There’s a little call-and-response thing that Kun and I do every now and then, usually when we see a police car:

“Hey, what tha po-lice?”
Fuck tha po-lice!”
“Fuck tha what?”
“Fuck tha po-lice!”
“What tha what?”
Fuck tha po-lice!
– which then causes me, if I’m in a good mood, to solilioquize about how I am coming straight out tha underground, and about the po-lice’s tendency to search my car, looking for the chronic, thinking every laowai be selling narcotics. It makes Kun giggle wildly every time.

It didn’t do much to strengthen her nerves Last Monday afternoon, though, when a couple of cop-looking guys in cop-looking uniforms pounded on the door of our apartment and demanded to see her ID.

It seems to be a yearly thing: every July I have some kind of trouble with Chinese authorities.

Two years ago, as I prepared to leave for Harbin, I went to the Chinese Consulate in New York, my passport, visa application form, letter of invitation, and Foreign Expert Certificate in hand, to apply for a Z-class work visa. My application was promptly rejected, on the grounds that I hadn’t gotten a medical checkup that they said was required, but hadn’t been listed as a requirement on the consulate website.
So I went back to Philadelphia, got a checkup, bloodwork, and a chest x-ray, and brought the results of these back to the consulate. My application was promptly rejected, on the grounds that the results hadn’t been notarized. (This one was my fault; they didn’t mention it as a requirement, but I should’ve realized they’d want the paperwork notarized.)
So I went back to Philly and got the papers notarized, then went back to NYC the next day to turn them in to the consulate, where my application was once again rejected, this time because they said I needed to have the governor of Pennsylvania affix the state seal to the notarized documents. By now, I was starting to suspect that they were just trying to see how long they could keep me going, but I went back to Philadelphia, got on a train out to Bumfuck Harrisburg, went to the State Capitol, and paid to have the stuff notarized and the state seal affixed.
This time, my application was approved, and I got my visa, flew to China, went up to Harbin, and was told by other foreigners there that they’d gotten their Z-visas with nothing more than an application and an invitation.

Once I got to Harbin, all other paperwork went perfectly smoothly, at speeds normal or (in one case) faster than normal. I asked my boss how they managed to get things done so quickly at the Harbin Public Security Bureau, and she beamed. “We have an understanding with one of the officials,” she said. “He does favors for us.”
One of these favors was my juliuzheng, or green card: it had to be done in a hurry because I had planned to go travelling southwards after dropping my stuff off in Harbin, and needed to have my green card with me to check into hotels. Getting it all worked out with the Foreign Affairs Branch of the PSB was a bit more troublesome than usual, or so my boss told me, but a few hours after dropping off my passport, papers (including the results of another health inspection I’d had administered to me upon my arrival in Harbin), and (I suspected) a fat envelope of phat cash, I had it in my hands: a small green booklet proclaiming me, in English and Chinese, to be a _legal_ resident of _Harbin_, and a _teacher_, until _July 25_, 2003.

Despite the instruction on the inside of the residence permit that I carry it on me at all times, lest someone demand to see it, I mostly left it in the top left drawer of my desk. I only ever took it out when I was going travelling, for hotel check-in purposes. (My passport was another acceptable form of ID for hotel check-ins, but I found that using the green card was a lot more straightforward, since all necessary information – visa number, passport number, country of origin, address – was right there on the front page, whereas using my passport required the hotel clerk to flip through the pages looking for my latest China visa.)

And so on July 22, 2003, after a year of teaching English in Harbin, I packed up my passport, my green card, my letter of admission to Beijing University, and a couple suitcases’ worth of belongings and prepared to take the train down to Beijing. I’d lost about 10 pounds since coming to Harbin, and the suitcases together weighed roughly as much as I did, and so it was with great heaving and ho-ing that I dragged them down the steps of my apartment building, into a cab, and up to the second floor of Harbin Station. I was panting slightly as Kun and I hugged a tearful goodbye, and as I promised her that I’d come up to Harbin to visit her as soon as I could, and then the ticket guy yelled that there were 5 minutes left to board the T18 to Beijing, and I broke away, clattering, clunking, and cursing my way down the steps to the platform.

I arrived in Beijing around 6 on the morning of the 23rd, got breakfast at a McDonald’s down the street from the train station, and went over to the hostel I usually stayed at. I went to check in, and used my green card, having learned from experience that things went faster if I just gave people that instead of my passport.
The check-in clerk called over another clerk and said something I couldn’t hear. Then she turned back to me and said: “We can only let you stay until the 25th. Then you have to leave the country.”

“That can’t be right,” I said. “My visa doesn’t expire for another month – and my flight isn’t until the 27th.”
I handed over my passport to show them.
“But your residence permit expires on the 25th. After that, you’ll be staying in the country illegally – I’m sorry, but we can’t let you stay here after that.”
“That still gives me two days until my flight leaves – what am I supposed to do until then?”
“You can try to get it extended with the PSB. Otherwise, you’ll have to pay a fine when you leave; RMB500 for every day you overstay.”

