Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Possible", but difficult

That formula, in fact, sums up trying to get anything done as a foreigner in China.

The latest example I've had experience of: applying for a credit card.

Now, I appreciate that, as a foreigner here, I might be a particularly difficult risk to assess; while my creditworthiness might appear to be good (foreigners, on the whole, earn rather better than most Chinese, since we are mostly in "expert roles" that require a good university education and/or considerable practical experience), I accept that I might fairly be considered a flight risk. If I quit the country at short notice, it would be difficult for a Chinese (or Hong Kong) bank to pursue me for recovery of any outstanding debts.

However, in a reasonable country, you would think that such concerns could be adequately addressed by such measures as a tight credit limit, monitoring card use (suspending it if I start using it overseas without prior notice), or a requirement that I maintain a minimum balance in my bank account equal to my credit limit as a guarantee.

My history of China residence (10 years continuous) and China employment (always on a 'foreign expert' working visa) really ought to be impressive enough to support a credit card application, you would think. I could probably provide personal testimonials as well, having worked for some very prestigious Chinese employers (several leading universities, educational publishers, and SOEs). My current account balance (now over 70,000 RMB) and pattern of use (over 40,000 RMB deposited in the four months since I opened the account, with nothing withdrawn) also meet a higher threshold than would be required of a domestic applicant.

But NO - a credit card for me?! How they laughed! 

For starters, a foreigner must have a 'Z' working visa to have any chance of being considered for a credit card here. Tough luck for the very many foreigners who come to live here in retirement, or to study for an extended period (I know a couple of people who are into the third or fourth year of their doctorates), or to do business, or to live with their Chinese spouses. The majority of these run small businesses here and/or have substantial private means back home; a lot of them plan to settle here for life. But because of the Chinese government's ridiculous visa policies, they can only get 'student' or 'tourist' or 'short-term business visitor' visas. So, no credit card for the likes of them, even though they are in effect permanently resident here and often have significant personal wealth.

Ah, but I have a 'Z' visa! Have you had it for more than one year from the same employer? Oh, these canny bank officials easily sense my particular weakness: apart from my experiment with schoolteaching straight after university, I've never held the same job for more than 10 months.

They also wanted a 'statement of earnings', which is problematical, since I don't have a single full-time employer, but numerous casual employers - most of whom still contrive to pay me with brown envelopes full of cash. Still, I could have found a way around that: it was just a token bit of paperwork they were looking for, and I probably could have got away with a pay-slip for just one month. There might even have been a way to get such a statement from the company sponsoring my visa (everything can be bought in China: I figure they'd probably be willing to transfer a wedge of money from their bank to mine, and get their accountant to provide the requisite chopped confirmation of this, if I paid them that amount +10% first), although I suspect they wouldn't have bothered to check if the company supposedly paying me this 'salary' was the same as the company that had helped me get my visa.

Oh, and there's also a requirement about how long you have left on your visa. It can't be a full year (well, if it is, that would be especially devious and unfair, because "one-year" Chinese visas are only valid for 364 days), but I think it's at least six months, maybe nine or ten months.

So, if you're a foreigner, you can apply for a credit card if you have a one-year 'Z' visa which you have only recently renewed and have been working with the same company for more than a year. And even then you'll probably get turned down for some undisclosed reason. We foreigners are all fundamentally bad people. Only the noble and self-restrained Chinese can be trusted with credit cards.

Of course, these 'regulations' only apply in mainland China. Since I now use a Hong Kong bank, I think I'll take a trip down there to apply for a card. I imagine they'll take one look at the size of my balance and ask if I want Air Miles with that.


John said...

The complete opposite to credit over this side of the world and the inherent problems it's created of course. I'd like to think that this is what is making Chinese banks wary of issuing foreigners credit cards but I'm no economist.
I recall being offered my first credit card when I signed up for a student account; it had a limit of £3000!

Froog said...

Ah, that was fairly common back in the mid to late '90s. The last time I had a credit card I was also a penniless student and had a credit limit of £3,000. It does tend to lead one astray rather.

I find I quite like the culture of paying for things with HUGE wedges of cash here.

Gilman Grundy said...

Damn, you guys got in at a good time. My student account started at 1,500.

Caren Calamita said...

I hated banking in China. Reading this makes my blood pressure rise. It's one thing I don't miss about living there.

Froog said...

Not the only one, I'm sure, Caren.

Froog said...

FOARP, I managed to get a 6,000 pound limit on my credit card while at bar school. Rather odd circumstances, a 'bank error in my favour'. I was running the debating society at my Inn, had to arrange to send teams to compete in the World Universities' Debating Championship, flights had to be purchased at short notice, and were fearfully expensive (they always seem to hold the bloody thing over Christmas!), and the society's bank account didn't have a credit card, so.... I needed to use my own, and it was way over my credit limit. I spoke to my bank manager, explaining that I just needed a temporary increase to my limit for this one-off purchase, while the Inn provided a letter of support confirming that they would be immediately reimbursing me for the airfares. All went very smoothly. Except that the bank never dropped my card limit back down from 6,000 to 3,000, and I couldn't be bothered to complain about it.