Dispatch from Russia – On visas

I arrived today through cold Siberian rain and birchforests to Irkutsk, just off the West shore of Lake Baikal in East Siberia. The past two nights I have passed, first ,the Sino-Mongolian border through the border town Erlian in Inner Mongolia, and second, a Gobi desert and quite a bit of Mongolian steppe later, the Mongolian border into the Russian Federation. Borders (at least some of them), and visas, make me nervous. They make me feel like I have something to hide even though I don’t , like a hidden bag full of heroin and guns would suddenly appear in my bag, or like a Mongolian woman has hidden bootlegged whisky in my cabin to avoid having to take the hit for it (she didn’t succeed).

Getting the visa to Russia was surprisingly convenient and easy, actually a rather pleasant experience. Mongolia was less so, due to their embassy in Beijing (the only representation in China) probably being one of the most unprofessional diplomatic missions in the world.

In Shanghai I have been living the past few months on a thirty-day tourist visa which can be renewed at the Entry-Exit Bureau two times before you have to leave the country, at which point most people go to Hong Kong (it still has an independent immigration policy and counts as crossing the border). Never knowing for sure if you will be allowed to stay in the country you live in wears on your nerves. Chinese immigration policy has recently become stricter, and lots of stories circulate about foreigners that have trouble getting their visas. A friend was deported. That has lead to me entering the big imposing Stalinist (in spirit more than architectural style) structure that is the Bureau, every time strung up like a guinea pig on speed, expecting the police officer at the other side of the counter to look me in the eye and say:


Or that instead of getting the visa delivered together with my passport to my front door a week later I would get a police squad dragging me kicking and screaming into a rape-van and driving me to the airport. But that never happens. Instead I am always surprised at how smooth and convenient everything is taken care of, rendering it an almost pleasant pleasant experience in the end.

Why is that?

If they have the resources to to put 4000 people on 24-hour CCTV monitoring of the entire city of Shanghai, they most certainly have the resources to Google the people who apply for a new visa every month (although using Google has recently become an increasingly time-consuming activity in China). And if they did, they would pretty easily find out that I’m a journalist (if nothing else, this page would tell them so).

During the Expo (when I was working in the Communications Department at the Swedish pavilion), one day there was a new decree that only journalists with a journalist visa would get press accreditation, i.e. the rest had to pay for their tickets and wait in line unless the individual pavilions could help them. If you think about it, that is a a tacit acknowledgement that journalists are working in China without the proper visas, and that that’s OK – they just won’t get the extra benefits that their law-abiding colleagues get, anymore at least. I think the Government just doesn’t care enough about fighting-for-crumbs reporters that noone read, or about the ones that people do read but who stay within the confines of the harmonious society, to inflict on itself the bad PR that it would mean to kick them out. But they like to keep you uncertain, because uncertainty is a very effective means of control.

Anyway, I’m out of their reach now.