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Mean Streets


Here in the Big Dumpling, police have been keeping closer tabs on my kind. Twice in recent weeks we’ve had words over the phone. The problem has nothing to do with my work as a journalist. It has to do with the fact I’m a foreigner. And I’ve had house guests who are foreigners, too.

“Good morning, An Si Qiao!” Officer Zhang, of my neighborhood precinct, greeted me by my Chinese name when he rang. Officer Zhang is a rarity in this city: a clean-cut cop who’s helpful and friendly at all times. It was 8:30 a.m.on a Saturday.

“Those friends of yours who are staying with you,” he began. “You better bring them down to the station to register.” Old-school public security regulations obligate foreigners to register with local police on arrival in China, whether tourist or expat, hotel or house guest. Hotels take care of this for their guests. But never in ten years here had I been asked to. I couldn’t remember ever hearing of such a request. It happened that my American visitors were leaving that day, I assured Office Zhang. I lied by a day, more out of instinct than any real need or intent to deceive. Only later did it occur to me that for every day my friends had stayed unregistered, in theory, Officer Zhang could have assessed a 500 yuan fine. He himself never said so.

“Alright, alright,” he relented. “You know, I’m just doing my job. Those are the rules. But now we’re really cracking down.”

When China does crack down, enforcement tends to feel more like some sick form of entrapment. So it is now that the capital is ratcheting up enforcement of pre-existing I.D. constraints. The prime targets are foreigners who overstay their visas, work on tourist visas, or squat illegally, and/or push drugs, as in the case of a nightmarish bust in late September: some 30 African and Caribbean men, most of them innocent bystanders, were indiscriminately rounded up and whalloped. Public security authorities are also conducting spot visa and residency checks, and fining, detaining and certain cases deporting violators. They’ve tightened the type, terms and duration of the visas they issue as well. The main aim of the visa crackdown, as the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. embassy and others suggest, is to flush out troublemakers ahead of the Olympics next August. In response, the American embassy has reminded its citizens to carry their passports, as has long been required of foreigners. Like Officer Zhang said: Those are the rules. But right now we’re really cracking down.

A long lull in enforcement, followed by a bout of bureaucracy, intimidation, and brutality with an aura of protectionism, isolationism and xenophobia: sounds like a scheme for “homeland security“. Instead it’s the Olympics under the Party, a schizo set of circumstances that we might never fully grasp. It’s been some time since the foreigners in the Chinese capital have felt so closely watched. In that time the community has grown tremendously, though. So have the surroundings, for that matter. So it’s as though we’ve re-appeared on the radar without knowing or expecting it.

Well into the 1990’s, the foreign population in China’s metropolises was compact enough to feel ghettoized. As a resident laowai, a foreigner, you were geographically quarantined in designated dorms and compounds. You shopped for Western groceries at Friendship Stores. Western hotels were your oases. Traffic cops wouldn’t even bother with you. Practically every other non-Chinese face looked familiar. And the Chinese friendships you had felt closer and more precious, because the run of the masses seemed so inaccessible. They might hesitate to date you, for fear of being ostracized by their teachers, or to invite you back home for a meal, lest the neighborhood “granny patrols” were to cause a fuss. You paid higher admission prices at tourist sites, and unless you were of Asian descent, you “Big Noses” always stuck out. You, the tourist, were the attraction.

But in the most posh and powerful neighborhoods of China, in a numbing flash of five or ten years – it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when – the foreigner has faded into the crowd somewhat. The international community kept on bulging, and thriving. You got a full life of work and play. You got guanxi. You got an ayi, or two. Cross-pollination deepened. Mixed couples spawned mixed-blooded kids. “Sea turtles” schooled abroad muddied the “overseas Chinese” pool. Educating your kids presented a widening array of choices: international, Chinese, or some sort of fusion? Starbucks and sit-down toilets were no longer news. They were the norm. The natives, now far richer than you, fell in love with these urban trappings of yours. And you and the Western-minded avant-garde started regentrifying theirs, the old-city alleyways and Maoist factories. Your residential borders receded and a booming property market opened up. Ghettoization was no longer a cultural mandate but a cliquey lifestyle choice. You mothballed your state-planned compounds and spread out into de facto concessions, teeming with indistinguishable villas and condos, to the extent that those stately inner-city ghettos became desirable addresses all over again. No, you were not assimilated. But you began to feel that you could be anonymous, not just amongst Chinese society, but amongst your fellow laowai.