This was particularly bad news, as I was pretty much broke.

Anyway, I let them check me in until Friday the 25th, dropped my bags in the room, grabbed a brief nap – I hadn’t slept well on the train – and headed out to the PSB to see about getting my residence permit extended.
The first branch of the PSB I went to – the city headquarters – turned out to be the wrong one, and I had to take a cab to the Foreign Affairs Branch across town. There, I waited in line for about half an hour, until I got up to the front of the line and asked, in overly-polite Mandarin, “Pardon me, sir, but might this residency permit be extended?”
The guy across the counter grabbed the permit, looked at it for a second, and tossed it back, hitting me in the chest. “No.”
“Then could I make so bold as to ask why not?”
“The Harbin PSB did it.”
“And there’s no way to extend it here?”
“No. Next.”

So that was that. Two days on the streets as an illegal alien, and either RMB1000 or 1500 in fines (depending on how they counted) when I left.

I remembered having heard that the PSB in Tianjin was more lenient than the Beijing PSB, and so, rather than training it all the way to Harbin and back (which would have made for a total of 26 hours on the train alone) just to get my green card extended, I decided to try my luck there. I called up Adam Morris and asked if he knew anyone at his school with PSB ties. He said he did, and so I went to Beijing Station and bought a ticket to Tianjin for the next afternoon.

Long story short, Adam is a very nice guy, and getting to meet him – he was nice enough to let me crash at his place overnight – was enough to make up for the Tianjin PSB’s answer on the morning of Friday the 25th, which was that they really couldn’t extend the green card, and that while, yeeees, they could switch me over to a tourist visa – thus extending my legal stay and getting around the matter of the green card entirely – the cost of the visa application, plus the rush fee I’d need to get it done by that afternoon, would end up being more than the amount I’d pay in fines. “Plus,” the officer added, “they might not even ask to look at your card – you could get lucky!”

I was waiting for the train in Tianjin station when I got a phone call frun Kun.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m in Tianjin. Why?”
“Do you remember how I told you yesterday that my classmate would be arriving at Beijing Station, and I said you’d go meet her?”
“Nnnn- Of course. Sorry; tell her I got held-”
“Surprise! It’s me! I’m waiting in front of the station now!”

Shit, I was thinking as I rode the train back to Beijing. It’s sweet that she came down and all, but I don’t need complications like this right now. Maybe she could rent a hotel room – but I wouldn’t be able to stay in it.
Kun was on the plaza in front of Beijing Station, seated on another suitcase of my stuff with a big backpack next to her. She’d gotten on the slow train down to Beijing the day after I left Harbin, and had spent the last 22 hours standing.

For the next couple of days, we stayed at her cousin’s apartment in the Beijing suburbs. By the time I left for the airport early Sunday morning, I was feeling much better. I’d called a couple of friends, and everyone said they’d never been asked for their green card when leaving China, and that I’d probably be fine.
I went up to the check-in desk and presented my passport. The woman looked at it for a moment, then looked at me.
“May I see your residence permit?”


I pretended to look through my backpack for a moment.
“Gosh, I can’t see it. I think I must have left it back up in Harbin! Darn!” I put on a great show of looking cluelessly apologetic.
“That’s a pity,” she said, “because without it, you cannot leave the country.”


So I rummaged through my backpack for another moment before pulling it out.
“Well, fancy that – here it is!”
She looked at it for a moment, then looked back at me.
“This is expired.”
“Is it? Oh, heavens to Betsy, I didn’t know!”

She called over a supervisor and said in Chinese that my residence permit had expired, and asked what she should do.
“Just check him in,” the supervisor said. “Let Border Control deal with him.”
This didn’t sound all that reassuring, and I prepared myself for fines, questioning, and general hassle. More immediate, though, were the lines: after standing in line to check in, I had to stand in line for the post-SARS “Health Inspection,” which by this point had relaxed enough that it consisted of nothing more than a form where you checked off true/false statements like “I have a fever,” “I have a persistent non-productive cough,” “I’ve eaten diseased civet cat in Guangzhou,” and ballparked your own body temperature. After waiting in line for this, I waited in line to hand in the Airport Construction Tax; after this, I waited in line for Customs and Border Control.

The woman at Border Control took one look at my residence permit.
“You know this is expired?”
“I know I’m sorry I didn’t know I just found out I didn’t mean it I promise–”
“Be more careful next time,” she said, and waved me through.

Last Monday, a couple of guys in cop-like uniforms came and pounded on our apartment door. I was sleeping, having stayed up all night finishing a translation, so Kun answered the door.
The two men told her they were from the courts, as representatives of the danwei work unit that owned our apartment and provided it to the woman we rented from. The woman had no right to the apartment, they said, and so from a legal standpoint, Kun and I had been squatting here for the past year. We had three days to move out; after that, they would 强制, forcibly remove us. Then they handed her a document to this effect, copied down her ID number, and left.

