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Foreigners Cry Foul As China Rejects Visas Before Games

June 29, 2008

The New York Times (USA)
June 27, 2008

BEIJING -- After eight years of research and more than $2.5 million
of investment, John T. McAlister is being forced to leave China.

The 71-year-old American co-founder of scientific-research company LLC lost his months-long battle with China's
complicated visa bureaucracy last week for the right to continue
living in a country he considers home. He plans to leave Friday for
Bangkok, where he will set up his company, which researches
commercially viable ways to sustain water and land resources in
China, until he decides what to do next.

"If there had been anticipation of it, there wouldn't be anguish and
financial loss and all of what is happening. And I am not the only
one that this is affecting," said Mr. McAlister, who is also on the
executive committee of Beijing's Yale Club.

As the Olympics draw closer, more foreign residents are being forced
to leave their lives and work in China behind.

Though authorities say the crackdown is merely a move to enforce
rules that were always in place, residents who have previously
managed to find legal ways to stay in the country -- especially those
not employed by major, multinational companies -- are finding it
difficult or impossible to negotiate with authorities. Some, like Mr.
McAlister, are having to pack their things and exit the country with
as little as one week's notice.

All foreigners in China must enter the country on one of several
types of visas designated by the mode of travel, whether it is a
tourist, work or journalist visa. In the past, visas have been easy
to come by, relative to the traditionally tight restrictions in
countries such as the U.S. People were able to enter China with
tourist or temporary business visas and then either work illegally
under those visas or convert them to legal resident and work visas
with the help of sponsoring companies for a fee.

Many managed to stay in China this way for years. But that began
changing last year when Chinese police stepped up enforcement of visa
restrictions in preparation for the Olympics. Suddenly,
foreign-looking residents were stopped more frequently in the street
to prove their legal residence, and hotels and organizations such as
English-language schools were getting spot checks targeting their
foreign employees. The U.S. Embassy said foreigners would be barred
from converting tourist or temporary business visas into long-term
work visas, which was a common practice, and reported several
detentions of American citizens for overstaying visas or other violations.

Then in early April, the government tightened visa restrictions
further, enacting stricter application requirements and rejecting
requests for multiple-entry visas in some places. Beijing saw a sharp
drop in overseas visitors that month, and hotels have reported
declines in occupancy as visitors find it more difficult to enter the country.

An increasing number of foreign residents in Beijing are reporting
difficulties renewing their existing visas. Many are foreign
residents who have lived in China for years, are self-employed or
doing work without the support of a multinational company.
Authorities are also demanding that foreign residents with valid
visas register at police stations each time they leave the country
for "long-term" trips, though what qualifies as long term isn't
specified. Those who are found to break the rule may be fined 500
yuan, or roughly $75 a day, though enforcement has varied.

Andrew Work, executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce
in Hong Kong, said the restrictions are prompting some people to
reassess their China plans. Senior managers of multinational
operations are "very frustrated by the situation across the board,"
Mr. Work said. "It's causing them to reconsider how much of their
operations they keep in China....It's been a bit of an eye-opener, reawakened them to the fact that policies and situations
can change at a moment's notice."

China's Public Security Bureau declined to comment. But China's
Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said the measures are a temporary
move to allay Olympics-related safety concerns. "In the approval
process, we are more strict and more serious. The purpose is to make
sure that we have a safe environment," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in May.

Like many others in his position, Mr. McAlister's company wasn't
officially registered in China, so he instead found a registered
company to sponsor his Z (or working) visa. But because of a change
in management in the sponsoring company, his relationship with it was
discontinued and he was forced to renew his visa as an F visa, a
temporary business visa that is valid for a maximum of six months.

At the time of the switch, he didn't realize that other companies he
had relationships with would have trouble providing him with the
working papers needed to get a new Z visa. Individual applications
can be rejected for a number of reasons, usually related to a series
of paperwork and fees designed seemingly to make the process more
difficult for unsponsored applicants.

In Mr. McAlister's case, he was told he was too old to qualify for
the proper work permits through privately held companies but wasn't
told what the official cutoff age was. Having exhausted his
resources, he was resigned to spending the last week packing his
files into suitcases and moving to Bangkok.

"The problem about all of this is the suddenness and enforcement of
rules that may have existed always but are hard to accommodate in a
short period of time," Mr. McAlister said. "So it's with sorrow more
than anything else" that he is leaving, Mr. McAlister said. Being
forced to depart is "a very painful thing."
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