Editor’s note: All persons interviewed have been given pseudonyms to protect their identity due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter.
July 20th, 2012 – It is day 66 of Beijing’s 100-day crackdown on those working and living illegally in the country’s capital. The atmosphere appears calmer than during the initial phases of the government’s campaign. However, many are still choosing to err on the side of caution. Those with legal documentation looking to avoid the hassle of reporting themselves to the police station carry photocopies of their passport, visa, and temporary residence registration form on their person at all times.
Beijing reports that there are over 120,000 foreign immigrants in the city with as many as 200,000 foreigners passing through each day. The vast majority are here legally on valid tourist, business, or work visas.
Martin is here legally on an internship arranged by his European university. “I have nothing to worry about, so this [crackdown] does not really change much for me,” Martin says. “Already, there is a feeling among foreigners here that in Beijing they can do what they please without any consequences, and much of that is because it is very safe here and the police do not bother you without reason.”
“I am not going to start carrying around my passport. I have been here for over three months and I am not going to start worrying about the police every time I want to go to a party.”
The police have been strategically focusing their search efforts on locations such as the tourist-friendly nightlife area of Sanlitun and university residences in the Haidian district. They have reportedly entered bars and clubs demanding to see everyone’s papers. The police have also waited outside apartment buildings for foreigners and have conducted random searches at office buildings.
Jeremy is a foreign national who runs a start-up business from rented office space in central Beijing. “This is a difficult time for us. The visa process for businesses can be costly and hiring interns through official channels requires incurring fees. So some of my interns have been hired outside of a program and are here on tourist visas.”
The ‘visa run’ is not a new concept for those expats who have lived, worked, or travelled extensively in Asia. The process can be as straightforward as crossing the border, handing in your application, and waiting several days for the tourist visa to be processed and renewed.
For expatriates in China, this typically means taking a train to Hong Kong for a few days. But it is not uncommon for expatriates to make little trips out to other Asian destinations. Ivan taught English in Beijing for over two years and flew to Seoul, South Korea this past spring on such a run. “How many times can I go to Hong Kong? There is nothing to do there.”
Unfortunately, Ivan was not able to acquire his visa while in Seoul and returned to Beijing using his existing documentation. “Maybe I should have focused on the purpose of the trip more than the destination, but how was I to know I would run out of time? There are other ways to get a Chinese visa in China, it just costs more.”
The costlier alternative is to pay one of the visa agencies in the city to process the application. These agencies charge fees in the vicinity of 5000RMB (approximately $785 US) for a 3-6 month multiple-entry business visa.
Jeremy has resorted to calling upon such agencies in the past. “Instead of sending some of our employees on visa runs, we pay an agency to provide the visas. It is expensive but usually works pretty well. The question of legality is a tough one to answer. It is processed through the legal channels, but who is to say if there is corruption—who is being paid to approve these applications?”
This was a fairly reliable solution prior to the crackdown, and it is what Ivan opted to do upon returning from Seoul. Ivan’s visa application was still being processed when the crackdown was announced.
The problem with this method is that the business visa is not attached to the company employing the applicant, but one provided by the agency. Jeremy explains the possible problems which may arise from such a scenario: “I have a couple of staff here on visas arranged by the agency. My worry is that if the police show up at the office, they will see that their visas do not correspond to where they actually work.”
Jeremy has since taken precautions. “First, I decided that for the first two weeks everyone would work from home and we would have meetings at a café; let the initial heat of the crackdown cool down. Second, we put up signs in Chinese that label the rooms. For instance, the ‘office’ label is in a room with our full-time employees who have work visas corresponding to our company. We also have a ‘conference’ room for our part-timers and interns, and with them those employees with visas arranged through the agency or with tourist visas.” Jeremy has yet to have any visits from the authorities and is fairly confident that they will not be showing up.
Ivan had a very different experience. The police visited his home in a traditional hutong courtyard. “I did not even have my passport to show them, and I could not get in touch with the agency about my visa. I told the police that it was currently being processed. They left it at that but I do not really want to think about it.”
Ivan’s Mandarin language skills are at an intermediate level which likely helped him state his case effectively. It is also difficult to believe that his neighbours reported him: there is a hotline available for those who wish to report suspicious foreigners but Ivan said that he had a good relationship with his hutong cohabitants. When attempts were made to follow up with him, Ivan’s girlfriend informed Dispatches International that his visa application had been rejected and he was consequently deported. In addition, the agency did not reimburse his fees and his passport was retained until two days prior to his flight. Despite the seeming severity of the situation, it is important to note that Ivan is not barred from future travel to China: he can apply for a new visa from his native country, should he wish to return.
Ivan’s situation seems to be the epitome of poor timing. But this vein of analysis only leads to the larger question of why the Beijing crackdown occurred when it did.
Susan has lived in the capital all her life and is a Chinese national. “There are two theories, and they are probably both true,” Susan explains to Dispatches International. “There is the English guy who became infamous in Beijing for the video on Youku,” which is the Chinese version of YouTube.
This video surfaced a week before the crackdown was initiated. It shows a visibly inebriated English tourist trying to force himself on a Chinese girl in the street. Eventually, Chinese bystanders intervene to stop him.
“That released a storm of anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant abuse on Chinese social media sites,” Susan explains.
“The backlash that streamed from this incident had many Chinese saying that foreigners are treated too well and that they do whatever they want in our country. Extreme views were posted, such as proposals to get rid of all foreigners. Some included Chinese citizens from different provinces such as Xianjing in that group. The other extreme thinks that this incident will teach foreigners to behave better.”
The second theory Susan outlines has to do with Chinese leadership. “There is a new Chinese government, new president. It could be a way to gain nationalistic support and maybe deflect attention away from other issues.”
It is also not the first time that a crackdown on foreigners has taken place in Beijing.
“For those of us who have been here long enough – we have seen this before,” Jeremy says, his frustration becoming increasingly evident. “In the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics, similar crackdowns took place. It is really annoying for those who have made China home for many years. I have kids that go to school here, who have lived here their whole lives; I do not need this for my family because of a few tourists who do not know how to behave!”
There are those who feel this crackdown has increased tensions in the city. “Some of my friends have been saying that they feel like Chinese citizens have been persecuting them with their eyes in the streets, that they felt more welcome before [the crackdown],” says Martin. “I do not feel that way. I have always been friendly with my neighbours and the people at the shops and restaurants I frequent, and I would say that nothing has changed in the way they treat me.”
This whole situation revolves around respect: expatriates’ respect, or lack thereof, for their new home and the locals with whom they live; tourists’ respect towards the foreign country they are visiting; the Chinese citizens’ respect toward foreigners; and an immigration system that lacks respect for long-term residents and is rife with corruption. These recent events have sparked new debate surrounding China’s immigration policy and have shed light on the government’s inexperience in dealing with illegal immigrants. Extending indefinite residency to certain expatriates while tightening the working visa application process could be a solution.
The crackdown has provoked debate and evoked strong emotions among expatriates and locals alike; yet there exists the possibility that all this tension will subside and ultimately result in a more harmonious and inclusive social environment in China’s capital.