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China Is Growing Unfriendly to Foreigners, Visitors Say

"There are bad people everywhere in every country. It's bad luck. I was just at a wrong place in a wrong moment," he said. In China, "I think the problem is that there are more and more foreigners. Some people are interested in them. Some people are afraid."

The student said he still loves being in China and does not intend to change his plans to get a job there and stay for four to five years.

For a generation of adventure-seekers who grew up in the '80s, China has held great allure with its mix of traditional villages and gleaming skyscrapers. China offered cheap rent and free-flowing alcohol at its growing number of bars in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and other large cities. The foreigners -- business executives and backpackers -- in turn helped open art galleries, restaurants and the ubiquitous trading companies.

On paper, the visa rules for China have always been strict. But in recent years, foreigners could turn to a thriving gray market for their immigration documents. For a small fee, agencies would gather all the paperwork required for coveted visas allowing visitors to remain in the country for as long as a year.

That abruptly ended in April.

China all but stopped issuing multi-entry visas and began requiring tourists to submit documentation such as hotel reservations, plane tickets and other information. Police officials also began randomly stopping foreigners in the street and questioning them about their status in the country. Immigration officials increasingly made unannounced visits to companies to check the paperwork of foreign employees.

In past months, Hong Kong has become a way station for foreigners stranded because they weren't able to get Chinese visas.

One freelance photographer from Detroit was studying in the southern city of Shenzhen when he had to retreat to Hong Kong because he couldn't get his visa renewed. Timothy O'Rourke said he had $1,000 tied up in a deposit on an apartment and six months left on his lease. O'Rourke, 44, was in a panic until a friend suggested he consider mailing his passport back to the United States. It worked. For $350, a visa agency was able to get him a multi-entry visa.

Others haven't been so lucky.

The problem has at times been devastating for businesspeople who have investments or clients in China.

Arif Nihat Kilic, 40, exports watches and medical devices from the mainland to Turkey. He said he has been able to get a multi-entry visa the past four years but was rejected this year. So every other week, he goes to the visa office in Hong Kong to get another short-term visa. Most of his buyers from Turkey have it worse, he said, and haven't even been able to get a single tourist visa. He estimates that orders are down 80 percent as a result.

"Many Chinese suppliers can no longer do business. They ask me, 'What's going on? Why aren't the customers coming?' " Kilic said.

Richard Vuylsteke, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said his organization, which represents small- to mid-size businesses, has received numerous complaints about delayed or rejected visas.

"It's not that the border is closed, but it's more difficult to get in frequently," he said. "It is making business more complicated and more expensive, and just kind of counterproductive not just for foreign business people who go in and out but also for their counterparts."

Researchers Wu Meng and Crissie Ding in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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