China Is Growing Unfriendly to Foreigners, Visitors Say

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 19, 2008

HONG KONG -- Brad Eddington arrived in Shanghai on a whim seven years ago and fell in love with the place. He got a job teaching English to kindergartners at a private school, an apartment in the trendy French Concession district, and a girlfriend. And even though he was on a visitor's visa he had to renew every year, he considered China his new home.

That changed this month. After several frustrating weeks of trying to negotiate China's new visa policies, getting exiled to Hong Kong and failing to gain permission to reenter the mainland, Eddington gave up.

Thousands of other foreign residents are also finding China far less hospitable than it once was because of visa restrictions tightened ahead of the Olympics and reported increasing hostility toward outsiders.

"I thought things would get easier the longer I stayed, but it's the opposite," said Eddington, 36, an Australian. "China's a different place than when I first came." The controversy over Tibet and the Olympic torch relay "may have surfaced feelings that had long been there" about foreigners.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has dismissed any suggestion that China, which issued 8.13 million visas last year, has changed the way it treats foreigners and said that it continues to welcome overseas visitors.

Wei Wei, director general of the ministry's consular department, told state-owned media last week that the visa policy aims to "keep dangerous forces outside the country" during the Olympics and that the new measures bring China in line with international standards.

"The new policy is not as strict as might be imagined," Wei said. "Those who apply to come to China for justifiable reasons will be given every convenience."

Some human rights advocates, business associations and foreign visitors say the visa crackdown has more to do with keeping out potential foreign protesters upset about China's control of Tibet, investment in Sudan despite oppression in Darfur or other human rights issues. They say the process is alienating foreigners. Whether this reflects a temporary shift because of the Olympics or a more permanent change has been much discussed by expatriates.

They are also spooked by several recent attacks on foreigners. The harassment of a recent Boston College graduate in Hunan Province at a protest against French hypermarket chain Carrefour in April has served as a warning that the growing nationalist sentiment can turn ugly. Although James Galvin, 22 and American, wasn't harmed, one youth lunged at him while others shouted, "Kill him! Kill the Frenchman!"

In June, an Associated Press reporter and two photographers were dragged from the scene of a protest by parents whose children had died while at school during the Sichuan earthquake.

In an interview, a 24-year-old French student recounted how he was attacked by three Chinese men on a Shanghai subway train one night last week. He said one of the assailants told him: "This is my home. You are not welcome here" and punched him until he fell.

On the one hand, the student said he was shocked and angry about the attack, which left him with large, painful bruises near his ribs and on his legs. On the other, he said the attack showcased the good side of China as well as the bad. He said he was saved from serious harm by several Chinese bystanders -- an elderly man and woman and some young girls -- who moved to stop the attack and help him out of the station.

"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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