June 6 – Although many of the regulations concerning the registration of foreign visitors to China have been in place for decades, the actual enforcement of these often draconian measures now being employed has not been seen in China since the late 1980s. This, compounded by seemingly erratic treatment of business visa applications and coupled with occasional bureaucratic entrepreneurial activities, has meant that the Beijing Olympics are becoming far less likely to be a truly global event and far more a Chinese celebration.
We have received first hand accounts from businessmen attempting to enter China on apparently legitimate commercial trips being turned away, forcing mass cancellation of hotel bookings, and of individuals with seemingly impeccable employment credentials being denied a renewal of work visa. Additional problems from reliable sources indicate Olympic events tickets are being withheld currently from main Olympic sponsors entitled to certain seats in favor of Chinese government officials from other provinces who are “potentially” attending.
The visa issue, heavily reported in the news and on various blogs recently, had previously been thought to be a crackdown on the practice of foreigners living and working in China without going through the correct work visa procedure in order to avoid taxes. While true in the majority of such cases, first hand reports from hoteliers in Beijing reveal the practice of blanket rejections of business visa issuance to legitimate businessmen—including in several cases groups of prominent international bankers due to hold regional board meetings in Beijing—have been taking place. In one instance, we have been made aware of a group of Australian bankers whose collective party was rejected for business visas at a total loss of US$300,000 to the hotel over canceled bookings, as none of the bank’s executives were able to obtain visa clearance. In other cases, we have heard directly from businessmen of certain Asian nationalities, holding legitimate work visas as chief representatives of their companies in China, also being refused entry.
Another prominent Beijing-based businessman, in a senior position with a major international brand and with six years prior China work history and all documentation and tax paid history available, was refused a new work visa on the grounds that he did not possess a university degree. Here, entrepreneurial bureaucracy was able to assist with the payment of a RM$5,000 “fee” to the officials in question to approve the application.
The situation that is developing is indeed echoing one of the worst fears of the international community—that China would use the Olympics, in what should be a global celebration of human sporting achievement, to promote itself instead to its own people rather than to the world. Those fears are looking increasingly likely to be realized at this moment unless some of the inconsistencies of the pertinent security measures can be reined in. The impact on international businessmen attempting to enter China with legitimate commercial interests has been underestimated when balanced against security concerns. China has long wooed multinational corporations to establish Asian regional headquarters in the country. Yet at the same time with Beijing hosting the Olympics, those executives that have been persuaded to do just that—invest in a regional HQ—are being turned away at the front door. Singapore beckons.
We have also heard unconfirmed reports that companies closely tied to the Olympics—such as one of America’s prominent news network, with rights to broadcast the event across the United States, has been experiencing severe difficulties in obtaining visas for its reporters—with the entire team of one national U.S. network denied on their first attempt to obtain visas. Again, from reliable yet unconfirmed sources, we have been made aware that tickets for certain events, which should be earmarked for the Games main international sponsors, have not yet been allocated as the Beijing authorities have not yet received confirmation from their own provincial officials with details of who will attend from China’s other regional governments, officials, relevant personnel and friends. In the meantime, the international business community who sponsored the Beijing Olympics—at costs running to hundreds of millions of dollars—has to wait to see what their allocation will be. That is a major issue with such companies’ executives now unable to plan if they can actually arrive, and then get a ticket to see a particular event.
Regrettably, the whole event, if not dealt with promptly, is demonstrating an all-too familiar sense of old time Chinese paranoia towards the international community, with a common trend developing amongst the collective security agencies that if anything were to go wrong, it would be foreign influences that would have made it so, and not Chinese. That thinking throws directly back to the dark days of the sixties, much of the seventies, and into the late 1980s, and is a state of affairs that China has not demonstrated for a number of years. The pre-Olympics signal China is currently sending out, whether it appreciates this or not, is one of closure, fear, and a massive lack of confidence that it can pull off a major global event with the world actually being able to attend.
The IOC and the international community need to talk to China to assure it that it can. Because the way things are going at this moment, China is going to be holding an international Olympics in 2008 during which being foreign means you are not actually going to be welcome in the country to witness it. The repercussions for foreign belief in China’s on-going development as a bona fide member of the global community if that turns out to be so may take years to mend.