Saturday, February 27, 2016

China’s nationality law: Does a foreign passport protect you?

China’s detention of five Hong Kong booksellers that published titles critical of its Communist leadership has drawn widespread condemnation, with many calling it a serious affront to the government’s pledge to follow the rule of law.

Having covered the story for months, I have paid close attention to one specific Chinese law relevant to the cases – the Nationality Law – for both professional and personal reasons.

Two of the five men in Chinese police custody – after being allegedly abducted by state agents abroad – have foreign citizenship: Lee Bo is British and Gui Minhai is Swedish.

Consular officials from the two European nations have so far failed to gain access to them and the Chinese foreign minister made clear his government considered Lee “a Chinese national first and foremost.”

A foreign ministry spokeswoman reinforced her boss’s message when asked about the issue, saying: “Anyone who is eligible for Chinese nationality is considered a Chinese national.”

In an appearance on state television, Gui asked the Swedish government to leave him alone and insisted: “Though I hold a Swedish passport, I still feel I am Chinese.”

The two cases have sparked a heated debate on the issue of citizenship and unnerved many people of Chinese origin living and working in China – myself included – who believed a foreign passport would offer protection should their actions fall foul of Beijing.

“When somebody is ethnically Chinese – a former PRC national becomes a foreign national and they don’t like what the person does, they go after that person and say at heart you are still a Chinese,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a law professor at New York University and an internationally recognized expert on China’s legal system.

Chinese at heart?

At first glance, the Nationality Law – promulgated in 1980 and containing only 18 articles – seems straightforward enough.

Article 3 states that “the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not recognize dual nationality for any Chinese national,” while Article 9 says that Chinese nationals living abroad who have acquired foreign citizenship of their own volition “shall automatically lose Chinese nationality.”

Like the bookseller Gui, I was born in China. My family immigrated to the United States in my mid-teens.
Becoming a U.S. citizen
in Atlanta in June 2001.

As a naturalized American citizen who has relinquished his former Chinese nationality, I have been given the “Chinese at heart” talk time and again since moving to Beijing as a journalist some 15 years ago.

The argument I have heard – from officials as well as ordinary people – tends to be more moral than legal in nature, and it cuts both ways.

It has opened doors to sources skeptical or jittery of foreign media, but has also triggered greater wrath – “you should know better” – when I covered sensitive or controversial topics.

I have also detected signs of different official treatment of naturalized foreign citizens of Chinese origin, presumably because the authorities want to crosscheck government databases to ascertain we hold no dual citizenship.

Every year when I renew my journalist visa, police officers raise the question of my former Chinese ID and household registration, which I canceled for permission to leave the country in the early 1990s.

At airport passport control counters, I am often asked to provide my Chinese name – even though the country’s entry-exit regulations include no such requirement.

Formal renunciation

My occasional annoyance aside, it was the plight of Lee and Gui that prompted me to dive deeper into China’s Nationality Law, especially after an online post on the subject became widely circulated on overseas Chinese websites.

The post claims that, contrary to popular belief, most people do not automatically lose their Chinese citizenship when they assume that of another country, as is suggested in Article 9 of the law.

The author cites Articles 10 and 11 as proof that people are required to go through a formal process to renounce their Chinese citizenship if they choose to give it up legally. The Ministry of Public Security’s website provides a form for doing just that.

“The Chinese government is using it in a – let’s say – in a clever way,” said Antonia Grant, a Hong Kong-based partner for the Lewis Silkin law firm who specializes in immigration.

“China is saying, actually you are not a foreigner unless you have formally renounced your citizenship; otherwise, you are still a citizen of China and we will deal with you the way we want to deal with you – and we don’t want foreign governments meddling in that process.”

The lawyer added that the little-known renunciation process could take up to a year.

She cited political concerns – including a rising number of corrupt officials who flee overseas and acquire foreign citizenship to escape the massive anti-graft campaign in China – as a reason for Beijing’s stance.

