Since the first ‘Postcard from…’ was published in the Daily Sceptic (then Lockdown Sceptics) in 2020 it has been my ambition to contribute the first Postcard from China. I thought it might be a few weeks or even months before I would have my slot. In fact, it is three and a half years since I set foot in China, and four years since I met my new employers at Southwest Medical University in Luzhou in the heart of Sichuan Province. In the meantime, I had to satisfy myself with contributing a few postcards from Turkey, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Croatia, the United States and Slovenia. But here, at last, is my postcard from China.
For anyone who has not been to China, here’s how it goes. Whereas many years ago a Chinese visa could be obtained by post, it has long only been possible by making a visit in person to a CVSC (China Visa Service Centre) of which there are only three in the U.K. in London, Manchester and Edinburgh. They claim to be an ‘independent’ service but are always suspiciously co-located with other Chinese Government departments.
Most of the process takes place online but, in true Chinese luddite fashion the application has to be printed off and taken to the CVSC. During the online process you must upload a photograph, the dimensions and quality of which have to be so precise that this is the rate-limiting step in the process. In addition — although not specified anywhere online — you must bring a hard copy passport photograph with you (I only know from bitter experience of losing my place in the queue when I was unaware of this requirement). Once you arrive at the CVSC you have a photograph taken at reception and another by the person who processes your application. This is in addition to the photograph that is taken when you enter China. Belt, braces and overkill are hallmarks of all administrative processes, especially those related to immigration, in the low-trust culture that characterises China.
And then fingerprinting. You are asked to indicate if you have ever been fingerprinted for entry to China during the application process. I have many times, and this generates a permanent record related to your passport number obviating the need to have fingerprints taken at the CVSC. They take them again anyway. On arrival in China your first port of call is the fingerprint booth where you scan your passport, place the fingers indicated by the machine on a scanner and have a fingerprint certificate issued. Mine worked but my wife’s — who has also been to China before — did not. The point of the certificate is that you present it to the police officer at immigration, who scans it, and you are exempt from fingerprinting at the passport booth. Both my wife and I were fingerprinted again.
And then COVID-19 regulations. Travel advice on the U.K. Government webpage reflects the Chinese Government requirements which are only that you take a rapid antigen test (RAT) within 24 hours of departure and that this “may” be checked at customs on entry to China. I guessed it wouldn’t be. However, over a month since the Chinese Government changed its entry requirements (April 29th) with our flight out on June 17th, British Airways (BA) had not caught up and this was not the first time I have had a run in with its staff over their Covid requirements. BA was still insisting that you uploaded your vaccination status (my wife has none), health declaration and the result of your Covid test before allowing you to check in. I uploaded our (homemade) RAT certificates and, in fact, that seemed to do the trick. I contacted BA on Twitter — absolutely the only way to do it — and its reply was that it was simply following the Government guidelines. I replied saying that “I am looking at the Government guidelines right now and I can assure you, you are not”. In the queue for the Business Class cabin, everyone was complaining about BA’s tardiness in updating its check-in procedure. We were required to download the Chinese Government Customs app and make a health declaration there which generated a QR code for scanning in the approach to immigration. Much to our surprise, that worked and as predicted, nobody asked to see our RAT certificate. After an inordinate length of time at the immigration booth during which my wife was nearly collapsing with jet lag, we were in…
Once in, China seems just the same. Richard Clayderman’s dreadful Ballad for Adeline (you know the one) was still playing in the lift in our hotel, just like it was in 2013 when I first stayed here.
There are far fewer signs that there was ever a ‘pandemic’ than there are on the streets in the U.K. Very few people are wearing masks, despite the Chinese predilection for doing so. I did witness one old fellow with a face mask coughing up a fur ball and removing his mask before expectorating a fluorescent green glob of sputum on the pavement, before replacing his mask. I guess he was not a retired infectious diseases specialist. ‘Gobbing’ noisily in the street is still very prominent in mainland China, having been effectively outlawed in Hong Kong after the SARS outbreak in 2003.
Mostly it is the preserve of men. But I was once jogging in Shanghai and a beautiful, young, professional woman, hair swept back with shades, suited and carrying a brief case, walking in the other direction deposited an impressive glob of sputum on the ground somewhere between us. A colleague with more Far East experience than I have said that she may have reserved that one especially for me; some Chinese do not like Westerners, especially if they think you are American. Which they all do.
Effects of lockdown
While I was teaching, my wife did try to elicit information from the students with whom she was working about lockdown. But they were tight-lipped, as were my colleagues. One senior nurse told me she never wore a face mask during the restrictions. Many did but it was not compulsory, so even here in the belly of the Covid beast, they were spared that particular part of Covid theatre.
There were two unexpected outcomes of the Covid restrictions, especially the travel ban. My colleagues — some my former PhD students — were genuinely struggling with English. Where once they had been fluent, they were making constant reference to translation apps for the most mundane words. The other entirely unexpected effect was the increased curiosity about Westerners — that was us — in the streets, especially from young children. Luzhou is not a place frequented by Westerners. In coming here regularly since 2012 I have only seen two other Westerners, and they were a couple. Many older people said ‘hello’ politely, but children were ultra-curious, running after us and shouting “foreigners”, sometimes in Chinese (wàiguó rén) and sometimes in English. It struck us that while many of these children were probably born pre-Covid they had never knowingly seen a westerner. I took, Ace Ventura Call of the Wild style, to shouting “White Devil, White Devil” whenever we encountered a group of curious Chinese people. I thought it was funny; my wife did not.
My assumption is that leaving China will be unproblematic. If it is problematic, you will be among the first to know.
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry. He writes in a personal capacity.