Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What if they held an Olympics and nobody came? (1)

It does seem a very real possibility. The streets of Beijing - streets, bars, restaurants - are uncannily underpopulated at the moment.

The city always empties out somewhat at this time of year. Almost all types of business suffer a bit of a summer slump, and schools and universities, of course, are on their long vacation. It's a good time for foreigners to go back home for a bit, or to go travelling elsewhere around China. And more and more Chinese are now being given some discretionary leave days (rather than just the nationally mandated 'golden weeks' for May Day, National Day, and Spring Festival), especially if they work for foreign companies. This is a good time to go on holiday, because the weather is always unpleasantly hot and humid throughout July and August. But all the Olympic brouhaha seems to have induced a lot more people than usual - both Chinese and foreigners - to quit the city at the moment.

Then, of course, there were all the visa problems. Most foreigners (even many of those with 'proper' jobs, working for foreign companies) are unable to obtain visas easily through normal channels - because the bureaucracy is so damn fucked up and opaque. So, almost all of us, to make life simpler, obtain our visas by some petty subterfuge: usually we pay a professional 'visa arranger' to fake up the necessary supporting documentation (and perhaps grease a few palms along the way as well). Except that, earlier this year, they started to change the 'regulations' every few months or weeks: first it became absurdly difficult to obtain the standard F (Business) Visa that most people use; then it became impossible, at least here in Beijing; eventually, the powers-that-be closed the Hong Kong loophole too (the Visa Office down there is famously much more forgiving in handling applications, and the annual or semi-annual 'Hong Kong visa run' has become routine for many of my expat friends). Then it became much more difficult, if not nigh on impossible, to obtain the more classy Z (Working) Visa that I have (partly, I gather, because the numbers issued are restricted on some sort of quota, and when the Fs were no longer available, suddenly everyone was trying to get a Z). If you were determined enough, you could find ways to stay (Student Visas continued to be surprisingly easy to obtain, for a while at least; it would seem that there are quite a few "Mandarin schools" here that are little more than fronts for visa fixers; and even the 'genuine' schools usually have few qualms about assisting a visa application for someone who hasn't actually signed up for a full course, so long as an appropriate 'arrangement fee' is paid). However, it was becoming hellishly expensive, as the fixers responded to the more competitive market by ramping up their rates: I've heard of people paying - or, at any rate, being asked to pay - as much as 18,000RMB for a visa that would ordinarily only "cost" about 5,000. All in all, it was just way too much hassle. I know a lot of people who got thoroughly pissed off with it, and decided to leave for the whole summer (there was a lot of talk amongst my younger American friends of starting a kind of party commune just over the border in Cambodia or Laos; in places like that, you can live like a king for three months on a lot less than 18,000RMB). I know quite a few who have left China for good. I know a lot of people (myself included) who are still considering quitting China for good, because we're so incensed by the stupidity of all this, and so alienated by the sense of ingratitude (a lot of us have devoted years of effort, often fairly low-paid or even unpaid effort, to trying to help this country in its development; there are lot of people who've been here far longer than me and made a far greater contribution to the country who've been, in effect, 'kicked out' this year).

It's been pretty damned hard to get even tourist visas. My old teaching colleague, Big Frank, wanted to come over to visit me from Korea this month. He applied for a visa over there a month or so ago, but was told by the Chinese consulate in Seoul that they were "only processing Olympic visit applications". Well, Frank was talking about coming for a month, at the end of July and the beginning of August. He'd be here when the Games started. So, it could be an "Olympic visit application", right? Well, he'd need proof of a confirmed hotel reservation, in at least a 3-Star hotel. And some Olympic event tickets. And they wouldn't be able to give him an answer until August 1st!! So, they wanted him to shell out a whole stack of money to qualify as eligible for an Olympic tourist visa, but he still couldn't come when he wanted to, and they weren't able to guarantee that they would give him a visa at all. I had thought perhaps there was something especially fucked up about Korea (perhaps the Chinese don't like the South Koreans, and don't want any of them at the Games??); but I've heard similar stories from England and the States. Heck, I met a guy recently who's working as a technician with the drug-monitoring programme here: he told me that even his visa application was initially turned down - despite having heaps of supporting paperwork establishing that his was an "essential Olympic job" - and he needed a direct intervention from BOCOG to speed through his reapplication.

