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Unraveling the red tape of government bureaucracy
2014-05-14
By Doug Young

MOST of us have certain dates that we dread, either for personal or cultural reasons. Many Westerners worry about bad luck on Friday the 13th, and Chinese avoid celebrations on unlucky days like the Qingming Festival and the Winter Solstice. Those dates are common to everyone, though many of us also have dates we dread for our own individual reasons.

For me, my most dreaded date came just this past week, on May 5 to be exact, which was when my official Shanghai residence permit was set to expire. Expiration of official documents is always a hassle as it means you have to go to government offices or fill out burdensome online forms to apply for new ones.

In China the situation is worse, since the government requires most foreigners to get numerous permits and other official forms to legally live and work in the country.

I’ve resigned myself to the realities of Chinese bureaucracy, and am generally aware of the various documentation I need and government offices I have to visit to apply for and renew different permits each year. But the residence permit, or juzhu zheng, easily won my personal award for the most unpleasant experience I’ve had.

I detailed some of that experience in this column last year, describing the seven trips I had to make to administrative offices in Zhabei District and Pudong over a 2-month period just to renew my residence permit.

In the end, it turned out much of the problem was due to a broken machine that led to delays in the printing of my residence card. Most of the trips I made were wasted efforts due to lack of communication between two different government offices.

But the bigger reason I dreaded renewing my residence permit each year was the general state of chaos at the office that processed the applications. No one paid any attention to the official number you got when you arrived at the office. Instead you had to jostle and compete with other applicants by crowding around the desks of a pair of overworked clerks who processed all the forms.

I was quite frazzled after last year’s experience and only mentioned it briefly in a column that looked more broadly at the bloated state of Chinese bureaucracy. But the description of my frustration apparently caught the attention of someone in City Hall, leading to a series of events unlike anything I’ve ever experienced during all my years in China.

When all was said and done, I received phone calls and visits from three different government agencies, each looking for a more detailed explanation of what happened in my residence permit saga.

One was the agency that issued the permits, while I also got contacted by officials from the public security bureau and Zhabei District government. Each was quite polite and even apologetic. All were looking for information on what had happened, and promised they would try to fix the problem.

While all of that was somewhat reassuring, I still could feel the knots growing in my stomach as May 5 approached this year and my trip to the dreaded building in Zhabei drew near.

Just thinking about the inevitable pushing and shoving with all those other applicants made me feel nervous, even though I held out some hope that perhaps this time things had changed after all those visits by government officials.

Winds of change

And then something strange and wonderful happened. Just days before my dreaded date, I learned from my employer that the requirement for the residence permit had been canceled at some point over the past year. That meant one less document to renew each year, and a document that didn’t seem to serve any particular purpose in this case.

At first I was quite happy to leave all memories of the dreaded Zhabei building in the past. But then I thought I should at least go back and look to see if all those calls and meetings from the government agencies had produced any real results. So I quietly made one last trip to the building, feeling the same dread even though I knew I wouldn’t have to compete with the crowds this time.

And once again I was quite surprised and even relieved to find there was no one waiting in the residence permit line, and an idle clerk sitting at the window was even eager to assist me.

I’m fairly certain that changes in the Zhabei office were a direct result of my earlier frustrations, and perhaps even cancellation of the residence permit requirement was also related.

But regardless of the reasons, I at least have to credit the local government with taking steps to continue streamlining the bloated bureaucracy that still plagues most of China. I can only hope it will keep moving in that direction.

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