Out of China: Your visit is inconvenient: there is not enough oxygen

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The Independent Online
OVER the past few weeks the state-controlled English-language newspaper has been running a series called 'China through my eyes'.

Every Tuesday, a foreigner living in China writes about his or her feelings for the People's Republic. There are certain common themes: awe at the country's 5,000 years of civilisation, wonder at the rapid progress of China's 'reform and opening-up' policy, the overwhelming love and respect felt by the writer for the helpful and friendly Chinese people.

Many contributors dwell on the importance of understanding Chinese culture and doing things in a Chinese way. However, anyone contemplating a business trip to China needs a more specific understanding of what this means in practice. Squeezing information out of an authoritarian state, or trying to get permission to visit areas outside Peking, can be like juggling with jelly. Here are some key Chinese government phrases that might bemuse a first-time visitor:

Not convenient: The most repeated phrase in China, or possibly the world, on the cautious assumption that each of the country's 1.17 billion people say this on average three times a day. Roughly translates as: 'Not a hope, mate'.

Our leaders are busy: It means no one is going to answer your questions, and the division chiefs have better things to do with their time than meet you, unless you are planning to invest large sums of money in the ministry's sideline businesses.

There is not enough oxygen: Generally speaking, this one is only of use to government departments situated above 10,000 feet. Thus it has become a favourite with the foreign-affairs department of Tibet when turning down requests for visits from reporters, diplomats and politicians who are interested in the human-rights situation. Two interesting variations have emerged recently: 'There is not enough oxygen; wait until the spring' and 'There is not enough oxygen; the leaves are falling off the trees'.

Our leaders are all in the countryside examining the drought situation: This was the response given to a Western ambassador who wished to visit a remote province.

He was also told there were no seats on any flights to or from the area for the foreseeable future, and every hotel in town was full.

The road has been washed away: Very handy for requests to visit remote areas, in this case China's border area with Burma.

There is a lychee festival that week: Guangdong province takes its lychees very seriously and it was unthinkable of a journalist to suggest visiting China's fastest-growing province at that time.

We'll break your legs: The succinct response of local officials to reporters wishing to return to a village in Anhui province where they had interviewed peasants about such un-socialist practices as the village chief's trade in young girls.

In the end, foreign businessmen and journalists often feel that there is still something missing here: there is no simple equivalent word in the Chinese language for 'no'.