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China’s Olympic crackdown reachs business travellers and expats

Posted by Author on May 4, 2008

By Paul Westerberg in Beijing, The Sunday Herald, UK, May. 3, 2008-

AS TIBETAN torch-bearers prepared to take the flame up Mount Everest this weekend, China’s Olympic crackdown scaled new heights, reaching beyond human rights activists into the once-cosy world of business travellers and expats.

Such incidents as human rights advocate Yang Chunlin having his arms and legs stretched and chained across a bed, 10 foreign reporters receiving death threats and Tibetan monks receiving hasty trials and hefty sentences surprised few witnesses to the state-sanctioned assault on the Western media.

But with fewer than 100 days until August 8, the “Peaceful Olympic Action” inspection squads sweeping through Beijing business and rental apartment complexes evicting migrant Chinese workers and “illegally employed” foreigners has come as a shock to many who had seen themselves as old friends of China.

“All the people who are living and working here but don’t have the proper visa – we are tens of thousands – their aim is to put us all out,” said Armand Lafare, a Beijing cafe owner. The clampdown comes during heightened tensions in the capital and other cities, with protests at the French Embassy in Beijing and outlets of the French supermarket chain Carrefour.

“If you have, say, a tourist or business visa, they won’t let you upgrade to the Z employment visa and stay,” explained Lafare. “This restriction applies only to the French, starting two weeks ago.”

The new rules are bad for business, said European Chamber of Commerce president Joerg Wuttke, especially the requirement for expats with a business visa to return to their homeland and apply for a renewal.

“Some of my colleagues left China on holiday only to discover they can’t come back,” said a freelance English contractor for the British Council who requested anonymity. “I know foreigners have had an easy ride in the past, but I can’t help feeling this is all a bit over the top.”

British Council exams director for China, James Shipton, said his organisation, which hires freelance English examiners, was well-prepared, but it had been “extremely difficult”.

Not only are these restrictions “truly annoying”, said Wuttke, but the new visa rules remain unpublished. That’s because there have been no changes to visa rules, foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu insisted last week.

“I can assure you there will be no difficulty in applying for visas for all normal visiting, business and tourist trips to China,” said Jiang.

But the English manager of a small tourism firm laughed when he heard this. “The Tibetan turmoil has not only put people off, it’s cleared all our advance bookings. On top of that, we now have these vague new visa restrictions.

“There are rumours that travel to other parts of China will be restricted during the Olympics. The Olympics is bad for tourism all over China,” he said.

China expects half a million visitors for the Olympics, along with 10,500 athletes and 18,000 accredited journalists. “The Chinese people will welcome foreign friends in a warm, enthusiastic and open-minded way,” said Jiang Yu.

“I don’t know where the welcome is,” said the freelancer, a Beijing resident for eight years. “I’ve never felt unwelcome before, but I do now – and the worst thing is I bought Olympic tickets.”

Now he cannot afford to use them. “Even if you rent or own an apartment, you still have to buy a return air ticket and make a hotel reservation and the visa is only valid for 30 days. That is what I have been told.”

But another Beijing-based Briton felt it was “a bit ridiculous to complain too much. It’s understandable with the Olympics coming.”

The boss, who works with about 20 foreign contractors, said: “I can’t say for sure we are going to be able to get around this. There might well be a lot of grey’ people out there. Obviously nobody wants to go on the record about this.”

“Corporate over-regulation” had created the problem, he said, adding that Chinese wanting to visit London in 2012 could expect an even harder time.

“Compared to visas of most countries in this world, it is convenient for most foreigners to get visas,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement last week.

Original report from The Sunday Herald: Expats and workers hit by new Olympic crackdown

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