Regular readers will recall that Imagethief became a father earlier this year. Having a child requires new parents to undertake many unfamiliar responsibilities. These include the obvious, such as the care and feeding of an infant, and some things that you really just don’t think much about in advance. Among those are the bureaucratic hoops that the parents of new children have to go through, especially in China.
There were some things that I anticipated. In my mind I had a pretty clear idea of the set of bureaucratic steps we’d need to go through for Imagethief Jr., a.k.a. “Z”. 1) Apply for passports (Z is a dual citizen so there are two passports). 2) Apply for a visa. 3) Apply for a certificate of temporary residency. Simple. Easy. Logical.
And missing one critical step. I didn’t know that I’d have to actually register Z’s birth separately with the Chaoyang District police. After all, it wasn’t like I’d bought a weapon or imported an exotic car. It’s a baby, fer chrissake. The only things he’s a threat to are diapers, teething rusks and the thoroughly detonated sleeping habits of his parents.
I discovered the police registration requirement for newborns by accident when we went to apply for Z’s visa. Mrs. Imagethief and I had waited a while to do this because we hadn’t applied for the passports right away. We were, as you might expect, a bit overwhelmed by the presence of a newborn and didn’t have any immediate plans to travel. When we finally got Z’s US passport, which was the one under which we intended to apply for his Chinese visa, he was about two-and-a-half months old.
My company helpfully pulled together a letter and assorted business registration documents for me. We had Z’s Chinese birth certificate and shiny, new American RFID passport. For linguistic help I drafted my assistant from work to accompany us. Mrs. Imagethief, a Singaporean, speaks pretty competent Chinese –far better than Imagethief himself– but for bureaucratic situations a local can be useful.
In fact we’d had some rumblings of possible trouble already. That same week a friend of ours had attempted to get a visa for her new baby, who was almost exactly the same age as Z. Informed by the Beijing Entry and Exit Authority that she had missed the critical registration step and could expect to pay a fine of several thousand RMB she had stormed out of the building in a rage. I, cocky in my various successes wrestling with the Chinese bureaucracy, was optimistic that no such misfortune would befall us.
Pride, as is widely known, goeth before the fall. My pride had goeth-ed and my fall was not far behind.
At the Entry and Exit Authority we waited in the snaking queue for the better part of an hour before arriving at the counter. Around us swirled the usual motley collection of immigrants dealing with their visas: West African families; necktie wearing businesspeople with Chinese handlers; visa agents with fistfuls of other people’s passports and so on. Other than the tax authority, which I am pleased to have avoided having to visit in China, there is no clearer glimpse into the soul of a government than the waiting room of its immigration bureaucracy. You rapidly get a picture of whose life is made easy, whose is made difficult, and the average level of desperation inflicted on the gathered applicants, supplicants and itinerants.
At the counter the uniformed young lady fiddling through our paperwork was quick to spot a problem.
“How long have you had his passport?”
“We just got it. It took a while to arrive.” This was kinda true. It took a while to arrive because we took a while to apply for it. Zach’s Singaporean passport had taken nearly three months from application to delivery, but the US passport had only taken a week.
“Do you have a receipt that says when you picked up the passport?”
“Uh, no.” This was true. The US government does not give you a dated receipt when you pick up the passport. Just the passport itself. I pointed out that that passport had an issue date in it that was within the prior two weeks.
“No, I need a receipt. Can you get a receipt?”
I weighed the likelihood of getting the US State Department to write me a letter saying exactly when they had given me the passport in anything less than a matter of weeks, decided the yardage was too far and elected to punt.
“I don’t think so.”
She promptly ran my punt back for the touchdown. “We can’t issue a visa now. Your baby is not properly registered with the police. You’ll have to register him and pay a fine.”
“How much is the fine?”
“Five thousand renminbi.”
I didn’t see the relationship between the passport issue date and the missing police registration, but there it was. At this point I decided to unleash my masterful china-hand negotiating skills.
“Isn’t there anything else I can do?”
“No. Take him to the Chaoyang District police post on Ritan Donglu. Next!”
Damn. She knew how to negotiate. I had no choice but to make way for the extended West African family crowding up to my counter.
Early the next day we were off to the Chaoyang District police post. I had expected a massive, bustling metropolitan police station out of American television fantasy. Cops banging out reports on IBM Selectrics; perps being hustled past; a crowd of prostitutes flirting with grizzled sergeants while waiting to be booked. This was exactly wrong. It was more like something out of rural Indonesia. There was a quiet front courtyard with a couple of idle police cars. Inside there was exactly one desk with one bored looking officer sitting at it. We were the only other people in sight, although there was one officer in another room that the guy at the desk shouted occasional questions at. Sultry May air had penetrated the lobby, completing the languid, tropical feel. On the wall behind us, watched by nobody in particular, an Olympic countdown clock ticked away the months, weeks, days, minutes and seconds (no picoseconds?) until 8/8/08.
