Sunday, June 22, 2008

Beijing in Olympic Time

Only this April when I went back to Beijing did I begin to wonder if it’s really a good idea to be there during the Olympics. I used to be so proud that the Olympics would be held in Beijing and encouraged everyone to visit and experience the exciting atmosphere, even if they weren't going to the Games. I tried to get tickets from both the US and China official ticket agents, but didn't have any luck with that. I didn’t win any lotteries either (yes, it is a lottery process) after I requested the maximum numbers of tickets allowed. But never mind, I still wanted to be in Beijing to witness this life experience!

Then in April, I stood in a two-hour line to apply for a visa in the Chinese Consulate in New York. I was shocked to see the visa office more packed than I’ve seen it in a decade. Very few applicants in front of me got a visa. I heard the clerk tell them that they were missing this or that document. I had never heard such requests before and wondered why China changed its visa policy. In the past, you could obtain a visa without any specific documents, only just by filling out a form. Now, as a tourist, visa applicants must submit the CONFIRMED roundtrip air ticket and paid hotel reservations (a simple reservation is not acceptable). If I visit my family there, I must have them write an official invitation. For business visas, applicants must submit an official original invitation from a Chinese company with the original seal. No fax or email invitation is allowed!

In Beijing, my suppliers told me to make sure all goods were purchased by the end of June. Otherwise, I’d have to wait until September (too late for our Christmas season), because no trucks will be allowed in the city from mid-July to the end of August except those with special licenses for this period. Publishers in Beijing are rushing to print books that are usually done in July and August by the end of June instead, so they can distribute them nationwide in time for the semester starting in September!

For ordinary citizens, if your car's license plates have an odd number, you can drive only on dates with odd numbers, and vice-versa for the even numbers. It might be good for air quality, but it creates enormous inconveniences for people who depend on driving for their day to day activities! The government has also starting knocking on everyone's doors to check IDs. Every resident must have a Beijing ID, and migrant workers must have official permits to work in Beijing. If you can’t show these documents, you have to leave Beijing, no exceptions, and this includes all westerners. Some westerners who have lived in Beijing for a long time must leave because of visa issues. Read this New York Times article to learn more about what’s happening to these westerners.

And of course for visitors, hotel rooms will be the most difficult to get. Either hotels are already overbooked or those that are left are too expensive. Read this New York Times article about this topic. Here is another article about the empty Beijing hotels because Westerners aren't getting visas. I know that many Beijing citizens are renting out their apartments for the Olympic spectaculars and they are charging 1000RMB ($142.00) per night for a one-room apartment! See some sample apartments here.

So now you may understand why I’m not sure if it’s a good time to be in Beijing during the Olympics. Nevertheless, I will be there and I will give you reliable updates on the Beijing scene during that exciting time. For those of you going to Beijing, I really am sure you’ll have lots of fun there. And don’t forget to grab Cityweekend and Timeout Beijing at your hotels or restaurants; they give you the best advice (sorry, much better than any guide books) on everything you need to live in or visit Beijing.