Beijing: Two months and multiple biometric scans since my last visit

Beijing. I’m back! It has been 48 days since my last visit and the government came out to greet me. Well not just me. I’m not that important. I walked through the requisite temperature check along with all passengers but was then ushered to the newly installed fingerprinting machines for foreigners. I swear they weren’t there in April. All ten fingers were documented before I could advance to the passport booth where my eyeballs were scanned and my fingerprints taken once more. I can be pretty resourceful but I haven’t a clue how I would have switched places with my body double in the ten feet between assessment points. Just to make sure I hadn’t stashed replacement body parts; my suitcase was scanned before I could leave the terminal.

The hotel was much more gracious. They only scanned my Amex card before providing the Internet password with a note reminding me that, “the following websites listed are prohibited in the People’s Republic of China and are blocked by the Internet service provider.” No surprise really. I had downloaded my VPN so I could maintain my dependency on Google. That worked most of the time. However, if the VPN was engaged my WeChat was blocked and as you know when in China, without WeChat you are cut off from society. Curiously my other foreign colleagues did not experience this same problem. Hum…maybe I should take it personally. Rather than indulge in paranoid speculation, I opted to knock out a few emails. I tossed open my laptop, opened outlook and received the following message from Microsoft, “Outlook is setting up a local copy of your mailbox. It may be several minutes until all of your data is available.” OK. Maybe I am more interesting than I thought. Or, more likely, I typed some trigger words. Or I wrote blogs like these?

That’s it. I’m going for a walk. Even a stroll has a new twist as China has introduced slow lanes for pedestrians. Are you thinking, “How considerate of the elderly?” Wrong. The slow lanes are for people who want to watch their phones while walking. The Chinese are so practical. And efficient. Have you ever been to a Chinese foot massage? You can rent a room with multiple comfy chairs and conduct business meetings (or watch a movie) while a small army of masseuses lavish attention on every minute joint from the knee-down (after they loosen you up by pounding on your shoulders and pressing their knee into your back while you sit unsupported with your feet submerged in hot water). Tea and snacks are served. Changing into the cute silk pajamas they provide is optional. What did our group decide to do? Hint: we all appear to be in uniform when our team photo was taken that night.

As China’s economic dominance continues to grow, the need to further reform social policy has come into sharper focus. In the past, citizens were assigned a locale where they lived, worked and sent their kids to school. Your neighbors were your coworkers. Community responsibility went without question. The recent increase in mobility and movement to urban areas has meant that people no longer know the folks around them. The community in communist does not translate into social support. While the rich can pay privately and the poor receive some centralized care, the burgeoning middle class are left without child or elder care. They can afford it, but the market serves those with more money. Have no fear—the government is here. In a creative way. I visited the Non-Profit Incubator, the largest capacitator of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and social businesses in the country. Quite cleverly, the government is outsourcing the development of social programs to nonprofit groups. In China there are Governmental-Non-Governmental Organizations.

I had a second visit with Fabo, the cute household robot that was created as a family assistant to educate kids and if they would allow it, care for the aging population. It’s a different take on social service innovation. My meeting with Evolver Robotics was thrilling as the CEO rolled out his global vision—and daunting, as the audience questioned whether the overseas market would welcome a Chinese robot equipped with a camera and recording device. Just saying…

The Middle Kingdom is certainly asserting its centrality. Over time, one sees fewer signs in languages other than Mandarin. In business settings, English speaking Chinese professionals now insist on having a translator at meetings. They talk in Chinese and then correct the interpreter if their message gets mangled. I needed no translator for the important point about not adapting to me (or people like me). It is inexcusable. I have been going to China since 1988. The depth of my Asian relationships has been built on the willingness of others to compensate for my linguistical limitations.

Over the years, I have formed very strong friendships in China and always feel personally very welcome (I’m even called “Auntie”) which is in stark contrast to the recent obsession with public check points, though I am not sure what’s really being checked. Dinner one night was at the Hall of People (Beijing’s equivalent to the White House). Upon arrival at the gates we were given envelopes with our names on them (or, in my case, someone else’s name). Inside was a very formal invitation. I presented it to the guard and slipped it into my bag as a memento. No such luck. My host took the letter and envelope back, walked over to the gate and gave the same envelope to the next lucky person in our party. All this in front of the man in uniform! Good thing (I think) that I have my passport, as you are now required to present identification at all cultural sites. Including the sidewalk? While walking home we suddenly found ourselves at an entrance to an unknown attraction. We turned around. We had a meeting to make. No time for touring. Wait. That turnstile isn’t to gain entry, it’s a newly constructed security structure ready to scan my passport and my bag. I’m through! But my colleague doesn’t have any documents with him and this looks very official. He mutters away in English, the guard grumbles back in Mandarin and now he’s through too! While the whole exchange likely didn’t make anyone safer, it was a good dress rehearsal for my next onslaught of investigations.

Leaving China was no easier than getting in. Passports were checked before entering the terminal, then again at immigration (my fingers felt ignored, only my eyes were scanned this time). But have no fear, my boarding pass and face were scanned while my suitcase was inspected before I made it to the lounge. The authorities were so present this whole trip I wonder if I should send them a thank you or include them in the “I’m home” text that I send to the family when I land. Then again, they probably already know.