BEIJING - Last month I went to the local police station to register again. Just like the last time, as the officer typed in my information I glanced around, and wondered about the binder with the label “学习天安门（study Tiananmen)”. When you fly to China, they give you a little card saying those foreigners not staying in a hotel are supposed to register within 24 hours of arriving in China. I haven’t always quite done that.
In the police station, as I waited for the info to be inputted I reminisced about my past visa experiences. There is the time, maybe the only time I raised my voice in China, when I wanted my passport back, worried I was going to soon have an expired visa; there was the time when the visa agent wanted to know what connection (关系) I had to my co-worker helping me; and there are the countless times, most recently in San Francisco, where I gleefully have looked to see a new Chinese visa in my passport.
My first time registering was in 2008, my first visit to China when I stayed in an apartment for a couple weeks in Hangzhou. The office was small, at most two people. It was classic summer Hangzhou with the humid weather and the afternoon showers, including while we sat in the office. I’m not even sure if I knew really at the time that I was registering with the police, I just followed along. I’m glad I did.
A few weeks later in Shanghai the woman at the hotel desk thought I had overstayed my visa by several months. She didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Chinese. All I could make out is that she thought the stamp in my passport was a 3 for March, and I was trying to say 7 for July. From what I take it, the woman called the police station using my registration paperwork, and I was able to stay. This all happened about a half hour after my taxi was in a car accident with a bus. Maybe this all has something to do with why I don’t like Shanghai too much.
Most days, I think that the Chinese words for visa (签证) are my most disliked characters. According to John Torpey in his book Invention of the Passport, the international visa system was created by the United States as a means to appease protectionist Americans and to keep Chinese out of California in the late 1800s. Torpey lays out the history of both the passport and the visa as he tries to argue that we can’t just talk about nationalism in terms of imagined communities created through media and common language (see Benedict Anderson’s Imaginined Communities). Torpey argues, in some ways like Foucault that we feel the state, tangible in the form of our passport or visa, just as much as when someone is arrested by the police.
I’ve gotten to know the visa system of China somewhat well, I think now I have about 8 visas of various kinds, a couple tourist visas, some business visas and now a temporary resident visa. I’ve also learned that its much cheaper, and often much less stressful to get your visas in order before you come to China. In the United States its also much less fluid, no additional “fees” and if your paperwork has one extra or missing word it doesn’t get processed.
Last month I was in the central visa office in Beijing, where Chinese can also come to get permits to visa Taiwan and Hong Kong. I saw piles of applications brought by companies, and I saw the various foreigners waiting for their name to be called. They then come sit down, and have their picture taken. There is a fluid nature though to visas, holidays matter, foreigners getting arrested for drug possession can affect timing, and sometimes Hong Kong is considered leaving China for a work visa and sometimes its not.
Amid the fluidity, I was reminded back at the local police station that the visa system is still quite comprehensive, as I could see my photo from the central visa office staring back at me.
Paying $150 for a visa, or needing a visa at all can be blamed perhaps on reciprocity owing back to the United States. What does not tie back to the United States is how the visa system is carried out, including the registration at the local police station. The local registration office I went to, was not opened to register foreigners, it was opened to register Chinese who have moved outside their official province of residence, otherwise known as hukou. In a future blog I’ll touch on this more.
Looking at how an international system of visas has been merged with the registration apparatus for hukou, I’m reminded of how China deals internationally on other issues. One can look at environmental policy or pirated movies, and see that through the UN or the WTO or bi-lateral negotiations there are clear guidelines and requirements, yet in China things become quite fluid. As I say to my friends every so often, “anything’s possible in China.”
Follow Chris on Twitter @enviroeberhardtImmigration, China