Want to work in China? Be prepared (forewarned)

Dealing with bureaucracy really saps energy. Some people might respond that there’s bureaucracy in every country, not just in China. That’s right. I don’t want to make the country exceptional, as I haven’t lived everywhere. I have South Africa and the US to compare it to and stories about other places that friends have shared. Plus, individuals have their own experiences, depending on the country they hail from, age, gender, race, class, occupation, as well as personality. Depending on an individual’s positionality, her/his encounters with China’s bureaucracy will differ. So, below, I offer a few pointers to anyone who might be interested in working at a Chinese university as a full-time academic staff. And given the direction academia in the US has been heading, it’s possible that new PhDs would take up jobs in China.

I would describe the bureaucracy in China as a very long (maybe even infinite) rope ladder. It could be inexhaustible because there’s a department that regulates every aspect of life. A Chinese student informed me that she has no idea what’s in her personal file, but every Chinese student has a docket from birth. This docket follows them into adulthood, from primary to high school and, then, to college. After their undergraduate studies, if they choose to pursue a higher degree, their dockets automatically transfer to the universities that have accepted them for postgraduate studies. If they choose to enter the workforce, there are two routes that their dockets could go. If the individuals work for government, then the dockets would be automatically transferred. However, working in the private sector means paying an organization to store their dockets. Although they’d have to pay for this service, the student told me, they still wouldn’t be allowed to see what’s in their files. Indeed, they could be blacklisted and wouldn’t even know about it. Bureaucracy in this instance is also surveillance and control.

How deep does China’s bureaucracy penetrate into the life of foreigners? I don’t know. What I’ve observed, thus far, is that it isn’t a fixed or static entity. Regulations or policies could change at any moment or not change at all. Although changes could add to an existing chaotic situation because every bureaucrat is trying to figure out what has happened, processes keep moving and we keep moving along at varying speed. In response to the growing number of foreigners in the last decade or so, the different levels of government (national, provincial, and local) have been attempting to make the entry process or immigration more efficient. For foreign experts, there’s a new department that deals with the visa paperwork for us. Apparently, after the job interview and the university and I started the applications for me to travel to China to take up my new position, my papers were caught up in this transition. What this meant was waiting for at least two months for my foreigner’s work permit to be approved whereas it only took one month when I applied as a postdoc fellow: approval had to come from the national and provincial levels before the university could issue me an invitation letter to apply for a work visa in Los Angeles.

I should point out that the above mentioned application had to be accompanied with a CV that’s been translated to Chinese and physical exam (or health check) record that includes a chest x-ray and HIV/STD test. It’s at this point that the costs to work in China begin to accumulate. There’s the cost of the visa. For anyone intimated by the long queues, there’s the option to pay an agency to apply for the visa. And, there’s one conveniently located down the hallway from the visa section of the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles.

Once in China, foreigners would have to pay for another health check in China. The result would be returned in two envelopes, one to be submitted to the labor department and the other to the exit-entry department when we apply for our temporary residence permit. This permit is necessary because our work visas won’t indicate an expiry date, so are worthless. Nonetheless, my health check report had to be submitted to a third place, which was my employer, the university. So, from that point, foreign experts should realize that we’re dealing with two interconnected processes: state and employer.

Between the two are local processes that are very crucial; they could determine our stay in the country or deportation. I’ve written about local registration requirements at, at least, two different departments (see, “This person is ‘ma fan'”). Others who have lived in the UK have pointed out to me that foreigners are also required to register at a local police station (0r constabulary) upon their arrival. While this is true, the registration process ends there. In China, registration at the police station requires prior registration at another department called 街道办 (jiedaoban), where a rental tax is paid. Strangely, a lady at the foreign affairs office at the university told me that I could’ve ignored that other registration and the tax payment. I’m not sure if her information is accurate. Nonetheless, after registering at the police station, foreigners would have to take the completed form to the exit-entry department to apply for the temporary residence permit. Only at the police station are we not required to pay a fee. Everywhere else, expect some amount of payment.

But, wait, the registration at two local departments doesn’t prevent us from being harassed by the district government. Two ladies claiming that they work for the district government came pounding on my door a couple of weeks ago. One started to speak to me in Chinese and flashed her id card to indicate that she works for the Tianhe District People’s Government. I can’t even recall if her name was on that id card. But she started to ask me if I’m renting and how many people are in my household. I replied by asking her if she could speak English. She looked to her partner, who walked over to speak English with me. Of course, I inquired what their business was. When she said that they’re here to register everyone in the building. I informed her that I’ve already registered twice. Of course, she still insisted on getting information from me. I replied that I didn’t have my registration paper or passport, as both had to be handed over to the university to apply for my residence permit. She automatically assumed that I was in China to study, so I corrected her, informing her that I work as a professor at a university in Guangzhou. I guess because of my reply, she didn’t insist on me showing her my passport. Instead, she asked if I could give her my passport number. Again, I replied that I couldn’t recall it because it’s a new passport. So persistent was this woman: she then asked me to give her my name. This was when I repeated once again that she could get my information from the police station and that I couldn’t give her my name because I didn’t even know if she’s really working for the district government. She and her partner left, and the knocking on people’s doors ceased. Since then, my passport has returned and these ladies haven’t been by again.

What I’ve described so far are for the state processes. I’ll have to deal with some of these again in a year or two, when my housing lease and the temporary residence permit expire. At the university level, I’m still waiting for my contract to be approved. After the work load has been agreed upon, they’re supposed to be listed on the contract, which I didn’t know. It was only after this step was completed that I realized that my contract would have to be submitted to one of the academic departments (人才办/rencaiban) for review and approval before the Dean of the School and I can sign it. It’s been two weeks already, and we’re still waiting. Only after the contract has been signed and submitted to yet another department (maybe HR?), then my salary would be adjusted to the one promised and all benefits would be activated. In the meantime, I’ll be paid a local salary, which is half the amount agreed on.

Within the Chinese system, every department is crucial, which means one isn’t allowed to skip a step less s/he wants to fall. Of course, there’s this process called 绿色通道 (lvsetongdao) or a “green lane” if translated literally. Basically, it’s a fast track that’s suppose to limit the processes that one has to go through and wait for documents to be approved. If I’m being fast tracked, I can’t begin to imagine the regular track is like.

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