‘Hard to lose citizenship’

To me, though, the most worrying suggestion was that entering China with a foreign passport and a valid Chinese visa – as I do – does not change your nationality status in the eyes of the Beijing government, which seems to indicate that I could be denied consular assistance in China when facing legal trouble.

“Visa and nationality are two separate concepts,” said Grant, who was not surprised by such interpretation. “It’s really hard to lose citizenship in many countries.”

Chinese authorities have kept largely quiet on the renunciation issue, while scant state media coverage on the topic has provided little hint on the official position.

Many legal experts, however, remain convinced of the unequivocal meaning of Article 9 when it comes to the automatic loss of one’s Chinese nationality upon receiving citizenship from another country.

Any second-guessing or new interpretation only shows that Chinese officials “don’t respect their own Nationality Law,” said Cohen, the American law professor.

Many encounters with police and security officials
while on assignments over the years.

As the Beijing leadership continues to tighten its grip over the nation, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders recently issued its annual World Press Freedom Index and ranked China 176th out of 180 countries – reflecting an increasingly challenging environment faced by foreign journalists in China.

And the thought of my U.S. citizenship might offer me little protection here is really an added concern.

“If you ever end up in a Chinese jail, I’ll do all I can to help get you out,” said Cohen, who had taken active roles in securing the release of prominent Chinese activists in the past.

We both laughed – but I figured he was only half joking.

January 26, 2016: Trial by media? Confessions go prime time in China -

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chen Guangcheng's elder brother speaks of ordeal

English translation based on YouTube video of interview with Chen Guangfu and his wife, conducted by Hong Kong-based iSun Affairs magazine on May 12, 2012.

Chen Guangfu
Chen Guangcheng's elder brother

Shortly after we turned off the lights, I heard a car stop outside. As soon as I heard the car at that time of the night, I knew it must have come for me. I knew they wouldn't let me off the hook after Chen Guangcheng left. So I quickly put on my clothes. As soon as I put on my pants, they broke into that outer door. Then they broke into the inner door, too. Two doors were broken into, very quickly.

Then they shouted: "Are you Chen Guangfu?" I said yes. Without warning, before I even got to put on my jacket, they covered my head with a hood, bent my arms behind my back and carried me out. As the hood was not properly put on, I could still see a little and realized they had also broken into the room on the east side. They had two groups of people breaking into my house simultaneously.

Then, sandwiched between two men, with another pushing my head down -- I figured there were four to five of them in total -- I was pushed into a car and driven to the office of the Yinan County Economic Crime Investigation Team. Having already cuffed me in the car, they placed me in a chair upon arrival. They chained my feet to the chair while my hands remained cuffed behind my back and raised upward.

They started slapping my face. None of them was in police uniform and they just asked if I knew what was going on. I said: "I don't know." They kept slapping, only on one side of the face. Then someone started pinching my rib cage and stamping on my foot with his leather shoe. Finally I said: "Is this because Guangcheng left?" They said: "Then why were you playing dumb earlier?" I said: "If this is about Guangcheng leaving, I can tell you everything."

So I told them everything. They wrote everything down, repeatedly. This thing involved many people. I didn't want to implicate others so I insisted I was the one who rescued him. I was not cooperating in exposing or talking about others, but it seemed they had already had some leads. They said: "It's fine that you don't want to talk about others, but let us remind you about someone -- do you know Liu Yuancheng from Xishigu Village?" When I heard that, I realized they had already known something.

I resisted for a long time but finally gave in. I hadn't planned to hide anything anyway. Since Guangcheng had already left, other details were rather meaningless. I was just reluctant to expose those who had helped Guangcheng, but they had already known something. They started reminding me of the names, one by one, knowing that I wouldn't volunteer information. Eventually I told them the whole thing. They interrogated me for two days and three nights.

