Last Christmas I gave a beautifully illustrated children’s book to one of my nieces. It was the story of the little stone lion. For centuries he has been guarding the entrance to a village. This lion is small and benevolent, kindly observing the generations coming and going in the village. He is sending out a message about not forgetting traditional values and family ties.
Most people will be familiar with these stone lions. Chinese businesses all over the world have these two guardians at the entrance. One is a male lion, with one paw on a ball, symbolizing imperial supremacy over the world. The other one is female and playing with a cub, symbolizing nurture. I’ve written a little bit about symbolism surrounding entry and exit in China and in gated communities before. Right now I am once again face to face with the lions that guard the entrance to China.
After a long summer holiday in Europe I returned to China. To the same town where I lived before, but to a new apartment and a new and exciting job. Before I could return to China I had to jump through some bureaucratic hoops to secure a temporary business visa. It will be another few months, lots and lots of paperwork and burning through quite a bit of money before I will have more or less permanent residency and an indefinite and legal right to work. I am very lucky that my employer is doing everything possible to help me through this.
Every foreigner who wants to live and work in China has to go through this (sometimes months or years long) process that is riddled with uncertainty, vagaries, changing rules and sometimes outright rudeness. It is a rite of passage, a hazing, and it is comforting to talk to people who have been through this already. I have heard horror stories of people narrowly avoiding being blacklisted forever during their journeys through the byzantine regulations. Kafkaesque is an understatement here. They assure me that everything will work out in the end, that there always is a way. Which is nice to hear if you feel at times as if you are in a trench warfare with the faceless, nameless giant that is Chinese bureaucracy. If you don’t have a 100% conviction that you want to be here, this is where you want to give up.
Coming from a western country it’s a bit hard to imagine just how intimidating Chinese bureaucracy can be. We generally have the expectation that government bodies are there to support us, that the game is played according to the rules and that if they don’t they can be held accountable. We also have a certain arrogance that I wasn’t aware of before: as westerners we assume that doors will generally open for us, that we will be welcomed. No such thing is a given in China, and especially not if you are a foreigner.
The first couple of weeks back in China it felt as if my existence here was extremely precarious, and I wasn’t sleeping well. The Chinese colleague who was dealing with the local government offices wasn’t very good at finding out the correct information. Neither was she thinking creatively about how to deal with hurdles such as the looming end date on my current visa. I am a bit of control freak and it is highly unsettling to feel your life is in the hands of an incompetent, uncommunicative and inscrutable person. To not be able to find out and fix things for yourself, to have to relinquish control is any project managers worst nightmare. In theory I have a house and a life to go back to back home, but I don’t want to. I really want to be here. So, I have to grit my teeth and hope for the best. To be fair, my colleague had to deal with government officials who would hang up on her if she called them with a question they couldn’t answer. Often the only way to get a conclusive answer is to go down to the offices in person and talk face to face. This only works after you have established who the responsible official is. China does after all still function along the lines of guanxi (social networks of influence), and it matters a lot more who you know in the right place than knowing how to interpret the latest change in government visa policy.
Where are we now in this whole process? I am still on a business visa. This I obtained by visiting a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Rotterdam and handing over some cash to a very jovial Chinese man. I didn’t get a receipt. End of September I will have to do a border run. This also gives me the opportunity for two days of hiking in the Vietnamese mountains around Sapa, yay! And, gain another 60 days on my current visa. Meanwhile my employer is working hard at making me and two Italians the owners of another company. This is a process that can take a couple of months and mountains of paperwork with red stamps on them. The company was once a cocktail bar with live sharks swimming in a gigantic aquarium wall. I’m afraid the business will be a little bit more mundane after me and the two Italians take ownership. A Chinese wine importer who speaks seven languages is currently working on ensuring all of this will move smoothly through the government bureaus involved. After the ownership transfer is finalized I should be able to get a work permit as an employee in my own company. Which should then be easily renewable every year, without any further need for border runs. This construction is called WFOE (pronounced ‘woofie’) or Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise. It is a common way for foreigners to establish themselves in China for the longer term. Another way is to get married, but then you are not allowed to work.
For now the lions are staring me down real hard, and I am facing up to them. Wish me luck, and hopefully they will let me through. But not before they have played with me for a bit, like a cat with a mouse. Or rather, a Chinese stone lion with a ball.