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March 3, 2014

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Chinese facing long march of the permits

Lily Jia, 32 years old, works for a foreign tourism company in Shanghai. The Liaoning native holds a special talent residence permit, the best of all such permits and most difficult to obtain.

It took her two years to get everything needed for the application. But if she wants to get married or divorced, she has to travel back to Benxi City, her hometown in northeast China, to do so, where she has had her hukou, or household registration officially issued.

Jia is also required to renew the permit every year though the paperwork for that is not much easier than the first time.

The number of permits, certificates and documents that an average Chinese citizen needs, and the tedious, painful and long march leading to them, is hardly Jia’s problem alone.

The scale of bureaucracy in China has long been an issue, and it made a buzz recently after a 3.8-meter-long scroll of 103 common cards — what an average Chinese needs from birth to death — was displayed. The number can reach to more than 400 when including less common ones.

“Chinese are either getting permits or on the way to getting them,” said Cao Zhiwei, a member of the Guangzhou Committee of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), when presenting the scroll at a meeting of the government’s advisory body last week. It was named “On the Long March to Permits.”

Cao’s survey, based on Guangzhou, shows one has to visit 18 departments and 39 places and be charged over 28 times to get more than 100 stamps to finish the long march. The most frequently used cards include the identity card and hukou, household registration.

In addition to Cao’s survey, things can get even harder for those not residing in their hometown, where they have their hukou registered.

It was reported that an older couple from Xinjiang Autonomous Region who had been married and living in Guangzhou for more than 40 years, was advised by a local department to file for marriage registration again in Guangzhou. They needed to provide their marriage certificate in order to be the guarantor for their child’s mortgage, but they couldn’t find it anymore.

Due to a failure to bridge marriage information between Xinjiang and Guangdong, their options were either to travel the long way back or to get a local marriage registration.

“The scale of bureaucracy is somewhat related to the country’s past of having a planned economy, when an individual was tied to a company/organization and was required to get proof/permit from the company/organization to get anything done,” said Yue Jinglun, associate professor of Politics and Public Administration at Zhongshan University.

“Now, it is mainly due to the poor level of the social credit system and administrative management. In order to prevent and fight counterfeiting and to make it easy to manage, government departments have continuously raised the bar by asking for a lot of permits and certificates,” Yue added.

Before a Chinese citizen is born, the parents would have already filed for a certificate to be entitled to maternity care and service — otherwise the mother could not be admitted to public hospitals. In addition to a birth certificate, a vaccine card is also required within days after birth; without it — a proof of inoculation, the child will not be admitted to public schools.

A one-child certificate allows parents to get cash rewards for following the family planning policy — in Shanghai, a one-time bonus of 5,000 yuan after retirement for each parent.

If a person is single, a certificate proving that is required from his/her company when he/she wants to buy a house.

When over 70 (in Shanghai), one needs to get a senior citizen card, in addition to the existing identity card that lists the age, in order to get extra benefits such as free bus rides at non-rush hours.

After a person dies, his relatives must get a certificate proving the body was cremated as required to proceed with the funeral, and a rest-in-peace permit so the ashes can be buried.

Cao suggested building a database for citizen information to avoid repetitive procedures and permits. Many netizens complain about not having a system like that in the United States, where one social security card provides all the information needed in most cases.

“Well, it actually isn’t that bad in Shanghai, or maybe I’m just too used to it,” said Wang Fang, a retired middle school teacher. “After all, I grew up in the years when you needed a permit to leave the city, and another one to get back.”

Local collector Feng Jianzhong has picked some of the strangest and most rare permits from his collection — a five greatness honorary certificate (for good soldiers), a permit for free train rides as red guards and a permit exempting a person from being sent to the country for re-education during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), among others.

The “long march” doesn’t get much easier for expatriates either, especially for those freelancing, changing jobs, or working for a small company.

American freelance photographer Amanda, reluctant to give her full name for fear of trouble at the immigration office, is currently getting a new work visa and employment permit. Without a fixed, long-term employer, she has been switching between a tourist visa and a work permit in the past two years, which sometimes requires her to leave the country every few months in order to apply for a new one.

“I understand that I need to follow the regulations of the host country when I visit,” she said. “But the papers and the types of visas and permits are very complicated. It also doesn’t feel great knowing I must register every time I change my address.”


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