During interrogation, they told me the guy in charge was Ma Chenglian (phonetic), the Communist Party secretary responsible for law enforcement in the county and also the police chief. He told me: "Something major happened in your house after you were taken away. I am not making this up and I'm telling you as the police chief that your son injured Zhang Jian with a kitchen cleaver. Zhang suffered more than 20 cuts and his survival isn't guaranteed yet. Your son also attacked two other guards." After telling me that, he said: "All this was caused by you because you helped Guangcheng escape. If you hadn't helped Guangcheng escape, such things wouldn't have happened in your house."

Since I knew him from before, I asked: "Secretary Ma, I respect you and hope you will answer me one thing truthfully -- did my son injure people in our own courtyard or on the streets?" He said it was in the house -- he said clearly it happened in the house. Then I said: "So he didn't chase people to the streets to attack them." They all laughed, and asked if I was thinking about hiring lawyers to claim my son had acted in self-defense. So I heard about my son injuring others while in jail.

When I returned home, I saw a lot of blood stain over there (pointing to the wall behind him). I think Secretary Ma was right that it happened in the house. The injured ran toward the door, leaving blood near the doorway.

Ren Zongju
Chen Guangfu's wife

They dragged (my son) inside and started beating him -- so many of them attacking a single man. They were so ferocious some stuff fell to the ground. Blood was steaming down my son's face, also on this thighs with flesh exposed beneath broken pants. He said me: "Ma, I have to run." My husband had left some money for me and the notes fell to the ground amid the chaos. Fortunately, nobody else had noticed. So I picked up the money and gave it to my son. I just said: "Take the money."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Chen Guangcheng addresses Premier Wen (my English translation)

*Updated with ChinaAid-produced video with English subtitles based on my translation.

Dear Premier Wen Jiabo,

I finally escaped. All the stories online about the brutal treatment I received from the Linyi authorities, I can personally testify they are true. The reality is even harsher than the stories that have been circulating.

Premier Wen, I hereby formally make the following three requests.

First, I would like you to personally intervene in this matter by sending an investigation team to find out the truth. Those who ordered county-level police and officials to break into my house, beat and hurt me, refused me medical attention -- without any legal foundation or officers wearing uniforms -- whoever made the decision has to be investigated and punished according to law. Their actions are so cruel it has greatly harmed the image of the Communist Party.

They broke into my house and more than a dozen men assaulted my wife. They pinned her down and wrapped her in a blanket, beating and kicking her for hours. They also violently assaulted me. Zhang Jian... many of county policemen whom we know like He Yong, Zhang Shengdong... and the men who repeatedly beat my wife before my release from prison like Li Xianli, Li Xianqiang, Gao Xinjian, etc. -- they all have to be seriously dealt with. There is another man whose family name is Xue.

As an affected party, I hereby accuse them of the following crimes: When they came to my house to assault us, Zhang Jian, the deputy Party secretary in charge of law enforcement in Shuanghou township, said to me unequivocally: "We don't care about the law and we are ignoring the law -- what can you do about it?" He repeated led people to my home to attack and rob us.

Li Xianli, who heads Team 1 that illegally confined me in my house, repeatedly beat my wife -- once even pulling her off the bike to assault her. He also beat my mother. Simply monstrous. Li Xianqiang, an official with the township's judicial authority, beat my wife last year, gravely injuring her left arm.

The man who guarded the village entrance and attacked Christian Bale -- I understand his name is Zhang Shenghe, an official with our township. He is the so-called "Military Coat" (or "Pandaman") in netizen's descriptions. Last February, he also hurled rocks at the CNN team. It was him -- no mistake -- I know that.

I also heard some netizens were assaulted by female guards. At first I didn't know there were female guards. Then I learned those so-called female goons were woman's affairs chiefs from surrounding villages or their families.

Then there is Gao Xinjian and many others whose names I don't know. I know they come from the police force, even though they don't wear uniforms and denied to be policemen. I asked them who they were and they scoffed: "We are sent by the Party and we work for the Party." I don't believe them. At most they work for a corrupt official within the Party.

