JACKY, A CHINESE FRIEND OF MINE, gave me a call. He planned to visit Australia. He had looked online, bought his tickets, and planned his two weeks. But Jacky had only then discovered that his passport was within a 6 month expiration, and so would be invalid for an Australian visa.
Jacky raced to the ‘Exit and Entry Bureau’ in Shanghai with the goal of getting a new passport issued. Three weeks, said the bureaucrat through the bulletproof glass. But that didn’t give Jacky enough time to also get the Australian visa. He pleaded his case.
“There’s nothing I could do. Good day,” replied the bureaucrat. The apathy was deafening. This was a black and white case. Three weeks, and that was that. The rules, are after all, the rules.
So Jacky ventured into the grey. Calling his mother, he uncovered a convoluted connection between her and a bureau employee. That bureau employee would save the day. And in deed he did. Reluctantly. A week later, Jacky walked out of the ‘Exit and Entry Bureau’ with a brand new Chinese passport. Now he needed an Australian visa. And that’s why he called me.
“Hi Morry,” he said, as we began small talk. Families, work, and his imminent trip to Australia were discussed. And then came the question.
“So Morry, do you know anyone at the Australian consulate or embassy?” I did. Quite a few people actually, and I could gauge where the conversation was headed. Already knowing the answer, I asked. “Why do you ask?”
Jacky then explained that while all was flights, hotels and tours were booked, he was still without an Australian visa. And with only a week before departure, there wasn’t enough time. He needed my ‘guanxi’.
“Well Jacky, Australia doesn’t work like that,” I explained. “Even if I did know someone, the use of ‘guanxi’ in this way is definitely frowned upon. In fact, I am sure it is an offence.”
Jacky gave out an audible sigh.
“But,” I continued over the phone, “While I have never had to use the service, I am sure that there is a fast track. Pay more, and you get the visa faster. Call them and find out.”
Jacky’s tone suddenly improved.
And indeed, there was a fast track option. Not cheap, but very fast. Jacky and his family enjoyed their holiday, and I learnt a lesson. In China, because the system is so black and white, right and wrong, can and can’t, the Chinese have to venture in to the grey, and often illegal space, to get things done. Whether that is breaking an immigration regulation, or bypassing a company policy, there is a cultural acceptance to being ‘flexible’ on the interpretation of a rule.
And this is not unique to Jacky and immigration departments. Take, for example the case of a university in the north eastern providence of Heilongjiang, which banned food delivery vehicles from entering the campus. The purpose was to stop the food vendors outright, but this didn’t prevent them from scaling the three metre walls, surrounding the campus, and continuing business, uninterrupted. The argument? Preventing ‘entry’ doesn’t specifically mean preventing ‘business’. It’s grey.
So whether it is Jacky and his visa, or vendors just trying to make a living, China’s black and white bureaucracy is one that can be scaled. All you need is creativity and both a literal and metaphorical ladder to find your loophole. You have been warned.
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