Like many foreigners in China, I obtained my visa through less than wholly honest or legitimate means. I don’t, strictly speaking, work for the company which sponsors my visa. And I certainly don’t have any expertise in architecture or urban planning, as my work permit suggests. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who works for the company or visited its offices. I’m not completely confident that my nominal employer even exists. I imagine that it is just a paper entity, a convenient fiction created solely for the purpose of securing a quota of ‘foreign expert’ work permits which can then be sold on for a handsome sum to thwarted visa-seekers like myself.
I wish it were otherwise. Honesty and respect for the law are important values for me. I don’t like being forced to compromise those ideals. I don’t like having to resort to such petty subterfuges. I don’t like how precarious it makes my tenure in China seem, living with the knowledge that the government has a reasonable excuse for throwing me out of the country at a moment’s notice whenever it pleases.
Above all, I don’t like the ever escalating ‘arrangement fees’ that my visa agent charges for concocting the phony paperwork to support my annual reapplication to the Entry & Exit Department of the Public Security Bureau and to the web of "relevant" Ministries. The cost of obtaining a prized ‘Z’ – the year-long working visa – nearly doubled in the last few months before the Olympics were held here, and never again fell back to the pleasantly inexpensive pre-2008 levels; instead, the price has continued to ramp up steadily ever since, another 500 rmb or 1,000 rmb each year.
The cost of a ‘Z’ visa seems to be cannily tied to that of the ‘F’, or ‘business visa’; and the cost of one those usually involves substantial incidental extras which make it a little difficult to quantify. The ‘F’ visa, always somewhat tricky to apply for because of the opaque and constantly shifting regulations governing it, has, since 2008, become impossible to obtain within China; and there have been recurring rumours that it is to be abolished altogether. The Chinese government has intermittently tried to force people to return to their native country in order to renew an ‘F’ visa; but most of the time it is OK just to hop over the border for a day or so, and then hop straight back. The regular ‘visa run’ has become a central element of the expat lifestyle here, almost, indeed, a kind of initiation rite. For residents in north China, a quick trip into Outer Mongolia is a thrifty but unexciting option. Those in the south of the country may be more enthusiastic about having a pretext for a short holiday in Vietnam or Thailand. For most China expats, though, the default destination for obtaining a hassle-free ‘F’ visa is Hong Kong.
No matter how crazy and xenophobic and exclusionary the visa policy may get on the mainland, in Hong Kong it’s always business as usual. The Special Administrative Region enjoys the marvellous dualism of being both ‘part of China’ and ‘outside of China’; it counts as “overseas” for the purposes of making a visa application for entry to the Chinese mainland, and the visa office down there is famously easy-going about issuing ‘F’ visas. It’s usually such a comparative doddle to get visas in Hong Kong, you feel they might as well give them away free along with the tourist maps provided to guests in the cheap hotels of Chungking Mansions.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. There’s still an arrangement charge, over and above the official fee payable to the government. And then there’s the cost of a long weekend in Hong Kong, and travel there and back. Having to do that twice a year (sometimes four times a year, since the 6-month ‘F’ visa is occasionally hard to come by and people have to settle for a 3-month version) gets pretty expensive. It’s usually rather more than the cost of getting a ‘Z’ in the mainland, in fact; but never that much more.
It’s always been a very fine calculation for me: would the enjoyment of a little spree in Hong Kong offset the additional expense? Yes, it certainly would. After all, I might go to Hong Kong once or twice a year to visit friends anyway. The ‘F’ visa has its disadvantages, though: you’re not supposed to work, you can’t pay tax, and it’s difficult or impossible to convert to any other sort of visa without leaving the country again. I’ve always preferred the greater flexibility and stability the ‘Z’ visa provides, and the veneer of respectability too – that cachet of being designated as a ‘foreign expert’, even if this exalted status has been procured in a slightly underhand manner.