From what I learned, other than various officials, each team guarding me has more than 20 people. They have three teams with a total of 70 to 80 people. When more netizens tried to visit me recently, they had several hundred people at one time and completely sealed off my village.

Starting with my home, they station a team inside the house and another one outside guarding the four corners. Further out, they block every road leading to my house, all the way to the village entrance. They even have 7 to 8 people guarding bridges in neighboring villages. These corrupt officials draw people from neighboring villages into this and they have cars patrolling areas within a 5-kilometer radius of my village or even further.

Besides all these layers of security around my house -- I think there are 7 to 8 layers -- they have also numbered all the roads leading to my village, going up to 28 with guards assigned to them daily. The whole situation is just so over the top. I understand the number of officials and policemen who participate in my persecution adds up to some 100 people. They repeatedly hurt us illegally and I demand a thorough investigation.

Second, although I'm free, my worries are only deepening. My wife, mother and children are still in their evil hands. They have been persecuting my family for a long time and my escape would only prompt them into a mode of revenge. Such retribution would only become worse.

They once broke my wife's left orbital bone. She suffers lumbar disc protrusion from all the beating and there are still lumps on her ribs due to physical assaults. She has been cruelly denied medical treatment.

My elderly mother, on her birthday, was pushed to the ground with her head hitting the door. She was crying and accused them of attacking an old woman. They scoffed: "It's true we're young and that's why you can't beat us." How shameless, how cruel and how unjust.

My child goes to elementary school accompanied by three guards. They search her bag every day and examine every textbook. They stop her from leaving school ground or home.

From July 29 to December 14 last year, they cut off power to my house. From last February onward, they have barred my mother from going out to buy groceries, making our lives extremely difficult.

I am very worried. I implore netizens to pay more attention to my family to ensure their safety. I also implore the Chinese government to ensure the safety of my family based on the principles of upholding the rule of law and protecting the interest of the people. If anything is to happen to my family, I will pursue this issue to no end.

Third, many people wonder why my situation has dragged on for so long without a resolution. I can say this: It's because the local authorities -- the decision-makers and the enforcers -- have no intention of resolving this. For the decision-makers, they are afraid of their crimes being exposed. For the enforcers, there is a lot of corruption involved.

I remember when they humiliated me last August in the Cultural Revolutionary style, they told me, you said in your video that 30 million yuan was spent on (your house arrest), that was the 2008 figure -- now the amount is more than double that and that's not even including bribery money for high-level officials in Beijing. Some of the hired guards have complained that they make so little since most of the money has gone to others.

It's been a great opportunity for all of them to make money. As I understand, the township gives team leaders money to hire guards and each guard is supposed to get 100 yuan per day. Those team leaders tell potential hires that they get only 90 of the 100 yuan. Since most farmers get 50 to 60 yuan working in the field, and the guard job is considered safe and comfortable with meals included, of course people are willing to take it. In just one team, with more than 20 guards, the team leader gets 200 yuan extra per day. How corrupt is that?

The leader of the guards watching my wife sells vegetables he grows to the teams for a profit. These things are well known but there's nothing ordinary people can do about them.

As for the "stability maintenance" budget, they told us the county would give the township several million yuan at a time and local officials would still complain how little they get. You can see the serious corruption involved in this process and how they abuse money and power.

Premier Wen, I would like to see you investigate and punish those corrupt officials who squander our taxpayer money on harming innocent people as well as the Party's image. When they commit despicable crimes, they always claim they are doing what the Party has asked them to.

Premier Wen, all those illegal actions have baffled many people -- is it just local officials flagrantly violating the law or do they have the support of the central government? I hope you will give the public a clear answer in the near future. If we have a thorough investigation into my case and announce the result, I think people would appreciate. If you continue to ignore me, what would the public think?