I’d rather expected a stern police haranguing, but to the officer on duty this was clearly just a trivial bit of paperwork in a long, uneventful and somewhat sweaty day. He asked me to tell him what happened, which I did with as much honesty and clarity as a PR man can muster. He took copious notes and, when I was done, explained the bottom line to me.
“As a foreigner are legally required to report the birth of your baby to the police within thirty days. Your baby is seventy-seven days old. That means he has been illegal for forty-seven days.”
Good heavens, I thought. I have an illegal baby! I never thought this was the kind of thing that would happen to me, a good Silicon Valley boy who’s sole scrap with the police was being ordered off of Santa Cruz’ Seabright Beach after official closing time.
The next part, explained the officer, was important:
“Did you break the law intentionally or were you ignorant of it?”
So there it was. Are you a criminal or an idiot? Even I could see which way this one would cut, so I cast my lot with idiot.
“I had no idea.”
He grunted and finished the paperwork, which turned out to be my confession that I had accidentally but most definitely transgressed against the laws of the People’s Republic, was contrite, and agreed to accept such punishment as the authorities had decided to mete out, which in this case was five large. This was read back to me to make sure I understood my idiocy in complete detail, which I did. Anxious to transform my illegal baby into a legal baby, I signed. It was my first confession to anyone other than my parents. I did feel a new lightness washing over me as I unburdened myself of my sins, but it may have just been the lightness caused by the extraction of RMB 5,000 from my wallet.
Or the psychological impact of imagining RMB 5,000 being removed from my wallet, since I didn’t actually pay at the the police station. Instead, I was told to present myself again at the Entry and Exit Authority the next day. A representative from the police would meet us there and we could pay the fine and complete the registration of our illegal baby.
It seemed a little odd that the police would send somebody round to meet us and deal with this, but this is China and I’ve learned not to be surprised by bureaucratic eccentricities, such as the fact that the residency records of my neighborhood are apparently maintained on paper in a library’s worth of binders arranged by estate and danwei. Or the fact that although I live in the bustling, commercial heart of Beijing’s ever-extending central business district, our local paichusuo is on the other side of the Fourth Ring Road in a remote,down-at-the-heels neighborhood called Balizhuang that is being rapidly flattened to make way for god only knows what. It’s these sorts of things that remind me that the area I’m now living in was farmland and industrial estates just a decade ago.
Of course the police didn’t send someone to meet us. We discovered this as we waited like idiots (fittingly, since I’d already officially confessed to being one) on the foreigner floor of the Entry and Exit Administration, scrutinizing every cop who came in to see if it was one of the two we had seen at the Chaoyang District police station. Following a half hour of gathering flies, some investigation revealed that there was a police desk on the floor that apparently existed for the sole purpose of paying fines. It was doing thumping business.
We presented our confession and various chopped documents officially certifying our idiocy and tipped RMB 5,000 into the government coffers (possibly used to help pay for last week’s space launch), at which point we were once again duly authorized to stand in line and submit our visa application for Z. A week later we got his passport back with visa in place. We went straight off to the to register him for his certificate of temporary residency, and I’m pleased to say he’s been fully legal ever since.
Thinking back on this episode, it’s clear in retrospect that the attendants at the hospital where Z was born told me as we were checking out to register him with the police within thirty days. I had confused this fairly rigid, visa-oriented requirement with the certificate of temporary residency registration that foreigners need to complete with 24 hours when they arrive in China or move to a new address. Despite sounding very urgent, I’d always found the enforcement of temporary residency registration to be pretty squishy. I’d often been late –once in Shanghai by a staggering six months– and never got more than a lecture for my sins, if even that. But the baby requirement is different, and in the period leading up to the Olympics nothing about the enforcement of China’s immigration laws was squishy.
Honestly, it’s a lot of bureaucracy for new fathers, who aren’t the most competent of creatures at the best of times. Z was born in a hospital where little English is spoken, so combined with the linguistic gulf it was a recipe for trouble. Maybe they should have simply tacked the fine onto my bill at the hospital and saved everyone the trouble.
It also would have been nice if my company’s HR department had thought to warn me of the baby registration requirement, but apparently not too many of our foreign staff have had babies in Beijing and it’s simply not on the checklist. So if you’re a foreigner living in China and expecting a baby, remember you have thirty days to do the paperwork. True, the Olympics are over and things might be getting a bit squishy again, but RMB 5,000 pays for a lot of diapers, so why tempt fate?
And though I offer a few weak excuses, in the end there is really nothing to blame but my own idiocy. I have a stamped confession to prove it.