Well, it seems I won’t have to continue with these gripes and grumbles and agonising deliberations over how to get my visa any longer. The agent-arranged ‘Z’ visa just went the way of the dodo. I had queried the possible implications of last year’s new social security law with my visa agent just after it came into effect in October. “No problem at all,” she assured me. “Everyone will just ignore this. It won’t cause any trouble for you. You can get your visa from the same company next year.” I suspected she was lying to me, or deceiving herself. The requirement for companies both to pay employer’s contributions to the various social security funds on behalf of foreign workers (equivalent to around 47% of salary in Beijing) and to collect their employee contributions (22.5% of salary) obviously had the potential to become a major bureaucratic headache, and was certainly going to be a cause of some concern to my “employer”. Even if supervision and enforcement would to be patchy in the early years of the new scheme, the constant possibility of a random inspection of social security records was likely to be enough to scare many such ‘front companies’ out of the visa selling business.
This is what I was saying six or seven months ago, and it has come to pass. My visa agent has almost been put out of business. My “employer”, and all of the other tame visa vendors she had relied on for a supply of working visas, have withdrawn from the game. There are just a few such companies trying to persist in the ruse; but this now requires a visa applicant to go through the rigmarole of registering in the Chinese social security system (I think this is just a case of the companies being careful, rather than government enforcement being that thorough). Moreover, we would now have to pay both the employer’s and the employee’s social security contributions on a plausible minimum salary (likely to amount to at least 15,000 RMB a year). And the sudden demand-supply imbalance is enabling the few surviving ‘fixers’ to vastly inflate their basic ‘arrangement fees’. The cost of a ‘Z’ visa just went up three- or fourfold, almost overnight.
It’s not the abrupt demise of the phony visa that alarms me. It’s the fact that this has almost certainly been an inept, inadvertent, unforeseen side-effect of the introduction of the new social security regime, and one whose consequences could be far-reaching, even disastrous. A large percentage of foreigners in China obtain their visas in this way. We are forced to. Many Chinese employers – and even some smaller foreign companies – could in theory obtain work permits and visas legitimately but find the procedure to be too much hassle and decline to do so, leaving their foreign employees to make their own arrangements. The British Council, which administers the enormously popular IELTS English exam in China, is unable to provide visas for its several hundred examiners. Some of them have teaching jobs which give them legitimate visas, but a great many of them survive mostly on the IELTS work and have to rely on ‘fixers’ to procure visas for them. The British Council, perpetually struggling to keep up with the exceptional demand for the IELTS test in China, could soon be facing a serious shortfall in examiners, as dozens of them may be forced to quit the country in the next few months.
For freelancers like myself, visa ‘fixers’ are the only option. Our status is not recognised by the Chinese government: there is no legitimate avenue by which we can obtain a visa. I have lived in China for 10 years now. I have worked for a number of state-owned enterprises. I have paid my taxes (or at least, my employers have all claimed that they paid taxes for me, and I trusted them!). I’ve never been in any trouble with the law. I could provide testimonials from distinguished academics or high-ranking local government officials that I’ve worked with. I manifestly have the qualifications and experience to support myself by honest and useful labour. And the savings I have deposited in the Bank of China could support me reasonably comfortably for a year or so without my needing to work at all. Why have I always been forced to pretend to work for someone else in order to get a visa? Why must I now masquerade as a “visiting businessman” on an ‘F’ visa, and pretend not to work at all? WHY?
It is the ‘Chinese way of doing things’: for years it has generated a thriving black market in visa facilitation, which was openly connived at – cooperated with, profited from – by the authorities. Now, that system has been torpedoed. I don’t mourn the loss of a corrupt and leaky ship; I just wish they’d provided some lifeboats.
By the way, this is a longer version of something I worked up a couple of weeks ago for one of the expat magazines here. Unfortunately, the expected "cooperation" with that employer unravelled rather spectactularly - after I'd submitted this piece as sample of my work, for possible inclusion in next month's edition of one of their titles. I have reminded them that they do not have my permission to publish it, but I half suspect they will anyway. If anyway notices some version of this piece cropping up elsewhere on the Internet, please let me know... and I shall prepare to unleash the wrath of my formidable legal team!