The Han Empire
Hong Kong, China
I have been in the People’s Republic of China since November 15, but I have spent only 40 of those 77 days in “China.” For the traveler, the People’s Republic is actually four separate jurisdictions, each with its own immigration and travel rules, yet all ultimately answering to the national government in Beijing.
The People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) is composed of four travel areas:
1. Hong Kong,
3. Tibet, and
4. Mainland China.
Hong Kong is a former British colony, a city of more than 7 million Cantonese-speaking Chinese and more than 100,000 Anglophone expatriates. Hong Kong is the capital of Asia’s financial and media industries, in which most of the expats work, and it is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The impossible wall of gleaming skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island, framed by blue water and green hills, was famously described by travel writer Pico Iyer as “a dream of Manhattan, arising from the South China Sea.”
Hongkongers are the Free Chinese. Hongkongers can read independent newspapers, purchase books by the Dalai Lama, attend an Easter Mass conducted by a cardinal appointed by the Pope, say and write what they want about politics and, most upsetting to the powers in the north capital of Beijing, vote in local elections (although the system stops short of true democracy). These freedoms were secured by the British in the Joint Declaration, the 1984 treaty by which the United Kingdom agreed to retrocede Hong Kong to China.
Hong Kong is not a province of China but a “Special Administrative Region” which enjoys, in the words of the Joint Declaration, “a high degree of autonomy.” On paper, the national government’s role is limited to foreign affairs and national defense. In reality, Beijing exerts a wider sphere of influence behind closed doors.
Hong Kong was founded by the British in 1842 as a free port, a place where merchants of every nationality could conduct business. This is still largely true. Hong Kong, not Beijing, controls immigration into the city, and almost anyone can obtain a visa to enter Hong Kong for business or pleasure. U.S. citizens are granted 90 days as a matter of course.
The Chinese national government in Beijing prohibits citizens of mainland China from entering Hong Kong without special permission in the form of an “exit endorsement” issued by the Public Security Bureau, the national police force. Mainland Chinese who live in the larger cities can apply for an individual visit visa, while all other Chinese can only visit Hong Kong on chaperoned tours, if permission is granted.
Macau is a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, and you go there to gamble and get laid. The tiny former Portuguese colony, retroceded to China in 1999, is also a Special Administrative Region that enjoys a “high degree of autonomy,” but the freedoms in Macau are focused on vice.
Macau is the Las Vegas of the Chinese-speaking world, with 24 casinos in operation and several more scheduled to open within the next two years. That being said, Macau is downtown Vegas, not the Strip. Most of the casinos are low-end affairs, and the town itself is a weary Chinese slum, albeit with fascinating pockets of European architecture.
Whereas the hotels and casinos in Vegas pretend to keep prostitution at arm’s length, some of the hotels and casinos in Macau offer working girls as part of the package. Many of the older Chinese casinos have brothels inside them, so you step on the elevator and select from the casino on Floor 1 or the “sauna” on Floor 4 or the “nightclub” on the top floor. It’s refreshingly honest.
Entering Macau is a breeze – the casinos have seen to that. Most nationalities are stamped in at Immigration. U.S. citizens receive 30 days, which, like Vegas, is about 10 times longer than you’d want to stay.
After a weekend of sin in Macau, you may wish to atone by visiting the Buddhist monasteries of Tibet. Easier said than done.
The Chinese government is paranoid about Tibet and about the Western world’s interest in Tibetan autonomy, which Beijing considers to be an internal matter that is none of the world’s business. So the Chinese government makes would-be Tibetan travelers jump through expensive and confusing hoops.
At a minimum, travelers to Tibet must obtain a standard China visa from a P.R.C. embassy or consulate and a Tibet Travel Permit (TTP) from a licensed travel agent. The TTP only allows the traveler to visit the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and other “open areas.” To visit any other locations within Tibet, the traveler needs to secure an Alien’s Travel Permit (ATP), which is issued by the Public Security Bureau but which is usually obtained from the travel agent. In addition, travel to the areas of Ngari, Nyingchi and Nagqu require a Military Permit issued by the men in uniform.
The decision by the Chinese government to require travel agencies to act as the middlemen in the issuance of TTPs and ATPs has created a predictable headache: it’s difficult to differentiate between the true legal requirements (which are subject to constant change) and what the travel agency happens to be selling (which the travel agency will state or imply is a legal requirement). Thus, it’s not unusual for a travel agent to say that the law requires all travelers to Tibet to purchase a tour (true) with a minimum numbers of persons (false) and with a mandatory driver and guide (false within Lhasa). Travel to Tibet is the subject of more misinformation than travel to any other destination, and it’s all because the Chinese government has entrusted the interpretation and application of complicated, fluid regulations to a bunch of self-serving travel agents.
By the time you’ve jumped through all the hoops, you’ve contributed hundreds of dollars to the Chinese government and to the ethnic Han Chinese who are purposefully populating Tibet to dilute the local Tibetan population. Consequently, there is a fair amount of debate as to whether travel to Tibet helps or hinders the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama’s position is that travelers should visit Tibet and tell the world what they see.
Everything else is “the mainland,” that part of China which is directly under the control of the Beijing government and which can be accessed by the traveler with the purchase of a standard China visa. Everything in "China" -- from Hainen Island in the south to Harbin in the far northeast, from Shanghai on the east coast to Tacheng on the Kazakh border -- is open for tourism.
Except when it isn’t. At any time, you can be traveling and be told by military or security personnel that your road or destination is not open to foreigners. Hotels and guesthouses need a special permit to lodge foreigners, so it’s common to walk into a desolate hotel and be told “No rooms.” They mean “No rooms for you.”
Travel to Xinjiang Province in the far northwest – which most Westerns have never heard of – sends the Beijing government into paroxysms of paranoia. The province is home to about 8.3 million Muslim Uighurs, who would much rather declare their own country. Beijing’s claim to occupying this land is even thinner than its claim to Tibet or Taiwan. You can hop on a train to the regional capital of Urumqi without additional documentation, but be prepared for questions when you arrive.
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Historically, the Han Empire was the government controlled by the Lui family, which ruled China from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. Today’s China is much the same, a small clique of unelected officials ruling the vast lands of the Han Chinese and their subject peoples. The P.R.C. contains 55 government-recognized minority groups. These peoples speak more than 200 languages in seven language families. Each note of mainland Chinese currency contains 5 languages, to wit, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur, Zhuang and Chinese (written in Chinese ideograms and the Roman alphabet). Even the stars on the P.R.C. flag are, according to one interpretation, imperial in nature, with the large star representing the Han Chinese and the four small stars representing the Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs.
Part of the reason I went on this trip was to see the remnants of the great empires. One of those empires is still with us.