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VISITING CHINA

China is a vast country with countless attractions for the traveller. China is as diverse as it is large, and it is difficult to generalize about many aspects of the country. This section provides an overview of things the traveller should know, based mainly on the experience of visitors to the major population centres. If you will be travelling off the beaten path, take extra time to research your destination carefully, and be prepared for the unexpected.

 

Travel

 

The Chinese government has been gradually opening the country to outside influences since 1978. Additional parts of China are opened to visitors every year, but travel permits are still required for some parts of the country. If you will be travelling outside established tourist areas, find out in advance if you will require a permit. Travel permits can be obtained from local offices of the Public Security Bureau.

All foreigners (tourists, visitors or long-term residents) are required to register their place of residence with the local Public Security Bureau within 24 hours of arrival. If you are staying in a hotel, this is done as part of the check-in process. Those staying with family or friends in a private home must also observe this requirement. Failure to do so can result in fines and/or detention.

The simplest form of travel within China is scheduled air services. Air China, the national airline, and its regional carriers serve all the major cities. Domestic flights generally involve large wide-bodied jets. Tickets can be obtained from any travel agency or directly from Air China or one of the many domestic carriers serving the regional markets, such as China Eastern or China Southern. Departure taxes are levied at both domestic and international airports.

China has an extensive system of passenger trains, providing an interesting way to see the countryside. Most trains are slow, although there are express trains on the well-travelled routes. Many visitors consider a train trip to be an adventure as well as part of their experience of the culture, and overnight trips offer a fascinating look at Chinese life.

Taxis are plentiful in major cities and can be obtained at hotels or taxi stands. Drivers generally do not speak English, so you should arrange for a Chinese-speaking person to write out your destination in detail on a card before you go. Rental cars are available only in the largest cities, generally with a driver. To drive a vehicle in China, you must obtain a Chinese driver’s licence, which is available only to those foreigners who possess a residency permit. Cars with experienced Chinese drivers may be hired at a reasonable cost.

Tipping is not necessary, but it is no longer considered an insult and may be expected in some situations, especially in foreign hotels.

 

Time

 

In spite of its size, all of China is in one time zone, which is GMT+8 or EST+13. However, customary opening and closing hours vary significantly across the country. Daylight savings time is not used.

 

Language

 

The official spoken language of China is Putonghua (standard language or common speech), or Mandarin, but there are dozens of regional dialects including Cantonese, Shanghainese and Sichuanese. Cantonese is usually spoken in Hong Kong and adjacent Guangdong province. Mandarin is spoken in Beijing and throughout most of China.

 

In Mandarin, pin yin means “spell sound.” This transliteration system has gradually replaced an older British-designed method known as Wade-Giles in the Western media, which is why some well-known names have changed over the years. The replacement of Peking with the phonetically more accurate Beijing is an example.

 

Business meetings (outside Hong Kong) are likely to take place in Mandarin. Interpreters are readily available at reasonable prices and can often be arranged through your hotel. Many Chinese people are studying English, so don’t be surprised if you meet people who want to practise.

Written Chinese, which is the same regardless of the dialect spoken, is based on a system of ideographs or characters. Modern Chinese includes more than 400 basic syllables. Each syllable can be written using the Roman alphabet and a variety of phonetic symbols. The People’s Republic of China adopted the Hanyu Pinyin system for transliterating Chinese ideograms into the Roman alphabet in the late 1950s, and it is now recognized as standard throughout most of the world. Many Chinese product labels and street signs are expressed in these syllables.They can also be used to input Chinese on computer keyboards.

 

Currency and Credit Cards

 

The official currency of the People’s Republic of China is the renminbi (RMB or CNY), which means “people’s money.” The basic unit of currency is the yuan, commonly known as kuai, which may be written . The yuan is divided into 10 jiao or 100 fen. In order to avoid misunderstandings, vendors usually write down the price for foreign clients. Except in hotels, restaurants and some fixed-price shops, bargaining is the rule rather than the exception.

It is illegal to pay for anything with foreign currency or to exchange currency anywhere but at officially approved facilities. Refuse offers to change money on the street. This is not only illegal but also dangerous, since criminals operate the black market and use counterfeit bills.

It is now possible to purchase small amounts of RMB outside China, but it is not yet a fully convertible currency. When entering China, Chinese law requires you to declare any RMB cash amount over 6,000 RMB. Likewise, on departure, you must declare any cash amount over 6,000 RMB. Non-residents of China must also declare any currency with a value over US$5,000. Residents of China must declare any currency with a value over US$2,000. You can exchange foreign currency or traveller’s cheques for RMB at the main offices of Chinese banks, airports, and major hotels. You will be expected to spend at least 50 percent of the RMB that you convert. You will be given official receipts for these transactions, which you must save if you wish to reconvert RMB to hard currency (maximum of 50 percent) when you leave the country.

Major credit cards are not widely accepted in China. Some Chinese banks will provide cash advances using these accounts, but they may charge for the service. Some stores and restaurants accept credit card purchases, but they may apply surcharges. The only places that can be counted on to accept credit cards are five-star hotels.

It is now possible to use bank cards to draw on your Canadian bank account at ATMs in several places. These international ATMs taking Cirrus, PLUS or Maestro are restricted to a few sites in larger cities and most international airports. Limited amounts can be withdrawn, reflecting the cardholder’s daily limits, but often the exchange rate is more favourable than can be obtained when changing money at banks in the interior, where surcharges may be added.

Food and Drink

Visitors to China may suffer from traveller’s diarrhea. To avoid this and other discomforts, it is advisable to drink bottled water. Eating food prepared on the street is part of the local culture, but avoid stalls that do not use disposable utensils.

