Thursday, June 05, 2008

Foreigners find Beijing becomes a forbidden city before Olympics


BEIJING -- Daniel Yeung is still trying to understand how it happened. After eight years of steady employment, the Canadian recruitment consultant is being kicked out of China, forced to join an exodus of foreigners streaming out of the host country ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

Mr. Yeung is one of thousands of Canadians and other foreign citizens who are being forced to leave China this month because of tougher visa rules.

"A lot of people are being kicked out," he said. "We're still trying to figure out why the authorities are being so strict and so unfair."

The exodus has cast a shadow over the Olympics, making Beijing a less welcoming city at a time when most Olympic host cities are usually gearing up for an internationally flavoured party.

This week, Beijing warned that foreigners attending the Olympics will be banned from political activities, demonstrating, carrying banners, damaging "social order," or importing any "printed material" that is "detrimental to China's politics."

The visa crackdown has already triggered a decline in foreign tourists visiting Beijing this spring. Cultural and music festivals have been cancelled for vague "security" reasons, major academic conferences have been scrapped and even foreign investors are finding it harder to enter the country.

Mr. Yeung, a 32-year-old Vancouverite, has held jobs in property and restaurant management in China and worked for three years in immigration screening at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. For the past eight months he has been a consultant at the Beijing office of a recruitment agency.

But when he tried to renew his work visa this spring, the Chinese authorities rejected his application. They said his educational qualifications, a diploma in physiotherapy, were inadequate for his job and he must have a bachelor's degree if he wanted to work as a consultant in China. It didn't matter that his employers were happy with his work, or that he was performing a useful service.

"All sorts of people are being refused visas for the silliest of reasons," Mr. Yeung said in an interview.

"The authorities are finding any little flaw, any little excuse to reject people. I still don't understand why. I think it's really absurd."

One of his friends, a Norwegian businessman who owns his own company in China, is being kicked out this summer after 10 years in China because the government said he must have a graduate degree, Mr. Yeung said.

Canadian investors say they are being hurt by the visa restrictions. Many business executives in Hong Kong are facing serious delays in obtaining visas to visit their factories and offices in mainland China.

"It's been a real hassle for our members," said Andrew Work, executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. "It's taking longer to close a deal or conduct business. People are saying, 'It's hurting us, because it's slowing everything down.' Time is money, and anything that slows down movement across the border is costing money."

In response to a survey by the chamber, some Canadian businesses said they were worried they could lose millions of dollars in revenue because their clients might be unable to visit Chinese factories to inspect them before placing orders.

The American and European chambers of commerce in Hong Kong have sent letters to the Chinese government, expressing worry that the visa denials and delays will hurt business.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has acknowledged that a visa crackdown is under way. The approval process has become "more strict and more serious" because of the need to protect the "safety" of the Olympics, a ministry spokesman said.

The crackdown is hurting tourism. In April, the number of overseas visitors to China declined by 5.3 per cent, compared with a year earlier. Officials admitted that it was probably a result of the stricter visa rules, although tourism has also suffered from China's ban on foreign travel to Tibet after the recent wave of Tibetan protests.

Even during the Olympics, foreign visitors to Beijing could be fewer than last year at the same time, according to some travel agents. Beijing's hotels, which tripled their prices for the Olympics, are reporting lower-than-expected reservation rates, with many rooms still available.

China's security paranoia has intensified the restrictions on foreigners, who are now required to carry their passports everywhere. Police raids and inspections have targeted nightclubs and apartment buildings with large numbers of foreigners.

Seven runners in an international jogging club, the Hash House Harriers, were recently detained by police for several hours because the police were suspicious of the baking flour that the runners had used to mark their jogging route.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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