The China Diary: Step One – Getting a visa

August 2015 Posted in Other, Sports
When covering the Moscow Worlds in the  Luhzniki Stadium, site of 1980 Olympics, Steve Ritchie met Xin Li, a journalist from Beijing. “We were seated next to each other throughout the meet and became friends. She will also be at the Beijing Worlds and that will be fun to see her again.”

When covering the Moscow Worlds in the
Luhzniki Stadium, site of 1980 Olympics, Steve Ritchie met Xin Li, a journalist from Beijing. “We were seated next to each other throughout the meet and became friends. She will also be at the Beijing Worlds and that will be fun to see her again.”

By Steve Ritchie

My trip to China to cover the Track & Field World Championships this summer started with another, shorter trip.

After waiting for months to hear about my media credential for the biennial championships, I finally received an email from the Local Organizing Committee in Beijing. I needed to gather about 10 documents, and go in person to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco to obtain a journalist visa.

Easy enough, I thought, and booked my flights to go down and back in the same day. I had been through this drill before, having gone to the Russian consulate in Seattle in 2013 to get a visa for the Worlds in Moscow and thought this would be much the same.

Like a wise person once said, don’t assume anything in this life.

Arriving in San Francisco, I took the BART train downtown and decided to walk the 20 blocks to the Chinese Consulate on Laguna Street, despite having recently injured my Achilles tendon. Limping up yet another hill, I realized too late I should have gotten a cab. There were none in sight.

After a 40-minute walk, I reached the consulate. Following instructions to turn the corner and go to the visa office, I was surprised to see a long line waiting outside. Then I saw – and heard – the amplified chants of protesters on the sidewalk in front of the entrance.

“China is a murderer, Shame on China. China is a Liar, Shame on China.” About 30 protesters were yelling in unison, aided by bullhorns and drums. The doors to the visa office were locked and a 100 or so people there to pick up or apply for visas were looking confused and disgruntled.

I soon gathered the protesters were Tibetans and sympathizers, who were assembled to protest the recent death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. A 65-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk, Tenzin died in a Chinese prison in early July. He was serving a life sentence for allegedly “setting off explosions” and inciting separation of Tibet from China.

The U.S. State Department and a number of human rights organizations had long urged China to release Tenzin from prison, after he was convicted in a closed-door trial. Instead, Chinese authorities reportedly denied him medical care in prison, leading to his death.

When the protesters showed up, the consulate officials locked the doors and did not say when or if they would be reopening. Since I was just there for the day, I had no choice but to wait.

As minutes stretched into hours and the line to get in the consulate office kept growing, tempers began to flare. Some of those waiting needed to get their passports, which were locked up inside the office, in order to make flights that day or the next day. Verbal confrontations between those waiting and the protesters started to become more frequent and intense. I sympathized with the protesters, but I needed the visa. Another trip down here would be time and money wasted, so I stayed out of any arguments and focused on being calm and patient.

Nearly three hours passed. The door finally cracked open and two people near the door got in before it closed again. Ten minutes later it opened again. This time five people were let in. At that point the crowd surged forward en masse, pressing those near the door up against the walls and each other. It felt like I couldn’t move or breathe. I tried to stay upright so as not to be trampled. The doors finally opened again and stayed open. Despite the repeated instructions of the security guards, a single file line was never formed. I held my ground in the pushing, shoving, and yelling and after 10 minutes, I was ushered inside. The crush of the crowd had been so great the water in my backpack had burst open soaking everything inside. But I was in, and within 30 minutes had managed to submit the papers and had a receipt for a visa to be picked up in three days. My nieces, who live in the city, got the visa for me, saving me a trip to San Francisco, and the first hurdle for this trip was finally cleared. Next up: Navigating the “Great Firewall of China.”

Travel notes

Steve Ritchie will be covering the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Track and Field for The Oregonian, Statesman Journal and Bend Bulletin from Aug. 22-30. He also will be writing about his adventure for Our Town. The championships will be held at the “Birds Nest,” the main site of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Ritchie has been a freelance writer since 2004, and has attended and written about three World Championships (Moscow, 2013; Daegu, South Korea, 2011; Berlin, 2009), as well as three Olympic Trials and numerous national championships. In June, Ritchie became the first recipient of the James O. Dunaway Memorial Award for excellence in track and field journalism, presented by the Track and Field Writers of America. James Dunaway was a freelance journalist who covered track and field for more than 50 years. Dunaway passed away earlier this year.

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