Thursday, December 13, 2012

An ultimate China nightmare

I have been meaning to try to write about this incident - the WORST of my many bad encounters with China's horrendously incompetent banking system - ever since it happened, more than three years ago. I think I've been inhibited by the sense of trauma attaching to the event: it really was a very, very frightening moment for me.

It began when my bank card stopped working. I would have to get a new one, and I was quite anxious enough about that, because it meant I would have to go to a bank in person, and that typically results in waits of an hour or more. Furthermore, for things of this nature, the banks often used to insist that you returned to your 'home branch', wherever it was that you'd first set up the account - and I'd had this account for so long, I couldn't remember which branch I'd set it up at (luckily, most of the banks here seem to have got over this particular hang-up in the last few years).

There was a major additional source of anxiety for me on this occasion, because I had for some years been unable to use any counter services in this particular bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). What appeared to have happened was that when I set the account up, years and years ago, there had been a common PIN number for use in ATMs and at the counter. But at some point, they'd decided to split this system, creating a separate PIN for counter transactions. So, in effect, they had changed my PIN number without telling me. It didn't bother me much, because I never did conduct any transactions over the counter; so long as my ATM access was still fine, I couldn't be bothered to go through the awful rigmarole (probably, at that time, involving having to rediscover the dreaded 'home branch') of getting a new PIN assigned for counter transactions. But then my bank card wore out, and so I lost my ATM access. Problem.

Oh yeah, I had recently set up a telephone banking enquiries service with this bank as well, for which I had yet another PIN code. Unfortunately, neither my telephone nor my ATM codes were acceptable as proof of my ID inside the bank. They couldn't understand why I didn't know the separate counter transaction PIN code (that no-one had ever told me existed!). What's more, they wouldn't accept my passbook as proof of my identity. They said I needed to show my bank card as well. I showed them my bank card. They said this was no good, because the data strip in it was no longer readable.

So, if I 'lose' two of my three forms of bank ID (which, in China, seems to be frighteningly easy to do!!), I am basically SCREWED?? Surely there must be some other way I can prove that I am the account holder? In most Western banks, a signature is enough. Oh, we don't pay any attention to signatures in China. Well, what about other personal information - like my date of birth, address, the date when I first opened the account, recent transaction history? Anybody might know that. No, they bloody well couldn't! What about personal security questions - don't you have a record of my grandmother's maiden name or the name of my favourite author, obscure details that only I could know? No, we don't have any need for that kind of security question in China. Well, evidently you do. OK, what about my passport - will you accept that, together with my bank passbook, as proof of my identity?

Grudgingly, at the third or fourth wheedle, they agreed that they could accept my passport as proof of ID. I would have thought this would be a pretty standard and straightforward procedure, but the girl I was dealing with on this occasion - and her male supervisor, summoned to assist at my insistence - both somehow seemed to feel that it was too much mafan for them.

And a new problem promptly emerged: my passport was not, as far as they were concerned, my passport. I had changed my passport a couple of years earlier, so the passport number no longer matched the one they had in the records they'd made when I set up the account. All of the other information they'd recorded was the same. I was able to show them both passports, and they could see that they matched in every detail: full names, date of birth, place of birth, validity dates. They even had almost identical and very readily recognisable photos of me (nice to think that I hadn't changed at all during my first 6 or 7 years in China; for some reason, I've become haggard and balding very quickly since then!). But they were unimpressed by any of this; they were confused by the fact that the serial number was different (do Chinese passports keep the same number for life? perhaps so). I tried to explain to them that the expiry of my original passport's validity as a passport should not affect its continuing validity as a source for verifying my identity: I was still in possession of the passport which I had used to set up the account. It was quite obviously the same passport, and I was quite obviously the person to whom it had been issued - what was the problem? I could not persuade them on this point. Eventually, they insisted that I would have to go to the British Consulate to obtain an official letter confirming that the Froog in my new passport was indeed the same person as the Froog in my previous passport. I rather doubt if they have a standard form for that; I fear they might not be able to oblige at all.

So, there you are, my fellow China expats - when you change your passport, you risk losing access to your Chinese bank account, perhaps FOREVER.

In fact, these days, it seems, that may happen even if you haven't been unlucky enough to have a simultaneous problem with your bank card or your PIN numbers. My current bank recently told me that my account would be frozen no more than three months after the expiry of my current passport. You might perhaps be parted from your money like this even if you have a valid passport; ICBC seemed to be telling me that a passport was not normally accepted as proof of account-holder status, and that if I'd lost both my passbook and my bank card, I might have been equally SCREWED.

I had waited nearly an hour in the bank before getting to speak to someone. I had then wrangled with two different members of staff - mostly via a Chinese friend who'd come along to help translate for me - for nearly an hour-and-a-half. And after all that time, the outcome seemed to be that they were going to refuse to recognise me as the rightful account holder, and were going to keep my money for themselves - nearly my entire life savings, slightly more than 100,000 RMB at that time (I've burned through most of that during the last year or so of infrequent work), the fruits of seven years of working my arse off in China. I had an awful sinking feeling in my stomach - not so much terror at the threatened loss of my financial safety net, but despair at the thought of all of those thousands of hours of wasted effort, and impotent rage at a system that could be THIS FUCKED UP.

But you know what? This story has an unexpected happy ending. I invoked my meditation techniques, I forced myself to calm down, I closed my eyes and focused on the problem, determined that there must be a solution to this situation. And in that moment of silent introspection, pretty much self-hypnosis, in fact, I cast my mind back 6 or 7 years to when I had first set up this dratted account.... and it came back to me that the default PIN number I'd been given then was 0000. I had immediately changed it to a number that was more truly personal, and that I would more readily be able to remember. But I was pretty sure that had been the default PIN. And if they had reset the PIN, it might revert back to the same default, mightn't it?

It was worth a try. I keyed in four zeros on the counter touchpad. ID accepted! "I'd like to withdraw ALL of my money immediately, please."

"Are you SURE? If you do that, you won't be able to use our bank any more!"

Yeah, numbnuts, that is kind of THE POINT.

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