Travelling while I can
My own experiences and advice from friends is that overseas deployments are things to be grabbed with both hands, in part because such opportunities in practice are actually quite rare. A quick succession of trips to the Middle East in my last UK-based job was unusual for an early-career job, and that time of my life is still the source of most of my best work-related stories. Being able to travel as part of a job is actually quite an unusual thing, and long trips in particular become increasingly difficult with commitments that come with older age. The opportunity came up, and I certainly grabbed it.
Needing the shockwave
At a personal level I felt that I was in need of another foreign adventure. A major thought of mine before going out to China was that my life needed a bit of a shake-up, and that the trip was the perfect thing to provide the required shock-wave. These thoughts are much like what I had before going out to New Zealand, but in this case it would not be quite as drastic as the speculative emigration I did previously. In other words I was after the newness, but without the previous trade-in costs I characterised at the time as the spin of the roulette wheel. This time round I would have a job to go to and somewhere to come back to, so although it did induce me to tie up a lot of loose ends, the level of worry would be substantially less. Career-wise being able to claim that I've lived and worked in China would be a major plus-point, and doing it through a company secondment took most of the hazards out of it.

Prior to the trip

The main difference between preparation New Zealand and preparation for China was that this time round I was purely focused on what I needed for the trip, because this time coming back was part of the plan. I was motivated to fix up a few things that I probably would not have done otherwise, but on the whole it was nothing on the scale of the closure-orientated clear-out (physical & mental) I had last time. Once I had been given the green light, all the logistics was left to myself. I got perhaps a bit less helps than I should have, but this was both understandable given circumstances that I will by choice not elaborate on here and in any case did not really bother me. I considered it part of the process, and in hindsight probably would not have wanted someone to do it for me.
Avoid the agents
The process and requirements for getting a Chinese visa at first is as clear as mud, particularly as a lot of information out there about it is either outdated or outright wrong. Initially I planned to go through an agent, but it soon became apparent that they would be a waste of time & money. Most were US-centric, and those that weren't asked for information which I was (correctly) pretty sure was not actually required. In the end I concluded the best thing to do was to fill in the form to the level of detail I thought required, submit it, and see what happened. The prices quoted by the agents who were at least up-front about their costs were multiples of my estimate of the embassy fee, so I guessed I would be quids-in even if my application got rejected and I had to go to the expense of submitting an amended one.
Sorting the paperwork
On the whole I found the Chinese authorities to be a lot more laid-back than their reputation suggests. Whereas US immigration want the sort of documentation normally reserved from criminals, business visitors to China are given what turned out to be quite an easy ride. Others tell me that the visa I got was actually quite generous for a first-time applicant - I could have stayed up to six months - but that merely vindicates my decision to go as part of a business trip rather than as a holiday.
The countdown
The last 2-3 weeks before going to New Zealand was a time of clearing out thoughts, tying up loose ends, and general worrying about where stuff was. The run-up to going to China was much the same, just of a lesser magnitude. In more recent years I've let my past prolific writing decline, but for this trip I decided to take regular notes of my thought just as I did back in 2012 & 2013.
Time to go
There are always going to be things left until the last moment, most notably the final bit of packing of things that are in active use. There are always worries about leaving things behind, and on the whole I find that packing strategies are as much about calming the mind than reducing the probability of something being forgotten. However there comes a point where re-checking should be limited to one item: You passport. I think I did quite well on the whole, as there was only one item I wanted to take with me but left behind on the way out, and when I returned all items I left behind were things I did not intend to bring back.

While in China

Life in China is quite a shock even for people like me who sort of know what to expect. Some colleagues who were only over for a few days couldn't get to the airport fast enough, and I found their reaction to me having been there for multiple months amusing. Doubt I would want to live there permanently, but I certainly wanted to stay longer than I did.

Cost of living

Those going to Shanghai expecting things to be cheap are in for a big shock. Shanghai is expensive, and some things are actually a lot more expensive than in Europe. There are lots of westernised superstores and supermarkets selling some things for about 4-6 times the price they fetch back in Europe. If you want cheap Chinese goods, a better bet is to order than off AliExpress and save yourself the hassle of having to pack them. Had I known better I would have packed two suitcases expecting to leave one in China, rather than the other way round. However, unlike places like London where everything is expensive, there are a lot of things that are surprisingly cheap. Most notably is transport. A 3km trip cost ¥17 which is about £2 - in Bristol it costs more than that just to step into the taxi. A big shock of coming back to Europe is finding out how much money I had in my current account, because it is possible to subsist on £3-4 per day in China. One word of caution is that in China there is cheap, and then there is ultra-cheap. The latter is something to avoid, especially when it comes to food and drink. The real dirt-cheap stuff is probably.. dirty. Think gutter oil. Think fake wine made from paintstripper. The reason imported good are so expensive is partly due to the mark-up people are preparing to pay for brand trust.