 

Protocol Tips
Eating

Chopsticks are used at all meals. The food is placed in the centre of the table in serving dishes, and it is polite to taste every type of food prepared. Food should be served with serving spoons or serving chopsticks. Your chopsticks should be placed neatly on the right of your bowl or plate when not in use. It is considered impolite to drink alone, and toasts are frequent. Non-drinkers may toast with soft drinks.

Health Care

Some major hotels in China maintain clinics or resident doctors who can assist you with minor medical problems. Several hospitals in the larger cities have special services, designed for foreigners, with English-speaking staff. Nevertheless, you should be prepared to take an interpreter with you if you must visit a local hospital. You will be asked to deposit funds with the hospital upon arrival; the cost of your treatment and other medical expenses will be deducted from this deposit and the balance returned to you upon departure. Although medical care in local hospitals is relatively inexpensive, you should still purchase private health insurance before your trip to cover any unforeseen expenses. Medical care in clinics offering Western-style care for foreigners is much more expensive and must be paid for on the spot, using U.S. dollars or a credit card.

Drugs

The Government of China deals harshly with persons found in possession of illegal drugs. You should exercise the utmost caution when travelling. Never carry a package or luggage for someone else unless you have completely verified the contents. Choose travelling companions carefully, since you may be implicated if they are found to be carrying drugs. For details, consult the Drugs and Travel section of our Web site and refer to our publication Drugs and Travel: Why They Don’t Mix.

Prescription medicines and syringes may be considered suspicious by Chinese authorities. Keep all drugs in their original containers and carry the prescriptions with you. If you have a medical need for syringes, carry a medical certificate saying so. If you require over-the-counter medicines, such as those commonly used for traveller’s diarrhea, it is best to take them with you.

Crime

China is a relatively safe country where violent crime is rare. But petty theft is common, and you should constantly be on guard for pickpockets. It is wise to leave valuables in a hotel safe wherever possible. Be careful when carrying money or passports in a handbag, shoulder bag or backpack, because bag slashing is a common tactic of criminals.

If you decide to stop at a bar, ensure that the prices are clearly marked on the menu so that your tab may be easily calculated. Avoid in particular “hostess bars,” where foreign patrons have been taken advantage of, with costly results. For information on safety issues, consult  Country Travel Reports on China.

Women Travelling Solo

Female travellers should dress conservatively and take safety precautions. General guidelines for women travelling alone are provided in publication Her Own Way: Advice for the Woman Traveller.

 

Protocol Tips
Greetings

Chinese people often greet each other with a nod or a slight bow, but a handshake is quite acceptable. Ni Hao is the standard greeting at any time of the day, often said twice. Business cards should be printed with Chinese on one side and presented with both hands, Chinese side up. It is appropriate to make your position or status clear, even though the Chinese may avoid identifying themselves precisely.

The Justice System

When in China, you are subject to Chinese laws and are not entitled to any special protection or consideration because of your Canadian citizenship.

The administration of justice is substantially different in China. In general, police and other officials have more discretionary power than their Canadian counterparts. A lawyer does not have the same advocacy role as in Canada, and the rights of accused persons are more limited. In civil matters, claims of unstated intent may take precedence over written contract terms. Detention during the investigative period before charges are laid is common and can be lengthy.

If you are arrested or detained, you can request that the arresting officer inform the Canadian embassy or nearest consulate, provided that you have entered China as a Canadian citizen. You will need a Chinese lawyer. Canadian officials can provide a list of lawyers who speak English and have experience working in the local court system.

Meanwhile, be aware that what you say can be used against you. Avoid making any arrangements with police or court officials unless your lawyer is present. Sentences will be served in a local prison.

Communications

The telephone system in China is still not up to world standards, but it is improving rapidly. The best place to make phone calls is in your hotel, especially if it is a modern one. Cellular phones are readily available and are becoming very common as prices drop. Canada Direct service is available from some major cities in China by calling 108-186.

Most of the major international courier companies operate in China. Internet service is available but is subject to certain government restrictions. The larger modern hotels have business centres that can provide translation, fax and printing services.

 

Protocol Tips
Conversation

Refer to the country as the People’s Republic of China, or simply China. Taiwan is considered a province of China, so do not refer to it as a country.

Politics

The close relationship between the Communist Party of China and the Government of the People’s Republic of China means that there are few aspects of life in the country that do not have a political dimension. Moreover, Chinese citizens do not have the same rights or expectations of privacy that Westerners are accustomed to. The Chinese people you encounter may feel justifiably uncomfortable if you discuss politics, particularly if you are critical of their government—or even your own. If you are not a Chinese citizen, participation in any political activities will be considered inconsistent with your status, and you may be expelled from the country.

Canadian Consular Services

If you plan to stay longer than three months in China, it is recommended that you register at the nearest Canadian government office abroad. This will help us contact you in case of an emergency. Registration is voluntary, and the information you provide is protected and used in accordance with the provisions of the Privacy Act. You can register on-line.

Keep in mind, however, that your Canadian citizenship does not exempt you from local laws and regulations. Moreover, Canadian officials may not be able to help you at all if you have Chinese citizenship.

The Canadian embassy or consulates can help you with any of the following:

  • contacting relatives at home in case of an emergency;
  • dealing with medical emergencies;
  • coping with situations such as natural disasters and civil or military conflict;
  • accessing sources of information about local laws, regulations, cultural customs and visas;
  • replacing passports; and
  • dealing with local authorities if you are arrested.

These Canadian government offices offer 24-hour emergency assistance. You can also contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa at (613) 996-8885 (collect calls accepted) or call 10800-1400125 toll-free from inside China.