Jumping Through Hoops

My lucky date China visa: baat baat baat

Of all the hurdles that I had to clear in order to get my shiny new (and very fortunately dated!), multiple entry China tourist visa the strangest one was this:

“You need a letter from your employer verifying that you are authorized to take vacation during the days you plan to be in China,” explained Michael, my ever-patient, magical visa expediter.

Since I am self employed, I told Michael that would be no problem–I’d just write a letter on behalf of myself!

“No no no! Better not do that,” he warned. They like to see the signature on the letter is different from the name of the visa applicant.”

I see. And so, in addition to buying a plane ticket and a hotel reservation that only my travel agent knows if I’ll actually use, I had to deputize a friend, “hire” her to be my supervisor, and ask her to write me a letter that gives me permission to go on leave from my own business.

As I was printing out this Kafka-worthy document for my friend to sign, the culturally inflected logic of the Chinese requirement suddenly hit me. These seasoned bureaucrats, treating me as if I were any Chinese citizen, were asking me for a permission letter from my work unit, my danwei!

The Olympic season of 2008 introduced a new event: visa hoop jumping. As most of you probably know already, back in April of this year, China’s requirements for a visa suddenly, and mysteriously shifted. Foreign friends of mine who’d been living and working or studying in China for years found they could not renew their business visas in the easy, casual way to which they’d become accustomed. Just before I left Hong Kong, at the end of April, a stampede of mainland-based friends arrived in town, to sleep on our couches while they bargained, begged and pleaded at China Travel Service for a pass that would get them back into the place they had come to call home.

My pal Shanghai Vixen, who was part of the expat exodus, regaled us over dinner with horror stories of stampedes at the visa line, of South African women collapsing in tears, of endless delays, constantly shifting requirements, and general lack of information. (Thankfully, after much stress, paperwork and leveraged guanxi, Shanghai Vixen’s got her situation all sorted out).

The worst news, from my perspective, was that it was going to be tough, if not impossible, for a non-HK ID card holder like myself to get a multiple-entry China visa from an office in the city.

If you are an American in HK, the multiple-entry, or “DO” visa, for tourism or business, is really the only kind worth having. Since the Chinese price their visas reciprocally (as they absolutely should), a single entry visa costs a U.S. citizen over $100. Which makes that last minute impulse shopping trip across the border to Shenzhen, or restaurant odyssey in Guangzhou far too pricey an excursion to consider. What’s more, now that the single tourist visa application requires proof of round trip carriage, plus proof of pre-paid accommodation, it requires a level of advance planning and committment that will discourage the sort of traveler who makes up her mind at the last minute, and wants to be free to change her plans on the fly.

In other words, a traveler like me.

My two-year “DO” was, unfortunately, due to turn into a “MOUH” on August 1st. So one of the first things I did, after I got back to New York this summer was call Michael. Since the Chinese visa office in Hong Kong was changing its tune every day over in HK, I figured (hoped) the Chinese consulate in New York might not be on the same page.

As it turned out, they weren’t. Although I’d been reading all over the blogs that a multiple entry visa was going to be as impossible to obtain this Olympic year as a perfect 17 on the balance beam, my guy Michael told me not to sweat it. The consulate in NY, he said, was still giving one year multiple-entries to Americans who had received multiples before. So I filled out all the forms–including my danwei permission–, jumped through all the hoops, paid my $130 fee, gave it all to Michael, and bingo! One year, multiple entry tourist visa gold. When I get back to HK, I will not have to hesitate for a moment before jumping on a train to sample the dumplings of Guangzhou and the temptations of Shenzhen.

But what of the would-be China tourists intimidated by all the new hurdles? According to news reports from Beijing, a lot of them just decided to drop out of the race and stay home–hotel occupancy during the Olympics has run far below expectations. Obviously it is China’s prerogative to control its borders and choose who gets to enter its country (We who live in the glass house called the USA have zero business throwing stones in this situation). Still, it seems especially mean–not to mention stupid, hypocritical and self-defeating– for nations to insist on the free flow of global capital, goods, and resources while tightening the screws on the free flow of that most important resource of all, people.

The worst fallout of “terrorism”, by far, is the resurgence of barbed-wire nationalism. I hate it that America’s post 9-11 borders are such a nasty gauntlet for my foreign friends. And I add my voice to all the other critics of China’s 2008 Olympic visa hurdles. I hope, for the sake not only of Asia expats like me, but also for the Chinese who make a living from them, that China quietly reinstates the more relaxed, pre-Olympic rules of play come October.

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