Feel of the place

The part of China I was mostly staying in felt somewhere between Sim City in that things seemed like they had been thrown together in a less-than-coordinated fashion, and mega-city one in the way there are these huge building with quite a lot of space between them. The way things are put together is far from seamless, as if the locals had not quite figured the supposedly “proper” way to do things, which is partly an artefact of how quickly things were built. It does result in some interesting ideas, some of which I would like to see back in Europe, although it does also come with problems of its own.
Doing without Google Maps
The biggest shock of internet censorship to get over with is Google being blocked, because this blocking includes many Android services such as Google Play and Google Maps, that latter of which for some reason is broken anywhere without a network connection available. Without Google Maps always being to hand on your mobile it takes about 3-4 weeks to adjust to the layout & scale of Chinese cities, start picking up the cues that indicate where you are, and really get confident about getting from place to place. New Zealand was much the same as I didn't have an operative smartphone while there, so relied on printed maps.
Attitude to foreigners
Shanghai is by Chinese standards an international city, so on the whole foreigners will be given a fairly easy time. In fact I am told that foreigners are often treated better than Chinese from other provinces, in part because foreigners usually mean money & business whereas non-local Chinese often carry connotations much like those of illegal immigrants in the western world. Free movement is not really a thing in China in the way it is internally in most other countries, and internal deportations do occur in much the same way the UK deports people to other countries. Being Shanghai which is also China's showcase to the world, there is selection-bias in all of this. Anti-foreigner sentiment is something the Chinese government usually keeps on a tight leash, and locals with English language ability even if they hate you like the opportunities for a bit of language practice. There is racism, but it is not overt in the way that it is in Europe.
Attitude to technology
The Chinese embrace technology to a much greater extent than I've seen in Europe, the most notable example was having sensors for every space within in a carpark, so that it was possible to have per-row capacity displays. Electronic payment has really taken off in a way that hasn't in other countries, with AliPay being one of several systems where you can pay for something just by scanning a Q-code. Think of PayPal on steroids. It is not all good though - the Chinese identity card is the ultimate in the double-edged sword of integration. The system is very convenient in that you can book things like train tickets and all you need to pass gates is the card itself that contains biometric data, but the way that it ties into everything is a libertarians' nightmare. It is the type of invasiveness that was the goal of the Labour government with the UK ID card system, and it puts a lot of implicit trust in administrators.
Personal safety & security
Asia as a whole has a stereotype of having fewer problems with personal safety than other parts of the world, and to some extent the reputation is deserved. China has had some major incidents of people going postal such as the Kunming knife massacre, but by and large these are incidents with underlying causes. The type of trouble that that foreigners attract is the usual petty theft and price gouging that is a problem in all big cities. What is notably absent in China is anti-social behaviour, and in particular random motiveless acts of violence by individuals such as that I saw among townies in Bristol in the mid-2000s. Loutish behaviour as far as I could tell is not an ongoing concern in the same way it is as described in ChavTowns, so fear of violent crime is very low.

Videos about China

While in China there were two YouTube channels I viewed regularly, ADVChina and China Uncensored. Both present what China is like, and from personal experience I can see the truth in both of them, but focus on very different aspects.

The first of these channels is a generally upbeat series filmed by two westerners (one South African and one American) who live in southern China. It is filmed from the perspective of motorbike riders mostly driving through rural China, with episodes typically lasting 15 minutes. Can be a little slow-paced but is good, if sometimes a little rose-tinted, for explaining life in China.
China Uncensored
China Uncensored is the personification of why YouTube is banned in China, and personally I find is more for entertainment than information. Many of the episodes are political and are almost universally negative with regards to the communist party, although it does also explain how the situations came about. Episodes tend to be around 5 minutes and are filmed news presenter style.

Negative aspects

Since in many ways China is a deregulated place, there are some things that some people will find troubling. They did not bother me personally, but I know people who would likely avoid the place because of just some of these.
Tourist targeting
Typical of anywhere with a lot of foreigners, the tourist areas are a magnet for all sorts of less-than-kosher characters. Foreigners will have problems with taxi touts, fake goods hawkers (especially Rolex watches), and prostitutes. They don't necessarily spell trouble, but there is a good probability that the end result will be forking out more money than is worth it.Thankfully if you blank them they will just move on
The environment
Pollution is a major problem, and I mean levels of pollution that make London seem clean. The main pollutant is the particularly troublesome PM2.5 for which face masks do not provide any protection. About 80% of the time the air quality was listed as Unhealthy, and typically it was towards the top end of this AQI category. Of the remaining 20% a few days were Very Unhealthy, the worst day being 249. For comparison, passive smoking ceased to be any significant health issue above 150.
Animal welfare
China is not a place for animal lovers. Animal rights is not an ongoing concern of mine, but in China there is no real concept of it. Circuses that I remember from the 1980s I am pretty sure are now non-existent in the UK, but at the Shanghai Wild Animal Olympics they had with monkeys and bears racing each other on bicycles. If you are the type who is into fox-hunting, you might enjoy things like feeding live duckings to crocodiles.

