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Doing the Dance of Chinese Bureaucracy

Dancing through Chinese bureaucracy is a Kafka-esque endeavor, a mashing of contradiction and a collision of mutual exclusive parameters. But something can be both black and white here, so you keep dancing.

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China’s authorities seem to enjoy laying down infinite layers of rules and concocting discordant chains of regulations far more than evaluating whether they can actually be followed or not. Checking to see if mere mortals can really abide by their regulatory outpourings seems to be a real buzz kill to the creative process, a trifle which diminishes the shear grandeur of the authoritarian masterpieces they produce. All too often, new rules and regulations here just lure you into a Catch-22 of redundancy, where there is no logical way to successfully proceed. It’s a system that not only encourages corruption, selective rule enforcement, and impromptu legal interpretation, but demands it: there is often no other way through.

This fact is often a point of wonderment among this country’s expat communities, as China’s twisted public administration rules couldn’t have been written better by Kafka. An Australian who is married to and has a kid with a Chinese woman was told me about his son’s immigration woes. Due to a new rule change, his eight year old kid, who has always lived in China on his Australian passport, all of a sudden was considered Chinese by the immigration department that issues visas. Apparently, a new rule went into effect that states that anyone who was born in China is automatically Chinese, and Chinese people cannot receive Chinese visas. So the Australian was directed to get his son a Chinese passport. When he tried to do this he was told that his son cannot receive a Chinese passport because he is foreigner, and China does not permit duel citizenship. So the kid can’t get a visa or become a citizen. What can he do? It’s a perfectly crafted Catch-22 of Chinese bureaucracy.

I’ve just got caught in the dragnet of a similar bureaucratic quagmire. I’ve successfully avoided these for a long time now — perhaps too long. I suppose my number was going to be called at some point, and I would find myself at the business end of some sudden rule change or regulatory flip-flop that doesn’t quite run flush with reality.

The immigration department in my province is getting stricter on its foreign residents, busting out with rules that seem to make little sense and are often difficult or even impossible to comply with. The story is that an official in the immigration office had to go to the USA for some kind of training, but US officials gave her a difficult time getting the visa. Upon hearing about her struggle to go to the USA her superiors decided to pay all foreigners within their dominion in kind, and unleashed a procession of new hoops for us to jump through. Revenge. While nobody knows if this story is true or not, it isn’t far fetched: the immigration departments of developing countries do these things all the time. If they’re going to make it hard for us, we’re going to make it hard for them! They say it’s only fair, but they often unleash policies that are very unfair their own country’s businesses who rely on foreign employees, investment, and tourists. Whatever is the case, there is nothing anyone can do about it but say yessir, yessir, and do the dance they wish to see you jig.

I’ve been staying in China off and on since 2005 on residence permits. Each year I need to renew it. I’ve done this many times without difficulty. But then a new rule in my province was introduced last year which states that marriage permits and birth certificates now need to be certified by an approved authority. It is no longer enough to just show the original, signed and sealed documents. According to the immigration department, to get this done you need to have the Chinese consulate in your home country review the document and affix their stamp on it, or, if you are currently in China, you need to have this done by your country’s consulate.

As I am not going back to the USA just to have my marriage license stamped by the Chinese consulate and don’t have enough time before my visa expires to hire a courier service, I had to go for option B: go to the US consulate get the document certified.

Though unfortunately, the immigration department in my province never seemed to bother to check to see whether the US consulate can actually perform this service. They don’t. I’ve already requested the certification in person and over email, just to be told that it is just not a service they provide. They best they can do is notarize an affidavit whereupon I attest that the documents are real and valid. Logically speaking, this is pointless, but logic has little to do with how things work here. “They often just want to see our seal,” one of the consulate officials told me, “it doesn’t really matter what it really means.” As the cost of this service is $50 per notarization and seemed ridiculous, I declined to do it at the time.

When I returned to my city and told the immigration department about this little incongruity in their scheme, they didn’t really acknowledge it. They remained steadfast that my documents could be certified by the US Consulate. It sort of seemed like a way of saving Face, as they were put in the position of enforcing a rule that really couldn’t be followed. So they passed me off to another agency, making them the ones to deny me what I needed.

These situations are often not the fault of the immediate officials that you deal with face to face here. These men and women are often in hard positions: having the rules they are empowered to uphold on one hand and reality on the other. Their superiors create the regulations and these guys enforce them. Like many places in the world, communication between the two sides is a one way stream. So their position is rather Kafka-esque: they stand at the point where two mutually exclusive parameters meet, a conundrum of contradictory logic that they need to make work in order to keep the wheels of their country spinning. They probably know that what they are requesting can’t be done, but tell you to try anyway. They knowingly give you directions that lead to a dead end, but this is all part of the process.

So you play the game, you do the dance. You walk down the road, hit the dead end, return, and tell the official about it as if you are presenting new information that he doesn’t already know. You smile, you act obediently and respectfully, act like the problem is external to the department you are dealing with, and create a situation where it seems as if the official is helping you rather than hassling you. If you keep going through rounds of ultra-pointless and illogical formalities, a mysterious door will often suddenly open, the papers will be pushed, and you will get through to the other side.

So, with little other option, I am now going back to Guangzhou. Though I’ve already been told twice by the Guangzhou consulate that they can’t do what I’m requesting, the trip shouldn’t be waste my time. I’m keeping the wheels of bureaucracy spinning. They like to see you dance here.


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Filed under: China, Travel Diary, Visas

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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