Beijing loves a good old-fashioned crackdown. In the past year, campaigns have targeted problems from corruption and fake drugs to spitting and queue jumping, with a whole lot more in between including, ahem, Tibetan monks. Now foreigners living in China are starting to feel the heat.
"Beijing Welcomes You!" chortle the cutesy mascots of the XXIX Olympiad. Well, kind of welcomes some of you. And only for a month, tops. And you'd better have proof of where we can find you in the country and a ticket home.
"Beibei Jingjing Huanhuan Yingying Nini!" there it is for you in Chinese. The five mascots' names read together send a warm message of welcome to visitors to the capital. Don't say you never learn anything from blogs. The quintet of characters that are the Fuwa, née Friendlies (an amusing story, I'll save it for when I have bloggers' block) are everywhere in Beibei Jingjing.
No, the brains behind the slogan didn't have a stutter; the repetition is a common quirk in Chinese. It's used to add stress and can be a form of endearment or something like that. I asked my Chinese teacher once and she was vague, as she usually is outside the linguistic straitjacket of my textbooks. The point is that at the rate China is currently handing out entry visas, there will be more Fuwa than foreigners in the capital's glitzy new stadiums come August.
In any country that requires a special bit of paper stuck in your passport for anything from a weekend visit to settling permanently, visa hassles are always going to be there, lurking in the background like a hideous passport photo betraying your true good looks. I've been in China for two years and my passport is already cluttered with six Chinese visas, with another on the way this month. Ridiculous really, but not as ridiculous as what many foreigners in China are now facing.
Despite a recent posting on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Hong Kong Commission website, entitled, in typically Chinese obtuse fashion, The Commissioner's Office Continues to Facilitate Visa Application of Foreiign (sic) Nationals, many foreigners are now experiencing major difficulties in obtaining visas either to work or continue living in China. The posting begins, Foreigners are welcome to China. Well, that's nice and friendly isn't it? But then, The Chinese visa is issued in accordance with laws and regulations of China, with reference of the practice of hosting countries of previous Olympic Games and other international sporting events.
Hmm. In other words, don't blame us for the new visa restrictions, Australia and Greece kicked out a whole lot of foreigners pre-Olympics too. Did they? I doubt it. And more ominously, Compared to most other countries, it is relevantly (sic) easy and convenient to apply for a Chinese visa. So there. Most other countries? I doubt that, too. Then the coup de grace, Genuine visitors to China and those attending Olympic Games will not be affected. Genuine visitors? China is the motherland of counterfeiters but even here I have yet to see a non-genuine visitor.
This reassurance does not tally with the reality for thousands of foreigners who have been living semi-permanently in the country on renewable six-month business visas. The Hong Kong visa run, long the easiest way for foreigners in Mainland China to renew business visas, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Numerous foreigners are recounting tales of woe at the visa office that did not happen until a few weeks ago. The office is no longer renewing multiple entry business visas or handing out any new working visas. Although Chinese state media like to refer to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region as "China's Hong Kong", the SAR was still considered special enough to count as leaving the country as far as getting visas for mainland China goes. Until April, that is.
Visa agents in Beijing and other Mainland cities also have their hands tied. They are no longer able to issue visas of any kind – including tourist visas - for longer than one month, and only up until July 1.
Hordes of foreign students in China are facing the prospect of having to forfeit a lazy summer break fueled by (extremely) cheap (and possibly fake) alcohol, when their current permits run out. Perhaps more importantly, many local and overseas companies are starting to feel the squeeze as their foreign staff are refused visas and forced to leave. If the level of English on the Foreign Ministry's posting above is anything to go by, the new policy is already having an effect.
Even state run companies are having trouble getting around the restrictions. An Australian I know who works for China Central Television went to Hong Kong recently loaded down with the standard pile of CCTV stamped documents supporting her visa application. She came away with a single entry business visa instead of the usual one-year work permit and an order to go back to Australia and apply again. Strange days indeed when even the government is struggling to legally employ foreigners.
Following its usual Admit Nothing Until You Start Looking Really Stupid policy, the Foreign Ministry last week finally admitted it has tightened visa requirements, following a series of public complaints by business groups in Beijing and reports in foreign media. A ministry spokesman said, "What is unchanged and will not change is safeguarding our national security and making sure our environment is safe, and making sure foreigners in China will be safe."
So it's actually partly for our own good. Try telling that to foreigners who have been forced to leave their homes and businesses at short notice, or to non-Chinese who are no longer able to enter the country to oversee their companies and factories.
The police are also tightening the screws on foreign residents. Officers have started going door-to-door, checking that we laowai (foreigners) are registered at the local public security bureau and have valid visas. As I started to write this a couple of days ago, an unusually friendly English speaking female officer knocked on my door. As luck would have it I had nothing to show her after handing all my papers over to my boss, hoping to get a new visa. She didn't seem too bothered as she checked my name and passport number against her list, but I suspect she will be back soon.
What's it all about? It's all about the Olympics, silly. Everything is about the Olympics in China this year (it was last year too for that matter). China is nervous about the prospect of masses of foreigners flooding into the country and stirring up unrest or demonstrating publicly as the world's eyes are fixed on Beijing during the Games.
Nervous? No, perhaps not nervous. More like paranoid and petrified. Face matters in China. A lot. Imagine how Beijing would look if a foreigner unfurled a ‘Free Tibet' banner in front of a TV camera! China's image would be severely damaged. No, wait. I'm sure I heard about something like that happening recently. Not in Beijing though.
The only banners that are likely to flutter in the city's brown breeze this year are the ubiquitous red and white wenming (civilised) propaganda signs instructing citizens to pull their socks up while foreigners are in town. Pretty soon they may be able to return to their uncivilised ways, because the foreigners are getting thinner on the ground.