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Navigating Chinese Bureaucracy, pt. 2

When it all doesn’t add up, just go for the ride. This is the only way to get through Chinese bureaucracy.

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When you’re faced with a bureaucratic system that seems specially rigged to lock you within the quagmires of mutually contradicting rule sets, you don’t argue. When you’re facing a system of requirements that cannot be fulfilled, you don’t make an appeal on the grounds of logic. You just say yessir, temporarily suspend that mental trigger that tells you that A cannot be B and black cannot be white, and do whatever little dance you’re directed to do. Nothing is broken, the system works fine. It’s you that has the problem. So you just obey (and sometimes, ahem, pay).

When I was told by the immigration department in my city in China that I was going to have to travel 400km back to Guangzhou to request a service from the American Consulate that they have already confirmed multiple times that they cannot provide, I didn’t protest. I just did it.

(Read part 1: Doing the Dance of Chinese Bureaucracy)

I was getting my residence permit renewed, and some new shortsighted regulations made by my province’s immigration department were put into effect that made doing this slightly more complicated than in years previous. All I had to do was get my marriage license certified. No problem. It sounded simple until it became obvious that there are no approved authorities who can do this in the entire country of China. Immigration said the US Consulate could do it. The Consulate said no way.

So what could I do? Go back to the USA, get the document certified by a Chinese Consulate, get a new visa, and return to apply for residence again? I presented a ripple in the fabric of the immigration department’s regulations. The new rules seem to have been made with foreigners currently residing in China unconsidered. So what can we do? That’s what we had to ask. An official in the immigration department suggested that I go back to the US Consulate and request them to give him a call.

Does the US Consulate make phone calls on request? I had no idea, but I was out of possibilities — the time was ticking down on the validity of my residence permit, I had to try it.

When I was at the consulate for another matter the week before I brought the issue of needing my documents certified. They told me that all they could do was notarize an affidavit where I state that the documents are real and valid. That seemed ridiculous. What point does it make for the US Consulate to confirm that I claimed the documents to be real? I asked the consulate official this question, and he spoke in a between-the-lines kind of way that I failed to pick up on:

“They just want to see our seal,” the Consulate official told me, “what the document actually is or says doesn’t really matter. They just want to see our seal.”

I turned down the affidavit service, mostly as it carries a $50 price tag and I would need to do this for two documents.

When the Chinese immigration official was told that the consulate couldn’t certify the documents, he was placed in the perhaps inevitable position of his profession: caught somewhere between the rules and reality. You don’t piss off bureaucratic middle men. They are the gatekeepers. They don’t make the rules, but they do decide who gets through the gate or not. So I was at his mercy, and he wanted me to return to Guangzhou. He at least gave me a directive — something else to try — which was a very good sign. The gates of officialdom remain unhinged until an official throws his/ her arms up in the air and says, “There’s nothing we can do.” Depending on the situation, this can mean two things: piss off or pay up. I remained hopeful, as I was not placed in this position.

I went back to Guangzhou.

“This is the phone number of the immigration official in my city who needs the forms certified. He told me that he wants you to give him a call. Is it possible for you to just call him real quick and get this sorted out?”

“Hmmm, let me check on that.”

[Leaves window]

[Returns to window]

“Okay, we have someone calling him now.”

Seriously, the people working in the US Consulates around the world are perhaps the most flexible, helpful civil servants I’ve ever encountered. These people deal with their country’s scum and unfortunates everyday — backpackers who run out of cash and appeal to their government to save them, citizens who end up arrested, dead bodies with US passports attached to them, and those who find themselves in far too deep in foreign lands. Some of the people I’ve seen these officials dealing with make even my tattooed, bearded self look upstanding by comparison. Starting up conversations in the American Services department of a consulate is to really get an earful of the sharp end of travel. But those polished, be-suited, men and women behind the counter, in my experience, always respond with complete courtesy. This is especially intriguing because they don’t have to. We are not customers, we are not going to take our business elsewhere, we are poor saps with no other option pleading for salvation. They usually respond.

After a few moments I was called back up to the booth.

“We’ve connected with your contact, he says the affidavit will be fine.”

My frugality and rationale buggered me in this instance. If both were placed in proper suspension, I could have saved the extra trip to Guangzhou — my third in as many weeks — and gone somewhere (anywhere) else.

“It doesn’t really make too much sense to us,” the consulate official began, “but it’s something the Chinese like. A couple years ago they began making foreigners getting married in China come here to get an affidavit that says they’ve not currently married to someone else. We don’t check on any of this. Basically, they just comes in and says they’re not currently married, and we notarize the affidavit.”

I returned with the affidavits. It was what they wanted. I got through.

This is the story of how things are done in China, from getting a visa to building a city. The methodological building blocks don’t always seem to stack up, the way things are done doesn’t make sense to us raised in lands governed by the laws of logic, everything seems crazy and on the brink of collapse, but it usually all works out in the end.

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 90 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 3655 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

1 comment… add one

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  • Felix Kraemer February 20, 2017, 7:36 am

    Drinking Tea Helps a Lot in Fujian Province!

    Very useful information in this article Wade, since I’m in a similar situation concerning marriage approval. It reminds me of a similar — something else to try — case that i had to go through when buying a 2nd hand car from a German Guy. Which itself wasn’t that difficult, problem was that he drove said car from China to Germany and on that trip he got a speeding ticket which could only be paid in person. (“He has to come back to China to pay that fine”!)
    But that person was in Germany and the car shipped back to China because of other bureaucratic rules. So after visiting that traffic police office for 2 times already trying the Chinese tricks of pretending to be the driver and second time just standing there and not “piss off or pay up” they got a bit helpless too . I waited till nobody else was in the station anymore and they wanted to finish work.

    To make it short the gatekeepers suggested to knock on their bosses door and speak english – NOT Chinese! Next day I was directed to the “upper” level – the next level so to say and drink tea. In a very special, rare occasion never happened before we agreed on calling the former owner with Facetime, so they could record it on “official police” video, where he stated that he was driving to fast with that car. I could finally pay the fine (100RMB) and take over the car.

    So being persistent and also a bit annoying (what the heck are we doing with this guys) helps too sometimes!

    Keep on travelling and good luck with getting money for your next book, Felix

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