Personal freedoms

China is a little odd when it comes to personal freedoms. They certainly have a reputation for authoritarianism that is well deserved, but there is also a lot that would not be out of place in a libertarians' paradise. Firstly the negatives:
Limits on movement
China has a Hukou (household registration) residency system that amounts to an internal passport & visa system, and under this system if someone is not a native of the area they are living in they have no rights at all. Passports are required for those wanting to buy tickets for long-distance trains and even mobile sim-cards. Shanghai itself is very open, but in places like Hangzhou many hotels still do not allow foreigners to check in. Of course there are certain places to the west that will remain nameless that I am pretty sure I should not even consider visiting..
Keeping of tabs
Visitors to China are supposed to register where they are staying, and this is a bit of a pain because the procedure is badly documented. Hotels will do it for you, but a lot of foreigners in Shanghai simply don't bother because from my experience not even the police really know the system. China is also big on surveillance including road cameras that photograph every vehicle, but unlike the UK they make no attempt to hide it - the constant flashing gives them away.
Internet censorship
Many non-Chinese internet services, most notably Facebook and Google, simply do not work and this can be quite a shock at first. Chinese internet blocking apparently includes 70% of all the world's websites, and quite often the alternatives are either crap (e.g. Bing maps) or are not really an option for those who cannot read Chinese (e.g. Baidu). What is blocked can seem a little random, and in some cases I think the blocking is somewhat half-hearted: WhatsApp (US-based) is unrestricted, Kakaotalk (Korean) half works as I suspect that they just deleted the DNS entry rather than blocking the servers themselves, Line (Taiwan) I'm told is blocked completely, and WeChat (Chinese) is all but endorsed by the government.

One word: VPN

After a while one soon works out how to get access to all these blocked services, because there are plenty of providers of off-the-shelf VPN accounts for the specific purpose of accessing non-Chinese websites. I mostly used my company's VPN as that provided plausible deniability for heavy traffic loads, and stuff the company's proxies block is almost always stuff like viruses & fake websites that I think ought to be filtered out. I actually used my personal laptop far less than I expected, but not so little I could have done without it. However the internet remains pretty much a thing for the home & office, as well as few pubs with decent Wifi, rather than for on the move.

The hands-off side

On the plus side day-to-day life is surprisingly unrestricted in practice. There is a lot of things that can freely be done in other countries that cannot be done in China, but one of the biggest surprises is the opposite of stuff China allows that elsewhere does not. In many ways the government, at least in practice, is not prescriptive on how people conduct their lives:
In the UK there are a whole host of compliance officers in place to enforce even the silliest of laws, but in China one can get away with doing (or not doing) a lot as long as there isn't a periodic crackdown in progress. Many of the security officials were mainly for show, and often only looking for very specific things like someone carrying a machete. It says a lot that I was able to quote specific articles of Chinese law that most Chinese did not even know existed, and the only person I came across who actually got hassled over accommodation registration was one involved with a dodgy landlord via AirBNB.
There is very little of the “nanny state” western plague. Smoking is rampant with people lighting up just about everywhere, traffic junctions need traffic marshals because road laws are considered advisory, drinking in public makes the Irish look puritan, and health & safety is not really considered a government responsibility. A bit of a double-edged sword as the safety culture is very weak.
Political correctness
Forget about the western drag-net that is safe space. As long as it is not a “sensitive topic” or about someone important, you can say what you bloody well like and no unemployable ex student union activist can do a thing about it. Even though overt racism is basically legal, I saw far less of it than in Europe.
A very mixed bag. Lot of things that makes me think China is not a country I would want to settle in, but in many respects it is a breath of fresh air from a shed-load of meddlesome irritations that people have to put up with in the UK and to a lesser extent the rest of Europe.

Looking back

There is a lot more I could have said, but then this article would never be completed. This multi-month trip to China provided the diversion in life I was after, and while over there I felt I saw enough potentially once-in-a-lifetime things that I feel my time was not wasted. Of course there was a lot I didn't see, but also feel that my choice of things to give a miss was on balance correct.