Today one thing unconditionally still sets you apart: your passport, of course. But you are not exactly a faceless migrant here on a rural hukou. You belong to an interest group of people representing countries who are trade partners. And in practical terms, it perhaps got easier for some of not to respect the law of a nation where the authorities are above it and the common people beneath it. Foreign companies certainly can’t get away with this. But many individual expats still feel that they can. They tend to be as blasé about the law as anyone else.

I should say “law”. For the problem, psychologically, is that it is still invoked and enforced so unevenly. Chinese law in action can be about as manic as baseball umpired with a moving strike zone. Advantage: offense. Porous, under-regulated markets generally play into the pockets of the players as well as local authorities, be it through taxes, bribes or gate fees. But enforcement tends to tighten up come crunch time. Then it’s time to let everyone know who is in control, and political diktats replace the old economic incentives with new ones (again, taxes, bribes, and gate fees, plus fines).

And right now is surely one of those times. Besides the Olympics next year, the 17th Party Congress, the most critical event in the country’s five-year political cycle, convenes next week. It seems a perfect time for an Olympic test run at cleaning up the activities of foreigners, as last year’s summit of African nations was to clear the clogged streets (no drug sweeps then).

What Beijing fears, most immediately, is having to deal with embarrassment. For it does not deal well. This summer, authorities were embarrassed when Reporters Without Reporters mounted a protest against the harassment of journalists near the Olympic headquarters. They were embarrassed when six Tibet independence activists rappelled from the top of the Great Wall of China with a 450-square foot protest banner reading “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008″. They continue to be embarrassed, though not nearly as much as five years ago, by Falun Gong. The movement has been dialing into Beijing homes with pre-recorded messages demanding China free the messianic rights defender Gao Zhisheng. (This annoys my wife greatly.)

So you’d think Beijing would make it easier for those foreigners who aren’t so “devilish”. But in many cases, routine compliance remains anything but. Foreign renters, for example, need their landlords to register with the local police. But many won’t cooperate, because if they do they’ll have to pay the taxes on the rent. This is how the American ex-roommate of a good friend got snagged in the visa dragnet.

One morning about three months ago, the roomie emerged from her apartment block to find three college-age kids standing outside. A young Chinese woman asked her for her passport. In her hand the woman had a name list of all the foreigners from the compound who were registered with local precinct. The roomie’s name wasn’t on it. The American explained that she had moved there not long ago. Next thing she knew she was down at the police station. For the better part of eight hours she was confined to a room that “looked like an interrogation chamber you’d see on Law & Order”. A policeman took her cell phone from her and used it to call her landlord. The policeman was cross with him. The landlord had to come down and pay his taxes on the rent before they would release her. The landlord apparently blew them off. They released her for an hour to find a motel to get legally registered, but didn’t give her her passport back. With only a copy of the passport, no motel would admit her. By late afternoon, her face was red from tears. Finally, the police decided to give her the registration form. “They said they never did that for anyone, but would make an exception in her case.” The landlord never showed up.

If Chinese don’t care about their own laws, how can you be expected to? That’s the attitude some foreigners take. Don’t ask, don’t tell. As opaque as this environment can be, you can always feign ignorance. And often, just when the public security organ starts to look like Stasi, it turns into Keystone Cops.

Take the story of an American buddy of mine, a beat-boxing poet type whom I’ll call G.G. In July, suddenly, G.G. fell off the map. He didn’t respond to repeated emails. His cell phone was off. Then one day his girlfriend, who is Chinese, finally sent a message to explain: G.G. was in police custody. It turned out that he had overstayed his visa by a while: 540 days or so. G.G. ended up spent three weeks in a prison where there was one floor for short-term inmates another for long-term. Meanwhile his girlfriend and others negotiated with police on his behalf. The U.S. embassy got involved at one point, to no avail. There was no question he was going to be fined the maximum (5,000 yuan) and deported. The question was how long it would be before he would be able to return. There was a sick twist. G.G. and his girlfriend were planning to get married the same day that he was apprehended. Civil Affairs agents processing their marriage application discovered his little visa discrepancy.

On the road to the airport to put him on a plane back to the States, the police returned my buddy’s cell phone, and we spoke briefly before he left. He wasn’t sure when he would be able to come back to China. “But I don’t know if I ever want to come back,” he said. “That was, like, the worst experience of my life.” Like, understatement of the year.

But by September, G.G. was back in Beijing. His girlfriend had found someone who could “gone through the back door” and pulled some strings with the police. Whether there was money involved in the exchange, I am not sure. But they agreed not to mark his passport with a deportation stamp. When he applied for a new visa, he got it. No questions asked. That, I guess, is love: something a little crackdown could never conquer.

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