Kun freaked out and woke me up, and we ran around the apartment in a panic, packing things into suitcases, sending a couple boxes of books and clothes back to the States, and, later that night, moving about 3/4 of our stuff, under cover of darkness, to her cousin’s apartment across town.

The next day, our landlord Mr. Cui – actually, our landlord’s ex-husband – assured us that this was no problem at all, that even if the danwei did kick us out – which he doubted very much – they’d immediately put us up in a hotel. This seemed implausible, even leaving aside the fact that we knew Cui to be a world-class asshole and bullshit artist.
Un-comforted as we were by Cui’s assurances, Kun and I were both working on separate jobs, and the amount of stuff we had to do made moving an unbearable pain in the ass. So we stayed in the apartment, with the remaining 1/4th of our stuff, for the next couple of days, expecting at any moment to hear another rain of blows on the door and see a couple guys with names like Vito and Butch (or the Chinese equivalents thereof), come to throw us out.

It was the evening of the third day, Kun and I came back to the apartment to find that the door was unlocked, and that we could hear voices inside.
We looked at each other for a moment, then shrugged and went to push the door open. It was at exactly this instant that the door was pulled open from within, to reveal Mr. Cui and his ex-wife.

They went on to relate a long, tedious tale of corruption, intimidation, and downright wickedness on the part of the danwei and the courts. The gist of it was that the danwei – which had guaranteed Cui and his ex-wife the apartment for free – had been trying for months now to get them to buy the apartment, and had bribed people in the courts onto their side. The two officers who had so intimidated Kun a few days before had been sent on the basis of trumped-up papers, and they had no legal right to threaten us. There was a lot more, but I didn’t really get it, and neither did Kun.

At any rate, we decided to stay. So far it’s been a week since the officers’ visitation, and there’s been nary a knock on our door. But if I should suddenly vanish, or stop updating (ha!), you’ll know why.

Hopefully not to be continued…

Comments (7)

  1. Ken wrote::

    Why did your green card expire so soon? Mine is good until September…

    Monday, July 19, 2004 at 8:10 am #
  2. joe clark wrote::

    Hey Brendan,
    The first time I overstayed a visa (ROC) I figured the best thing to do was make myself obsequious while waiting for the new visa application, visit every day and check the progress. I have since realized that this only invites them to say “you’re missing this” and “don’t you feel sorry for what you’ve done” and make the process difficult. Later I realized that it’s better just to hand in the application and make it impossible for them to contact you. For instance, pay a visa agency to apply on my behalf (as I’ve done with PRC and HK) or pay for the rush one-day service at the consulate and don’t return until they’re about to close the office (ROC). So far, I’ve never had such a visa application turned down or delayed, though I must admit it’s scary to actually try it. Once I got a tourist visa renewed in the PRC when I was really bending the law quite a bit, by pretending I didn’t understand the police lady’s question “Why is your address in a Shenzhen office building, if you’re a tourist?”

    Monday, July 19, 2004 at 11:15 am #
  3. Adam Morris wrote::

    WOW. Crazy shit.

    Wish I could have been there again to save ya. I’ll be back at the beginning of August though, and have room for crashing in case you need to investigate Tianjin’s offerings.


    Thursday, July 22, 2004 at 1:56 am #
  4. John wrote::

    Haha, I really enjoyed this story (but I do sympathize). This is the China we know and love.

    China’s bureaucracy is a constant thorn in the side of foreigners that just want to EXIST in China, but in Beijing that “thorn” seems to take on stake-like proportions. I’m glad to live in Shanghai. :)

    Saturday, July 24, 2004 at 7:44 am #
  5. matt wrote::

    man you must have pissed someone off in a past life. i think i’ve lucked out most of the time when it comes to these things, but my return in Sept will certainly be the test i.e. switching schools, returning on a re-entry Visa, limited time to get a new residence permit, etc.

    I won’t say more, I’d like to keep my positive karma intact!

    Cheers and may the PSB Gods shine on you.

    BTW, seems the less Chinese you speak the easier things go. really, the more I improve the more questions i find myself having to answer, and hoops i have to jump through.

    Saturday, July 24, 2004 at 10:49 am #
  6. Michael Ji wrote::

    Jesus, that’s insane. Makes me feel nervous about working back in China. Would I have to go through all these hassles as well one of these days? At least, everything is alright with you for the time being.

    Saturday, July 24, 2004 at 11:00 am #
  7. donny wrote::

    i rather like the chinese bureaucracy. other than a few total jerks, they are for the most part one of the most efficient if u follow the rules.

    now india, on the other hand, must require that a person be a colossal prick before he (never she) can be hired for an official position. an embassy dude yelled at me b/c i didn’t bring a pen to the embassy to write my forms. another official casually mentioned the “fact” that america has no culture. and u gotta love that $20 entrance fee to the taj mahal for foreigners as opposed to the $1 fee for natives.

    Tuesday, July 27, 2004 at 9:08 am #