A few friends of mine are in China right now, so I thought I would write up a few suggestions for visiting. (This would have been better to send before they left, but I think it is still helpful advice.)
- Don’t drink the water. You hear this in a lot of countries, but it is important advice in China. Pollution in China is rampant, and the water is not safe to drink. To put it another way, the Chinese do not drink the water–ever. This also means generally avoiding ice. For what it’s worth, I would recommend not brushing your teeth with the water either. Most hotels have bottled water, and if they don’t it’s worth purchasing.
- Learn to love tea. Everyone in China drinks tea. It is a ubiquitous drink. Think of people in the United States with bottles of water and imagine them carrying bottles of tea instead and you will get a small idea of what China is like. The tea is safe to drink and delicious. While in the United States we are paranoid about people bringing very small bottles of water through an airline checkpoint, In China I saw people routinely bringing glass bottles of tea to their flights.
- China is not a democracy. This may be hard to imagine for people from democracies. But it’s important to remember. For folks from the United States, here a couple of side-effects:
- You do not have freedom of movement. The police can ask you for your papers at any time. They can tell you where to go and when to go there, and at the time when they tell you there is no significant recourse. You must do what the police say, or you can be brought to jail.
- If you are not in a hotel, you must tell the police where you are staying. This isn’t just a loosely enforced set of rules, as it might be in Europe–in China, the police routinely check houses door-by-door to check the residence papers of each person living there. If you do not have the appropriate papers, expect to spend some time at the local police station.
- China does not have habeous corpus. As a United States citizen, the consulate should be notified of an arrest, but you do not necessarily have the right to a review of your detainment by an independent judiciary, nor do you necessarily have the right to consul from a local lawyer. In a way, you can be effectively “disappeared” if China deems it necessary.
- You do not have a freedom of speech in China, nor do you have freedom of thought. The government of China has arrested dissidents for thought crimes. And direct criticism of the government is simply not allowed. Criticizing the Chinese government publicly is a surefire way to get sent to jail or ejected from the country.
- There is no “freedom of the press” in China. Having press credentials is not a get-out-of-jail free card. If anything, being a member of the press subjects you to greater scrutiny from the Chinese government. Chinese police have been directed to confront photographers who photograph protests at the Olympics (ref. from the Harper’s a couple of years ago).
- China has no freedom of religion. There has been a lot of coverage of Tibet in the west, but without minimizing the treatment of religion in Tibet, it pales in comparison to China’s treatment of religion in general. The Catholic Church is subject to the Chinese government, and some religions, like Falun Gong, are openly persecuted.
We sometimes take the freedoms of the United States for granted. China makes you remember these freedoms.
- Watch out for counterfeit currency. The 20 and 100 Yuan notes (~$3.50 and $17) are frequently counterfeited. Examine 20 Yuan notes as you receive them as change. Chinese currency has similar security features to U.S. currency–get to know them. A couple of friends of mine ran into a sneaky trick: they gave a driver a 100 Yuan note, and the driver rejected it as counterfeit. Later, they realized that the note they had given the driver was not the same note they had received back. The driver palmed the real 100 Yuan note and slipped them back a forgery.
- China only has one timezone. China is a huge country, and easily spans five or six geographic time zones. However, the entire country is GMT+8 for the entire year–there is no daylight savings time.
- The Great Wall is amazing. Don’t be an ass: if you are in China, allocate a day to see a portion of the Great Wall. You will regret it if you don’t go.
- Most younger people in China do not have brothers or sisters. With the notable exception of ethnic Tibetans, most Chinese are only permitted to have one child. This means no brothers or sisters. In the United States, when people talk about their families, it is common to ask if you have brothers or sisters. In China, that question could be seen as slightly offensive. Cousins have much closer relationships in China than in the United States.
- China is a large, ethnically diverse country. While China has, as a policy of the government, attempt to blend the cultural differences of the different countries, the fact is that China is a huge country with many different peoples. From a tourist perspective, this means that if you leave Beijing, you will find that other parts of the country have different traditions, languages and foods. (For example, while it is quashed, Shanghai has it’s own version of Chinese distinct from Mandarin and Cantonese called Shanghainese.)
- China has censorship. On the public internet, many websites are inaccessible. For example, I would be surprised if the previous Wikipedia link is available in China. Results from google.com may not be available, while Google’s deal with China is that results from google.cn will be pre-edited to remove censored sites. (This is just my understanding–it may be incorrect.) While some sites will not be available at all, other sites may redirect to Chinese competitors. While both Yahoo’s and Google’s policies are arguably participation in Chinese censorship, there is no question that companies like Cisco have directly enabled Chinese censorship. It’s stunning to me that our country allows Cisco to do business with China in this manner. On another note, in addition to online censorship China will routinely black out news broadcasts of channels like CNN when they disapprove of the coverage.
- Pornography is illegal in China. This shouldn’t be surprising based on what else I have written, but be judicious in the web sites you visit.
- Enjoy the food in China. Some of the best food I had in China was food from street vendors in Shanghai. From a western perspective, the food is very affordable, and there are items that are difficult, if not impossible, to find in most of the United States.
I hope these tips about China are handy. It’s a fun country to visit, and my trip was uniformly positive. I hope to be able to visit again someday.