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Annoying red tape remains a fact of everyday life
By Doug Young

I DON’T usually write about expat-specific topics in this column, as I prefer to focus on broader issues of interest to everyone here in Shanghai. But a recent news story on the difficulties faced by an expat who obtained a rare Chinese green card seemed like a good opportunity to look at the bureaucracy that affects all of us here as we go about our daily lives.

On the one hand, I commend China for huge improvements in streamlining its bureaucracy over the last two decades, making everyday tasks like buying train tickets and obtaining travel documents much easier. But the latest report shows there is still much room for improvement in a system where bureaucrats are still far too fond of official seals and documents.

Nearly every expat I know has his or her own favorite story of dealing with Chinese bureaucracy. Most local Chinese don’t even bother to recount such tales, since they consider them an ordinary fact of life.

This particular tale revolves around a 57-year-old Turkish man who thought he was lucky when he recently became one of only a very few foreigners living in China to get a green card. As in other countries, such status allows card holders to live in China indefinitely and to legally look for local jobs without a work visa. It also allows them to retire here — something that is nearly impossible for any other foreigner no matter how long he or she has lived and worked in China.

But after initially rejoicing at his entry to the elite status held by just 5,000 of the 633,000 foreigners in China, the man quickly discovered he still faced most of the same obstacles as before. Many places such as banks, hotels and airports wouldn’t accept his green card as valid ID, and still wanted to see his passport.

Waits and frustrations

I’d never really considered applying for a Chinese green card, even though lack of such status means I will probably never be able to collect the pension that I’m theoretically entitled to as an employee of a state-owned entity.

I always figured that such an effort would require countless trips to government offices, resulting in endless waits and frustrations that would just end in rejection.

The experience of this Turkish man shows that even those who endure to overcome the biggest obstacles still face more barriers and frustrations after their initial success.

I said that most expats have their own favorite story about Chinese bureaucracy, and I’m certainly no exception. My personal winner involves my application for a Shanghai residence permit, known as the juzhu zheng (¾Óס֤). I was required to get the permit to receive city benefits like healthcare.

Like the Turkish man, I also considered myself lucky to get such privileged status when I first received my card. But my attitude slowly changed as I quickly discovered that very few people would accept the card, even though it was issued by the Shanghai government.

The worst part came when I accidentally let the card expire and had to reapply for a new one a year later. The application office in Zhabei District may look modern on the surface, but the operations were more reminiscent of a previous era.

No one bothered to use the official number system to line up and submit their forms, and instead everyone simply crowded around the desks of two overworked bureaucrats, jostling to have their applications processed.

I won’t go into all the details, but in the end I had to make three trips to the application office and another four to the immigration office in Pudong before I finally picked up my new residence card. Even worse is the knowledge that I may have to repeat the whole process again in just a year.

As I’ve said, I really do have to commend China for the vast improvements in streamlining its bureaucracy over the last 20 years. The Shanghai immigration office is an exemplary case, with visa renewals requiring minimal time and relatively light documentation to process. Likewise, everyday tasks like buying air tickets and reserving hotel rooms can all easily be done over the phone and Internet.

But as the case with the Turkish man shows, there are still many bureaucratic obstacles that need to be streamlined or dismantled to bring China into the modern era.

Shanghai is certainly among China’s more cutting-edge cities, especially for businesses, and should continue working to remove remaining barriers that could keep it from becoming a truly international city.

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