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August 29, 2007

Politicize It


by Sascha Matuszak

American Jeremy Brown was shocked and dismayed when he found out yesterday that the fee for renewing his travel visa in China had suddenly jumped from RMB160 to RMB760. A once routine trip to the Public Security Bureau in downtown Chengdu to pay a small fee is now a financial matter of some concern for American tourists in China.

When Mr. Brown called around to find out if this were true, he reached Kevin Lu Hai Bo, general manager of Beijing Leeo Visa Service.

"I don't know why," said Mr. Lu. "Maybe you should go ask Bush!"

The hike was instituted Aug. 1, targets U.S. citizens only, and is linked to U.S. domestic debates over immigration reform. According to the Chinese embassy in San Francisco, all visa fees for Americans were "equalized" as of Aug. 1.

L-Type Travel visa fees were increased from RMB160 to RMB760 for any amount of entries. F-Type Business/Visit visa fees were increased from RMB414 to RMB760 for single entry visas and from RMB600 to RMB760 for multi-entry visas.

"We increased the fees to match fees for Chinese going to America," said Officer Feng Shao Hua of the Sichuan Provincial Exit and Entry Bureau. "They charge us that much, so we charge them the same."

It would not be the first time China has responded to U.S. immigration policies by raising visa fees for U.S. citizens.

China raised its visa fees for U.S. citizens in 2002 and again in 2004 in response to a U.S. increase in fees and a clampdown on new visa applications. The U.S. maintained that return rates for Chinese traveling to America were extremely low, warranting a crackdown, but for the Chinese it was a matter of price. U.S. citizens now pay the highest fees for a visa to China.

The U.S. does not target China specifically with its immigration policies, but certain new rules will make applications for Asians more expensive.

A particularly contentious issue is the H1-B visa, which allows tech companies such as Microsoft to sponsor foreign-born IT students for six years supporting their education and providing them with a job. Compete America, a coalition of hi-tech companies in the U.S. lobbied strongly for an increase in the cap of H1-B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 per year. They also lobbied against an increase in H1-B visa fees a bill sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Compete America's lobbying efforts failed: the Senate passed the fee increase in May and nixed the proposed increase in the cap in June.

Asians make the vast majority of H1-B visas with Indians at 41 percent, Chinese at 10 percent, and various other nations making up the rest. An unexpected surge in applications forced many applicants to seek education elsewhere, such as the UK.

Meanwhile, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) increased the fees for citizenship applications by 69 percent.

An open letter circulated by the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center protesting the USCIS fees declared that "[r]apid fee hikes of such magnitude will have a disproportionate and detrimental impact on the Asian American community" with 39 percent of the people naturalized coming from Asia and five out of the top 10 countries of birth for new U.S. citizens are Asian including China.

Taken together, the H1-B visa hike, the limited number of H1-B visas and USCIS application fee hikes might have been enough to cause Beijing to retaliate.

The fee hike comes against a background of more stringent rules against foreigners setting up businesses in China. New regulations also are meant to level the playing field by making foreign businesses to pay the same tax rate as domestic businesses.

"The problem is we have to actually pay the taxes, whereas domestic companies are subsidized, so the field is not leveled," said Kenneth Kaufmann, general manager of CEP technologies, a New York metal stamping firm with operations in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

These visa fees and new regulations are attempts to look tough and professional in the international arena. But the fee increases have little to do with reality and is a crude response to an American domestic situation. American immigration deals with the entire planet, China's retort seems childish in comparison. And as for new regulations, the only businesses who follow them are foreign enterprises and foreigners try to get around them as often as possible.

A level playing field in China means cheating and lying until you have enough capital where it does not matter anymore. Witness Carrefour, who circumvented Beijing and bribed Provincial officials into allowing outlets in China's interior. Now they have a presence in most major cities in the nation and Beijing has decided now is the time to stick its fingers into the pie and charge Carrefour with bribery. What a laughable development in a nation of scams.

In the end, the people who suffer the most from large-scale scams, political childishness, and a new Cold War between the U.S. and China are the "old hundred names," the Chinese phrase for commoners.

Americans in China have to pay more for fees and those doing business have more rules to circumvent. Asian immigrants and techies in the U.S. have to scramble to stay in the nation, pay more fees, or leave.

But most ironic is China's handling of food and product safety. After executing a top official, China placed infamous hard-ass Wu Yi in charge of quality control and gave her four months to clean up China's manufacturing and processing sector. The execution, a classic example of "killing the chicken to scare the monkey," had no effect. The monkeys aren't scared anymore. They know well the communist penchant for campaigns that last a few months, cause a head or three to roll, and then fade away. For a thousand years it has been so, why would it change now?

Wu Yi's biggest challenge will be to give Chinese the same quality that foreigners receive. Chinese make do with the rejects and surpluses coming out of the factories, while the U.S. receives the best China has to offer. Stories abound of arsenic-laced soy sauce, rat-meat dumplings, asbestos-covered toys, and other deadly annoyances. A defective machine, DVD, car, or fork is commonplace and expected.

English Language CCTV-9 staged a massive PR campaign to let the world know that China's products are 99 percent safe, perhaps even safer than Western products. What they forgot to mention is that developed nations produce decent quality stuff for everyone, not just their export markets. Trust the communists to politicize everything, including the quality of their products: politically expensive places get the best, downtrodden, submissive peasants get whatever is left.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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