Chun tian zai na li ? Spring time where are you ?

Around 7 weeks in to our Shanghai adventure, we suffered our first mini crisis.

My busy afternoon was punctured per usual by my PA, Yanqiu, bringing me a much welcome cup of tea around 3 o clock.  I accepted the cup gratefully with a …“Cheers Yanqui, how’re you doing ?”

“ RICHARD !  How did Heather get on renewing the children’s visas ? “  Don’t ask why, but in the early days Yanqiu would often exclaim my name at the start of each conversation, as if we were positioned at opposite ends of a field and so she had to bellow out my name to get my attention.

“She doesn’t need to”  I replied. “The entry visas for the children were for 90 days.  We don’t have to worry about making them permanent for a while yet…”

“ No !  I don’t think so.  Entry visa was for 30 days only.  There will be a fine if the visas are not renewed on time…. I will check up.”

Yanqiu rang the relevant bureau and then proceeded to have one of those unfathomable Chinese conversations.  The sort where as a naïve westerner, you feel sure it should last maybe a full 90 seconds and should go something like ;

“Hi there.  My colleague entered China 6 weeks ago with 3 visitor visas for his children.  He now has a full working visa for himself.  When does he need to convert/renew his children’s visa ?   Oh he should have renewed 2 weeks ago and you say the fine is 250 rmb per day ?  Ok, I shall let him know…..”

But no, in the land without “yes” and “no”, the short decisive conversation does not exist.   And so, 12 minutes later, an increasingly exasperated Yanqiu was still talking with the bureau.  The tone was variable.  At times it sounded like Yanqiu were talking with her best friend.  At others it sounded like she was angrily cursing some hated adversary.  I was wary about jumping to conclusions however as Shanghai dialect can be quite deceptive.  Once on hearing two women “angrily” conversing in the street I forecast that they were going to come to blows only for Yanqiu to tell me that the two women were in fact just discussing the clothes they’d recently bought.

Anyway, the prognosis was not good.  Yes, the visas had expired after 30 days and the fine for the three visas being 3 weeks overdue would be approximately 5,000 rmb ! (around 500 pounds)

I felt shocked and more than a little angry.  How can they levy such a ridiculously disproportionate fine, just for forgetting to renew a visa ?!

Bureaucracy is hard enough to bear in a western democracy.  In a one party state, like China, where the state and its agents have experienced unchallenged control since anyone can remember, the overbearing status of the bureaucrats can be very hard to take indeed.  A friend once told me how he had patiently waited in a queue for over 2 hours to talk with an official.  When his turn finally arrived, the lady behind the counter turned to a colleague, pulled out a pack of what appeared to be wedding photos and then proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes discussing them with her colleague.  All the while, she studiously ignored my friend and his understandably growing anger.  The message was, and is, clear.  We are important.  You are not.  Do not forget that.

There are two schools of thought on how best to deal with the imperious rule of the Mandarin.  Some Chinese proudly say that China is a country ruled by laws.  Respect the law, show deference to the bureaucracy that enforces these laws and you shall be fine.

Others say that a one party state can never enjoy a “rule of law”.  With no legal opposition and no independent judiciary or media to hold the government and its agents to account, the state is essentially a law unto itself.  Power is therefore arbitrary or, to put it in layman’s terms, the state and its agents can effectively “make it up as they go along”.

I’ve always been in the latter school of thought.  For me the clincher is the fact that China’s constitution (article 35) declares that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration.”

I’ve always wondered whether the Communist officials managed to keep a straight face when they drafted this declaration.  To me, article 35 is akin to Hitler declaring that multiculturalism and diversity is essential to the health of the 3rd Reich and so the safety of Jews and homosexuals will naturally be safeguarded in Nazi Germany.

Anyway, I digress somewhat.  It dawned on me that here was an opportunity to put the mandarins to the test.  My 3 year old daughter had recently learned to sing a very charming Chinese song at school entitled ‘chun tian zai na li ?’  ( spring time where are you ?).  I told my wife, Heather, to dress Isabel in her cutest frock and to get her to sing this song for the staff in the visa bureau.

“I’m not going to use our daughter as a prop in your stupid games ! “  …Heather objected.

“Oh come on.  What’s the harm ?”  I replied.  “Tell you what, I’ll do you a deal. If Isabel refuses to perform when asked then ok, that’s fine.  Don’t push her…But if she doesn’t mind, then why not ?”.

Anyway, with severe reservations about me selfishly exploiting our child in order to try and prove a point, Heather reluctantly agreed to follow my plan.

Not being good with bureaucrats or indeed, not being good in any situation that requires subtlety, it was decided that I should be excluded from the trip to the bureau.  Instead, I waited anxiously at the office.  What was it to be ?  The ‘rule of law’ or the “making it up as they go along” arbitrary power ?  The tension was killing me.

Finally, at 4.30, Heather rang…

“How did it go ?”

“Oh fine, just fine”.

“Did Isabel sing for them ?”

“Oh yes all the staff were cooing over her.  They said she was a “piao liang wa wa” (beautiful dolly) so I stood her up on the counter and she sang ‘chun tian zai na li ?’ as we planned”.

“Did the staff approve ?”

“Well when she finished they burst in to rapturous applause !”

“What about the fine ?”

“Well at the start the lady insisted that we must pay the 5,000 rmb.  She was sorry but it was not negotiable. It was the regulation.  However, after Isabel sang she told me that she would talk to the ‘boss’ about it…….  Anyway, she disappeared for a few minutes to talk to this real or imagined “boss”, and when she returned she reported that the boss said that being new arrivals, and being preoccupied  with various things as new arrivals often are, it was quite understandable that we should forget to renew the visas.  He therefore thought that a 250rmb rather than the 5,000 rmb fine should be applied….”

So there you are.  Am I the sort of petty, unscrupulous Dad who would use his 3 year old daughter to prove a point and escape a fine ?  Well yes.

Do I feel bad about that ?

No !

Isabel…. “Please reduce the fine…Daddy can’t afford it….”

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