And then, of course, for a variety of reasons, it's been next-to-impossible to get any tickets. Damn, that's worth a whole post all on its own.

I met a banker a little while ago, who was lamenting that her company wasn't able to give its tickets away: her corporate clients just weren't that bothered about coming out here. I doubt if expense was an issue for people of that ilk (ethical codes would require them to cover their own accommodation and airfares in order to take up the hospitality offer). Beijing, I fear, is just too darned far away from North America or Western Europe to be a very enticing destination. And then, of course, many people will have been discouraged by the political troubles here, and by the smog, and perhaps even by the earthquake (Americans were shocked to discover that China is earthquake-prone!). I used to work in corporate hospitality back in England, and a few of my contacts from that time tell me that this is going to be the weakest Olympics ever for their industry: it was too difficult to arrange events over here, the flights and hotels were too expensive, it was nearly impossible to get visas, and no-one was that fussed about coming anyway.

Ah, hotel price-gouging. That was another good one. I've heard that most hotels, even down to the little backpacker hostels around my neighbourhood, were - despite government pronouncements intended to curb this - quoting rates for this month at 6 or 8 times higher than normal over much of the last couple of years. Now, most of them are discounting well below their normal summer rates. Heck, some of them are literally giving rooms away (I was told of one major hotel that had some corporate bookings, and allowed one such customer to add 2 or 3 extra people to its party at no charge - because it was so embarrassed by the fact that it had charged them so much above their current rate for the original booking). A friend of mine passing through on the way to Shanghai a week or so ago was staying in a swank new hotel out near the airport: he was getting a rate comparable to what you'd normally pay in a hostel; he was at that time the only foreign guest in the place, and one of only a very few guests at all. Occupancy rates all over town (well, except in a handful of the big name hotels that are handling the major corporate sponsors) are way down, I hear.

And what of my own little Olympic gouge? Of course, that came to nothing. I advertised my apartment for sub-let on here, and via viral e-mailing through all my friends. Never a sniff of interest (although a couple of people passed on anecdotes of the suggestion being greeted by people they'd mentioned it to with snorting laughter - does anyone want to go to these Olympics?). Most of the people I knew who were thinking of doing likewise, gave up on the idea when they met with a similar lack of interest - or because they couldn't face the hassle of trying to keep their landlords onside, coping with the temporary residence registrations with the police, etc. Of the three people I did hear of that had managed to set up something of this sort, two of them unwound; and the third was agreed at a fairly modest rent, let to a competitor's family. A guy I know who'd spent quite a bit of time and money setting up a website to broker such apartment sub-lets this summer confessed to me a while ago that of a couple of hundred people who'd advertised with him, only TWO had actually got a deal.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that the government might be a little embarrassed by the fact that there are so few foreign visitors at this great national showpiece? Well, perhaps not so much.

A Chinese guy I met a little while ago ventured the opinion that the government had initiated a conscious policy of "discouraging" foreign visitors (or visitors from Europe and North America, anyway) after the Tibetan troubles in March. I'm not so sure: I haven't noticed anything getting worse in the last few months; with the possible exception of the protocols for obtaining tourist visas from overseas, everything else I've mentioned above has been going on for most of the last year, or more.

I don't think the Chinese government ever wanted any foreigners at these Games. Well not too many, anway: just enough for show (expect champion arse-licker Da Shan to be making appearances at every single Olympic venue!). We just mess the place up with our slack morals and our loud opinions and our namby-pamby democracy fetish.

No, they never wanted us here for this. And they have, for the most part, achieved that wish. I've got a feeling, though, that they will be regretting this policy before long (if they're not already). Be careful what you wish for.

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