May 1, 2012: Visitors unwelcome in Chinese activist's hometown -
April 30, 2012: Chinese censors block news on blind activist's escape -
April 28, 2012: Escaped Chinese activist in U.S. embassy - (with Christian Bale reaction)
April 27, 2012: Chinese activist escapes from house arrest -

Thursday, December 29, 2011

'Batman' begins with a 'spam'

When a "Christian Bale" started emailing me in late November, I ignored him as most people probably would. Why would a Hollywood star contact me out of blue to discuss "an idea"?

"Shall I call Batman back at the number he gave me?" I asked friends sarcastically as they laughed.

Then came the phone call on December 6.

"Hi Steven, it's Christian Bale," said a soft-spoken British-accented voice. "I tried to email you."

As I listened in disbelief, Bale -- who said he would be in Beijing soon to promote his latest movie -- revealed his idea: visiting Chen Guangcheng, a prominent blind Chinese activist under illegal house arrest for more than a year.

Having followed Chen's plight for months, Bale said he felt inspired by the man and was abhorred by news reports on how local authorities had harassed and tortured him and his family. When he realized nobody he talked to in the United States knew anything about Chen, Bale wanted to pay him a personal visit to shed a spotlight on the activist.

Bale got my name after reading a story I wrote in February recounting my team's dangerous encounter with rock-hurling guards who thwarted our attempt to visit Chen. When he didn't hear back from me, Bale found my office number and called.

“Would you be interested in joining me on the trip to see Chen?” he asked.

I told him it was an intriguing idea but I needed to talk to my colleagues first. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, we both agreed to keep it just between us.

The timing for a visit was certainly right: A Chen family friend had just told me about the activist's slightly improved condition amid growing domestic and international pressure, while a high-level U.S. Congressional panel had just held hearing on his case.

There was a lot of interest in getting fresh first-hand reporting on Chen and I was planning another trip to try to visit him. Bale's idea would definitely make a great unique angle.

I discussed the potential trip with my correspondent, who echoed my opinion on its newsworthiness. We agreed the focus should be the actor's effort and journey to meet an unlikely personal hero in confinement.

I called Bale back two days later to confirm our interest and we decided to talk about the details in person.

On December 11, several hours before he walked down the red carpet at a lavish premiere thrown by the Chinese producers of "The Flowers of War," I met Bale in his hotel room, erasing the last bit of lingering doubt about his identity. I admitted I had to dig up his bio online when I first received his call, as his natural British accent -- in contrast to the American English he spoke in most movies -- threw me off.

“So that's your little investigative journalism,” he quipped.

As we chatted, I was impressed by Bale's deep knowledge on Chen -- from his legal advocacy on behalf forced-abortion victims and his subsequent imprisonment, to the dire conditions of detention the activist described himself in a smuggled video. Bale also kept tabs on all the recent developments, including reports on violent attacks against Chen's supporters who tried to visit him.

Although he remained soft-spoken, Bale's underlying conviction and passion surfaced when he emphasized he would be drawn to a case like Chen’s even without being in China. The potential consequence of not being allowed back in China -- just as “Flowers” was selected as the country’s official entry into next year’s Oscars -- wouldn't deter him, either.

"Anyone is going to recognize this is horrendous the way this man has been treated," he said. "To say I'd rather look the other way and continue making movies just completely trashes what, at its most important, movies can be. It's got to be about the individual and have a humanitarian aspect to it -- so that's why I go."

He finalized the date for the trip, leaving his U.S.-based representatives and fellow Chinese filmmakers completely in the dark.

"I just told them I need to stay two extra days to do some personal stuff," he said.

The following day, I proposed a reporting trip to follow Bale to a few senior editors and shared my thoughts on the story with them.

They expressed concern over our plan to travel with Bale in the same car, saying the arrangement may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. I explained it was mainly for safety reasons based on our experience in February -- more vehicles would slow us down and thus make us more vulnerable if a quick getaway became necessary. Also, the long drive would allow us to interview him on camera in the car. (Bale shared the cost of transportation.)

