China Through the Looking Glass of Shanghai Pu Dong International Airport

International airport terminals are the most controlled environments in most countries, and I’m looking forward to comparing what I saw on my layover between Taipei and Fukuoka with the real McCoy on my visit this summer.

I’m not sure if it was supposed to be sunny or cloudy on the days I arrived: the smog made it seem like every day is as gray as the others. At least the air and water quality inside the airport were good. The landscape around the landing strip suggested the quick construction projects the country is known for.

The most depressing airports I’ve visited were layover stops in Malaysia. They were materially comfortable, as are all international terminals, but there was nothing original about them, just a lot of duty-free stores stocked by multinational corporations like Ferrero Rocher and Disney. This suggested domestic weakness. Shanghai’s international terminal was also on the boring side: the restaurants were no cheaper or better than their American airport brethren, and the souvenir shops were present must be capitalizing on the difference between Westerners’ and natives’ concept of a fair price. The most salient fact about international airports is that it takes money to get inside them. The most ubiquitous advertiser was London-based multinational bank HSBC (滙豐控股有限公司). I read one of its tag lines, 成功, as chenggong [Chinese pronunciation] on my way into Japan and seiko [Japanese] on my way out, by the way.

The English press is much freer than the Chinese press. Practically every English news website is available, and the print magazines have more incisive analysis. Why’s that? Well, only a small number of the citizens can get something out of reading English media. The benefits of these restrictions wouldn’t justify the cost in management and public relations. Chinese sites and social networks like Facebook are the real targets of the firewall.

The Chinese headline for the first day of Libyan operations referred to the American-English-French action as an invasion, noted in the sub-headline that 48 were killed in the air force bombing, and said Qaddafi was getting the citizens ready to resist it. The Japanese nuclear plant stories included one titled “our nuclear plants are safer than the ones in Fukushima.” The balance of the stories I saw were positive. Instead of muckraking, there were government reports and editorials. I couldn’t even find the crime briefs that fascinate so many Taiwanese and Western news readers.

The bilingual flight magazine boasted it was a winner of the Golden Great Wall Media Awards, a deliciously ironic name. The first feature was about the company executives visiting the honorary chairman to give him New Year’s greetings. This man, He Pengnian, “was appointed as office director of Shanghai municipal construction operating committee of the Communist Party of China; secretary of the Party committee of non-ferrous metal institute of Shanghai; deputy secretary-general and deputy director of Shanghai Municipal Economic Committee; deputy director of traffic office of the People’s government of Shanghai. He began to hold the post of chairman and general manager, chairman and secretary of the Party committee of this company since 1985. He is now in the post of honorary chairman of [Shanghai Airlines] while the honorary dean of Aviation transportation college of Shanghai University Of Engineering Science and the part-time professor of Shanghai Jiaotong University.”

The second article was a ceremony for the opening of a company “microblog.” In that second article, 70% of the English translation and at least half the Chinese original were occupied by the names and positions of the executives attending the ceremony. There were articles about nice places to visit and popular high-end goods, as always (the most eye-catching article was about chicken blood stones and carvings, so named for their color). The magazines and newspapers had plenty of profiles about CEOs, and during a break in the CCTV variety show, the host interviewed an executive for a successful company. So they are using positive advertising to burnish the images of leaders and entrepreneurs. The English translations had mistakes, so native Chinese must have written them.

The most impressive part of the bookstore was the photographic albums, which gave me my first look at the Beijing and Shanghai skylines and some of the national parks. Startling beauty and creativity were on display. The new CCTV Building is startling. How many articles about China’s development start by describing those new buildings, I wonder? What a great PR investment. There were also some fascinating photographs of Chinese family homes of both the rich and poor, so the less rosy part of the country was not completely whitewashed.

I study traditional Chinese characters in Taiwan, but China has simplified its writing system dramatically. Their current writing style, which is more phonetic and less clear in distinctions between words, is suitable for adults who can speak but cannot write but more difficult for students who are starting to learn the language. Since the purpose of the simplified system was to increase the literacy rate, presumably among adults, this makes sense, but I wonder if the government will change back after the base level of education in the country is stable. I hope so because I think the simplified system is aesthetically damaging.

The CCTV broadcast was of a play performed before a live studio audience of men and women in suits and dresses: powerful viewers, perhaps? Their applause helped propel the show, which was about a singing college student learning to be more filial and hardworking. Besides the break for the businessman interview, there was a report about a musical about the Chinese military. After the clips of singing soldiers, well-dressed audience members were asked about the quality of the show: everyone said it was a 成功 (success), and the 10 people’s voices were looped two times over to make a wave: “Chenggong! Chenggong! Chenggong! Chenggong!” There was also a public service rap by an animated pig about how to avoid H1N1, the new contagious disease from America. It was cute. The most memorable advice was “stay away from groups of strangers!” with the foreigners represented as rabbits in monk’s robes. Finally, there were advertisements for art exhibitions in the country and worldwide soccer highlights.

The artists whose works were featured in the paper and the arrival hall and on the television were in their 50s or above, suggesting they’d paid their dues. Impressionism seems to be fashionable now.

I didn’t need a visa to lay over in Shanghai on my way from Taiwan or to make the return. I had to pick up my bag and check it in again when I arrived in Shanghai from Taiwan, but my luggage went straight through when I arrived there from Japan. About 2 million Taiwanese work on the continent now, and they need to do a little extra paperwork to cross the PRC border each time. Foreigners looking for a Chinese tourist visa have to apply to a Taiwanese travel agency and pay over $200 (more than double the normal price) or pick up the visa in Hong Kong instead. In Chinese airport parlance, visitors from Formosa are “Taiwanese residents,” not “Taiwanese citizens,” and flights to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are not called “international flights.”

China East had markedly lower ticket prices than competitors, but it makes up the difference by restricting luggage weight: 10 kg on your person and 20 kg checked in, and any overrun WILL be charged by kilogram and by mile. If you take two flights, you have to pay both times. In Taiwan, the staff was pretty accommodating with me and charged me less than the scale said I deserved, but in Shanghai there was no question I would pay the full rate: I paid $100 across two flights and left a suitcase (with a broken handle) at the Shanghai check-in counter to avoid paying $100 more in charges. I carried some luggage onto the flight rather than checking it in for the same reason: no matter that the baggage weighed the same no matter where it was on the plane, rules are rules. It’s possible that in China, you get less leeway. You could say “there’s less margin for leniency” or “there’s too many people for us to make exceptions.”

Each customs official had an instant rating device posted next to his window, but I’m not sure how my vote was calculated. The staff’s Mandarin was easily understandable, but they talked amongst themselves in Shanghainese. Service, safety, and cleanliness were commendable overall; I kept to myself and didn’t have any problems, luggage frustration aside. With that, I end my report.

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2 Comments on “China Through the Looking Glass of Shanghai Pu Dong International Airport”

  1. Daniel M. Says:

    Mr. Smythe. I must disagree with you a little bit. Most of what you write is right on, and good work. But, I find that there is a lot of leeway with the rules. BUT, you just have to know someone. I traveled with a native Guangzhouese, and he happened to have a buddy who worked at Baiyun Airport there. And although our bags were grossly overweight a blind eye was turned. Connections there are everything. Cheers and safe travels.

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