My Problem with Progress

I recently went to my local bank to receive an electronic bank transfer. I have been a customer at this bank for nearly 15 years, and so the idea that I have to show up with ID and fill out reams of paperwork just to "accept" a wire transfer into my account does not upset me. On this occasion, however, I was a bit anxious. Having only just returned to China, I was still waiting for my residence permit to be completed. This meant that my passport was still in the hands of the city Public Security officials—and would likely remain there for the next couple weeks.

In order to make the transferred monies available to me in my account, I had to convince the bank that my officially stamped police receipt for my passport (complete with photocopy, photo ID and passport number) was a suitable substitute for my actual passport. As soon as I showed the receipt to the teller I knew it would not be easy. The basic problem, as I was told by a variety of bank officials, was that the bank needed proof of who I was, and of my right to reside legally in the country. I made multiple trips to the bank that day, and spoke with many different bank employees. On separate occasions the bank called the relevant city Public Security officials and asked if they could possibly "speed up" their processing so I could have my passport more quickly (needless to say, that did not work). In the end, I produced birth and marriage certificates authorized and signed by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, photocopies of my passport, a recently renewed photo ID labor permit (passport number included) from the provincial labor bureau, an invitation letter (passport number again) from the provincial commerce department, my recent health check (passport number!), and my registration receipt from the local police branch (chopped) with my passport number and visa type, number and dates. After four hours of this the branch manager looked across her large desk (I had talked my way into her office hours ago) and told me that in fact none of that mattered. They certainly did not doubt who I was, but the regulation said "passport," and I didn't have my passport.

Throughout this entire process, I found myself frustrated—not so much at the petty bureaucratic nature of it all (I am in China, after all), but rather at the fact that I could not work my way around this inconvenience. I am fairly certain that ten or certainly fifteen years ago I would have gotten my money. A familiar teller, a vague gesture in the direction of following the general letter of the law (passport photocopy? long-time customer? correctly-chopped police receipt?), or even a verbal okay from the Public Security official over the phone would have been sufficient to grease the wheels of the bureaucracy enough for me to get my money—perhaps with a promise to return with my passport once the residence permit was finished. There was a fluidity to negotiations in the past that is increasingly hard to find in many contemporary situations.

Of course, this new stricter adherence to regulations is a product of precisely the kind of increased transparency and consistency that many in China have long been waiting for. While the flexible (whimsical? capricious?) bureaucracy of the past meant that anything was possible, it also meant that nothing was certain. The recent progress towards increasing the scope for rule by law (something China desperately needs) has brought an increased level of predictability to many bureaucratic transactions, but this necessarily means a loss of flexibility. As reforms to the bureaucracy seek greater levels of efficiency, officials are being incentivized to do their jobs more consistently resulting in the removal of a layer of humanity from the system. Admittedly, this humanity (renqing, or "human feeling") is precisely the locus of so much corruption and favoritism; but when I walked into the bank without my passport I was counting on being able to find a little bit of that humanity—and then work it to my advantage. If I am totally honest, part of me was even looking forward to discovering some kind of crazy work-around solution to my trouble, to maneuvering through the fluid negotiations that the old renqing flexibility made possible. What I found at the bank that morning was real sympathy—everyone was very polite and apologetic (another contrast with the old days!)—but those kinds of feelings were not enough to help me receive my money.

For those of us who measure our time in China in decades, the fading of renqing poses a challenge to our way of living and working in China. In the last few years many of us have discovered just how much of our taxation, employment, banking, visa and licensing procedures were more dependent on these human "understandings" than on compliance with the actual regulations. In most cases this has dramatically increased our operating expenses; in some cases this has led to closed projects and "lost" visas. Oh for the good old days, when we could knowingly or unknowingly fall afoul of Chinese laws and regulations, and then rely on our good intentions and good friends to carry us through the ensuing fall out with little or no real consequences! Those days are rapidly receding into the past.

Renqing remains an important part of Chinese society; anyone seeking to build relationships and work effectively in China will find success elusive without developing some capacity to recognize and express this cultural value. But the bureaucratic processes that enable us to remain in this country for an extended period of time are becoming increasingly less open to human persuasion. This means we must spend more time, money and effort on making sure that we are complying with—or staying ahead of—the regulatory requirements. Thanks to progress, the game has changed. Have you?

Photo Credit: John Lillis, on Flickr