The go-ahead came the day before our scheduled departure.

During our eight-hour drive from Beijing to Dongshigu Village on December 15, we talked with Bale about his movies, life and time in China in the rather cramped car, but one topic he returned to often was Chen's freedom -- a cause he said he would continue to champion after returning to the States.

When we entered Chen's neighboring village and all seemed clear, Bale brightened up and, for a brief moment, everyone savored the prospect of actually meeting the activist.

Then, our car made one last turn onto that narrow path leading to Chen’s house. The sight of four burly guards manning an impromptu checkpoint suddenly appeared and the rest, as they say, is history.

December 16, 2011: 'Batman' star Bale punched, stopped from visiting blind Chinese activist -

February 16, 2011: Difficult journey to visit a Chinese human rights lawyer -

Friday, September 25, 2009

Jetset: "Old vs. New"

As China reflects on its transformation over the past six decades, it’s a perfect time to marvel at the changes in the country’s air travel industry – at least in relations to our fair capital.

It’s hard to imagine but as recently as ten years ago, Terminal 1 was the only passenger building at Capital International Airport. Yes, that tiny facility, which now handles only Hainan Air’s domestic flights, was once the gateway to China. Terminal 2, a glass-and-steel structure featuring arched rooftops that have since become ubiquitous in Chinese airport designs, opened its doors in November 1999. Thanks to the 2008 Olympics, PEK now boasts the world’s second-biggest single-building terminal aka Terminal 3 (it surrendered the crown to Dubai’s even newer T3 last October).

During the first half of 2009, almost 31 million fliers passed through PEK, making it Asia’s busiest airport and No. 2 in the world. The airport authority has projected a passenger volume of 95 million by 2015 – and already drawn the blueprint for a second international airport to the south of the city. (Note to the planners: Please learn a lesson from Shanghai, and build fast and convenient transportation links between the two airports.)

Although we may whine about huge crowds at check-in counters and long walks to boarding gates, T3 is not only the ultimate testament to the breakneck growth of air travel in China but also a great leap forward for the airport – in terms of both facilities and services.

Although both China Southern and Hainan run hub operations at PEK, Air China (CA) remains the true hometown carrier. Few of us experienced the flag carrier – or its previous incarnation, CAAC – when it was flying Soviet jets with flight attendants performing revolutionary songs as in-flight entertainment. It has come a long way since then. In addition to a modern fleet and a decent global network, CA has raised its overall service, in part thanks to its cross-ownership (hence cross-training) with Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific.

Not everything is so rosy though, especially during these lean times. Spoiled domestic fliers have noticed cutbacks in food services during non-meal hours (my personal peeve: no more Diet Coke for economy class passengers). CA’s Phoenix Miles, the country’s oldest and largest frequent flier program, has also suffered some recent setbacks. In an effort to curb selling of miles, CA now limits each member to redeeming award tickets for up to eight pre-designated beneficiaries. After the initial signup, CA will deduct 300 kilometers from your account any time you need to add or change names on the list – and the revision will only become valid after 60 days. Not customer-friendly, however you slice it. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 90 of the October 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jetset: "Plane Art"

Even in today’s increasingly crowded skies, an airplane remains a thing of engineering and aesthetic beauty. Little wonder, then, that the unveiling of a new or special livery (i.e. paint scheme) for a major carrier often generates the kind of buzz usually reserved for fashion gurus launching their latest collections.

In the United States, the liveries of major carriers – past and present – have become iconic designs: Pan-Am’s all-white fuselage and blue-globe tail; American’s shiny bare metal body and red-and-blue eagle tail; and United’s gray fuselage and color-striped tulip tail. These patterns often adorn a carrier’s fleet for decades and become ingrained in the public mindset.

