China’s tighter visa rules slow business

Scott Tong May 2, 2008
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China’s tighter visa rules slow business

Scott Tong May 2, 2008
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KAI RYSSDAL: The Olympic torch had a rare uneventful relay today. Probably helps that the route was through Hong Kong. Tens of thousands people turned out to watch. China’s got three months, give or take, until the world shows up on its doorstep to see the Games. But in the run-up Beijing’s being picky about who it’s letting in. Chinese visas are getting harder to come by. And foreign businessmen are crying foul. From Shanghai, Marketplace’s Scott Tong reports.


SCOTT TONG: There’s a big role for the little guy in China — western consultants and solo operators who give advice and play middleman. Usually, they enter the country on short-term visas, and renew them, often in Hong Kong.

But the gig may be up.

Last month, an American PR consultant tried a standard Hong Kong visa run. He doesn’t wanto to give his name and invite trouble from immigration authorities.

PR CONSULTANT: When I got up to the window the girl behind the counter was just kind of looking down. She didn’t want to look at me directly in the face. And she’s like, “We can’t give that to you, I’m sorry.”

The visa officers said they’d been told to stop giving out certain business visas. No more multiple entry visas, no more express visas in a hurry.

PR CONSULTANT: This was a complete shock. I had no idea that they would change the policy without any public notice.

He wound up stranded in Hong Kong for days, and now he has to fly home to California to fix his papers. And, he’s out $13,000 in plane tickets and fees his company won’t pick up.

PR CONSULTANT: A lot of people are just really contemplating just leaving. It really is a shame, because the foreigners here are really contributing a lot, in money and wealth and support to get this country where it is.

Every day, foreign companies report business trips canceled. At the ongoing Canton Export Fair, China’s biggest trade show, one blogger joked it’s so quiet you can hear . . . well, you know, crickets.

U.S. and European chambers of commerce representing more than 3,000 companies now slam the visa clampdown as “annoying” and “disruptive” — even though Beijing has yet to confirm the policy change and explain why. The best guess is it’s heightened security ahead of the Olympics — kind of like post-9/11 rules in the United States.

At Shanghai subway stops, bomb-sniffing dogs have turned up. And metal detector checks at the airport are getting stricter. To deal with all these hassles, especially the visas, some forward-thinking businesses have actually created hassle departments.

Frenchman Charlie Moretti runs a Shanghai film studio.

CHARLIE MORETTI: I have an administration department who deal with my lawyers. And their job is just to make sure that we stay on top of things. And, OK, we earn a little bit less money, but, you know, we stay in China, and now I sleep better.

For all the angst over the tighter visa rules, Shanghai business consultant Richard Brubaker likes them. He says the old rules were too loose, and China needs to grow up and start eliminating loopholes, the wiggle room.

RICHARD BRUBAKER: You know, we saw a lot of wiggle room in the United States when we were developing. Wiggle room allows for corruption, allows for the Enrons to operate.

For businesses, the changing legal landscape means the goalposts keep changing. To which Brubaker says, Hey, that’s China.

Brubaker: China has had moving goalposts as long as I’ve been here. I think it’s part of what is exciting about this place, to be honest.

Just don’t tell that to our PR consultant with the ongoing visa nightmare. How does he get through it?

PR CONSULTANT: Sake and beer, the all-you-can-eat Japanese places are a great release. I’ve taken numerous walks around the block. And people kind of watch me. It’s like, “What’s he doing? He’s walking around in circles.”

Anger management for businessmen.

In Shanghai I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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