Thor's China Diary

The Bamboo Cage

@1 April 2000
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Funny how every culture seems to have a story along the lines of Pandora's Box, Lot's wife, Eve and the forbidden fruit ..; (always women! .. interesting).

There is a kind of living variation called "get out of China", and lots of people will take great risks to play it. Maybe this is because there are 360 million magic windows in the living rooms of the Chinese provinces. Every evening families sit down with their rice and chili diced pork to look out of this magic window into worlds of medieval Chinese heroes, heroic PLA soldiers, and some place called Meiguo, or Beautiful Land (or to you foreigners, America). In Beautiful Land there are no heroic PLA soldiers, yet, but the grass is lusciously green, the houses are gorgeous, and for some unaccountable and unfair reason, everyone has a late model car, an important job, wealth, and the freedom to do anything they like... It is also observed by some smarter people that these Beautiful Land people really speak Yinyu (English to you lot), although the tricky gods who make the magic window usually have them speaking Chinese with a Beijing accent.

No doubt within a year or two, everyone will be able to put a magic door next to the magic window in the living room. Then it will be easy to take a stroll after supper and visit the medieval ancestors. The adventurous will surely step through the door to buy some Beautiful Land person's Harley Davidson for a few yuan, then take a quick ride into Las Vegas. In the meantime though, things are very, very inconvenient.

There are travel agencies which are rumoured to sell tickets to Beautiful Land. But they charge an arm and a leg. More than a man's wages for a year. Then there's something called a huzhou (passport) which turns out to be really tough to forge. It's no trouble to get a fake Rolex watch, or even a fake university degree, but for some reason it's a pain trying to get a fake huzhou. Even worse, you have to get a stamp in this thing from people who say they work for Beautiful Land and who are hard to bribe, even if you know their uncle's cousin.

As everyone knows, making something hard to get is the best possible sales pitch. A little while ago there used to be a game called "get into the Communist Party". To play that game you had to learn all kinds of wise words uttered by The Leaders, and utter these words yourself with a straight face in public meetings. Then you had to find a way, any way, to build guanxi (curry favour) with the blessed who already had a Party Card. The wonderful Party Card put you on a career escalator, got you into special shops, and even got you to a doctor who hadn't learned to do heart operations in a paddy field. Alas, the Party Card is looking a bit tatty around the edges, and some people even say rude things about it when The Leaders are not listening.

Nowadays it is much more interesting to lay hands on a "get out of China card". Well some things never change. To score one of these things it still helps to utter wise words from The Leaders with a straight face, even if you don't have a Party Card. But people do manage even without that. The big trick is to weasel your way into some racket where an "invitation" comes from Beautiful Land. The "invitation" comes in three basic disguises.

Firstly there is The Business Delegation, or the Government to Government Delegation. The gig here is that you dream up some story that your underwear factory/government office absolutely must talk to foreign friends in New York. The future prosperity/survival of China depends upon it. If your uncle's cousin really does have the right connections in Beijing, there's a good chance you can pull this stunt off, and what's more, your factory/office or even (ha ha) the foreign friends might pay for it. Once you have the magic Beautiful Land stamp in your huzhou, then you can waltz down to that smarmy travel agent who wouldn't say hello last week, and get him to plan some essential stopovers in Disneyland, New Orleans and Las Vegas. Yeah, yeah, you're on a leash. You have to come back to China unless you hide under the bed in New York, but hell, it beats the annual work unit trip to Qingdao. Even better, when you do come back instead of disappearing down some subway tunnel, you've proved that you love the motherland. You are therefore worthy of trust and favour; you are on that old career elevator again.

The second two ways to get an "invitation" to Beautiful Land are not for everyone. Only that tiny percentage of Chinese people called university students and intellectuals can wrangle these. In both cases you more or less have to speak Yinyu (English) to have a fighting chance. The dream is so potent though that it is thought  up to 200 million Chinese speakers might be trying to learn Yinyu in some form, and the hapless Beautiful Land person (or anyone who looks like such a creature) is apt to find themselves cornered by desperate strangers who want to practice their ten memorized English questions. Now money talks, even in Beautiful Land (especially in Beautiful Land..), so if you can fight your way through a TOEFL test, and if you can lay hands on enough qian (money) then one of those magic visa stamps might find it's way into your huzhou.

Alas, the characters who work for Beautiful Land in Beijing, Guangzhou and a couple of other places have become really awkward about putting a stamp in your huzhou. Firstly, if you are unlucky enough to live in one of the 600 or so cities where there is no embassy, you have to make a huge and expensive journey for an interview. Then you join an enormous queue. Then some woman who talks too fast gives you five minutes flat to tell the story of your life, and persuade her that you really do plan to come back to China. This last bit is a sweat because only about 20% of your countrymen on these education visas actually do come back to China once they are out of the bamboo cage.

The academic exchange program might be an easier call than trying to enroll as a lowly student in some foreign university. But you have to be at least a lecturer, preferably a professor to be worth "exchanging" for a while, and getting the invite needs long and patient fishing. As a professor, you are absolutely mystified that the foreign friends who occasionally turn up for their end of the "exchange program" actually seem serious about doing some kind of research. They have been known to explode with exasperation and storm off in a huff when they find your people don't give a tinker's damn about real research. This is a pest, because it makes it hard for you to get your much deserved visit to Disneyland in the Beautiful Land.


Last week I talked to a Chinese woman, an energetic and intelligent person who had worked tirelessly, risking her career and personal relationships, to get that magic visa stamp to Beautiful Land. It was a brief trip, one of those businessmen's junkets, to which she had lashed herself on some flimsy pretext. The itinerary had next to nothing to do with business, but did add up to a thorough and exhausting flip flop through half a dozen American states to savour the tourist spots and peek at some cities. My acquaintance was in a condition of subdued shock. The pirouetting technicolour images of Beautiful Land that she had been constructing in her mind for years had collapsed into the reality of dirty and loveless New York sidewalks. She was stunned, she whispered, that so many of those pale, tense faces in the streets of American cities looked terribly UNHAPPY. For the first time it was dawning on her that happiness and a gold credit card were not quite the same thing. It seems to me that that experience was a godsend for my Chinese friend. Now the universe of her mind is back in balance; she can look about at her real life, her family, friends and career, and count her blessings.


It is easy to satirize the passion of middle class Chinese people for a Get Out of China Card, or even a Communist Party Card. But except for an accident of birth, there go I; and in their shoes I would surely be playing some of the same games. With an Australian passport I consider it my right to take overseas holidays at will, and as a citizen of the world I chafe that Beautiful Land as well as Europe will not allow me to learn about their cultures while I work there, even though my skills are needed. One up for China: at least for a while I am a welcome guest.

"The Bamboo Cage" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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