As some airlines have found out, messing with such famous corporate images can spell trouble for their business. Delta twice abandoned its classic widget tail in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to the dismay of many loyal fliers. The hasty makeovers reflected incoherent management of the period, which eventually led the airline to bankruptcy court. Not surprisingly, when Delta emerged from bankruptcy protection, a modernized red widget reappeared on its aircraft tails – and it went on to acquire Northwest to become the world’s largest airline.

British Airways has also learned its lesson the hard way; in the late 1990s, it ditched the longtime Union Flag scheme in favor of abstract world images – including Chinese calligraphy – on its aircraft tails to showcase the countries it flew to. These so-called “ethnic tails” proved controversial with the public, and even caused problems with air traffic controllers, who found it harder to identify BA planes. BA returned to an updated Union Flag livery in 1999.

Closer to home, China’s top three airlines have preferred simplicity to creativity since the breakup of the former state monopoly CAAC in the late 1980s. All three have chosen a white-body motif, with the company names in both Chinese and English prominently displayed. Tail designs set them apart – Air China with a red phoenix formed by a stylized “VIP”; China Eastern with an artistic rendition of the letter E that looks like a white swallow inside a red-and-blue circle; and China Southern with a red kapok flower on a blue background. Quite a few other domestic carriers, including Hainan and Shanghai, have opted for the auspicious red tails.

While no Chinese airlines have gone as far as EVA (Hello Kitty) or ANA (Pokémon), they are certainly becoming more inspired. Shanghai-based China Eastern has painted two colorful World Expo 2010 planes to promote the big event, with another four jets to be painted with winning designs from the public on the same theme. The only airline that may want to reconsider its livery is low-cost carrier Spring. The big green lettering of its website ( across the white fuselage makes sense – except sometimes that hyphen is a bit hard to see. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 96 of the September 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Jetset: "A Weighty Issue"

Flying was once a privilege – and few passengers minded the extra calorie intake from relaxing for a few hours in a comfortable seat while savoring a steak meal accompanied by some champaign. Now that air travel is just another mode of public transportation, however, the whole experience can feel more like a weight-loss regimen – from long walks in the terminal, to the lack of in-flight food service to the forced yoga positions in a cramped seat.

Despite these rigorous routines, oversized passengers have been posing a problem in crowded economy cabins, especially for airlines based in more developed countries. With a third of Americans considered obese by health officials, for instance, many of us who regularly fly to or in the US have had the unpleasant experience of being squeezed by an overflowing seatmate.

Small wonder, then, frequent fliers – who normally despise legacy carriers’ nickel-and-dime approach – applaud the decision by the six largest US airlines to require obese passengers to buy a second seat on full flights. (One US airline, by the way, has also been dealing with another weighty issue recently, with the flight attendants union at Northwest Airlines filing a grievance with the management for offering their uniform in sizes only up to 18, rather than the usual 28.)

No Chinese airlines have followed suit with the second-seat policy. But with more than 12 million overweight or obese kids in China, they may want to prepare for the next generation of passengers. Meanwhile, Spring Airlines, China’s pioneer no-frills carrier, appears unwittingly to have come up with a creative solution. The Shanghai-based airline recently grabbed worldwide attention for proposing standing-room only flights. Known for its super-low fares that start at RMB 1, Spring has continued to grow despite the economic downturn. Eager to pack even more people onto its already crowded A320s, the carrier has reportedly asked manufacturer Airbus to devise a barstool-type scheme, which could offer 40 percent more room for passengers.

Never one to be outshone, Ryanair, Europe’s largest low-cost carrier (which recently threatened to bring coin-operated lavatories on board) has declared its intention to consider a similar plan for its Boeing fleet. In the unfortunate event that standing-room flights fail to take off, Ryanair fliers won’t lack for workout options. In a move to save USD 40 million a year, the airline has announced a DIY luggage policy. Starting next spring, all passengers will have to haul their own bags through security, departure areas and across the tarmac to their plane. They will then be able to carry on one bag but leave any others to be loaded into the cargo hold – and picked up the same way upon arrival. Just imagine the calorie burn! Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 100 of the August 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.