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August 1, 2015

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Registration requirements may have eased, but still present a needless nuisance

EDITOR’S note:

Doug Young has lived and worked in China for 15 years, much of that as a journalist. He currently lives in Shanghai where he teaches financial journalism at Fudan University. He writes daily on his blog, Young’s China Business Blog (

As a nearly continuous China resident for much of the last quarter century, one of the biggest annoyances I find with daily life here is the constant need to register your presence in a wide range of situations. The need by authorities to know who I am, and prove it with a valid ID, dogs me on a regular basis in Shanghai, forcing me to declare myself each time I want to buy a plane ticket or stay in a hotel, and even for such minor things as visiting some office buildings.

That obsession with registrations has been in the headlines these last two weeks in a relatively minor but quite typical story that saw a foreign tourist refused permission to stay at a public campground on Chongming Island. The reasons for the denial were something related to the campground’s uncertainty over whether it could properly accept such foreign guests without proper registration.

In the end the campground managers made some queries and determined that they could, in fact, accept foreign guests. But even then they could only do so after such guests registered at the closest police station three kilometers away. That seemed like a fitting ending for such a saga, showing that it’s possible to overcome China’s national web of registration requirements, but only after much hassle and compliance with burdensome and bureaucratic requirements.

In all fairness, the Chinese mainland’s registration obsession has eased considerably since I first came here in the 1980s. The obsession is best represented by the hukou household registration system, which used to ban the movement of people around the country by forcing them to stay in the place where they were born. That system has been slowly diluted and relaxed over the last decade, and hopefully its eventual abandonment will also include an end to the ceaseless registration requirements that continue to hound both foreigners and Chinese throughout our everyday lives.

The particular story that drew attention to the phenomenon began two weeks ago, when local media reported that managers at Dongping National Forest Park had refused to accept a British tourist. Some observers said the decision discriminated against foreigners. The park’s managers later defended themselves by saying they were uncertain about whether they could legally accept such visitors due to unclear registration requirements.

After a minor media brouhaha, the park amended its policy to accept foreigners after all. But it still said that foreigner guests would first have to register at a local police station three kilometers away, since Chinese law requires such registration of all foreigners when taking up a new residence, even if it’s only for a day or two. The park offered to help with the registration process, though I honestly can’t believe many foreigners would want to go to such trouble.

My early days in China’s mainland were filled with similar stories, most notably whenever I traveled around the country. In the 1980s, only a very limited number of hotels and guest houses in most cities were permitted to accept foreigners, and most places would simply refuse if you inquired about staying there. The situation greatly improved starting in the late 1990s, and now nearly every hotel in bigger cities like Shanghai will accept foreigners, even though you still have to show your passport with a valid visa.

Changing times

But you still do run into problems from time to time. I can recall one situation just a few years ago when some Chinese friends and I tried to stay at a hotel in a small Sichuan town, only to be refused because I was a foreigner. I got quite upset at the time, though there wasn’t any room for negotiations and we ultimately ended up staying somewhere else.

Despite the improvement, it really does seem like registration and providing official identification documents are still required far more often than necessary today. Both foreigners and Chinese are now much freer to move about the country and take up residence in different cities than in the past. And yet all of us still have to register at the local police station whenever we move to a new residence. The actual process is quite simple and doesn’t take much time, but really seems quite unnecessary and bureaucratic.

I didn’t recall any such requirements during my previous residences in Taiwan or Hong Kong, and a Taiwanese friend confirmed that such registrations are a unique feature of the mainland. Such requirements were most likely established decades ago to help the government keep track of people by limiting their mobility. But in a day and age where it’s quite easy to track anyone’s movements through their use of the Internet and other electronic networks, this lingering use of relentless registrations in cases like the Chongming campground seems not only cumbersome, but also outdated and unnecessary.


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