Tom Fearon

Professional communicator in Canberra

Visiting the Public Insecurity Bureau

Jan. 13, 2013

By Tom Fearon

 Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

My stomach swam uncontrollably as I stood in line at the public security bureau. Sweat suspiciously raced down my brow inside the icy waiting room, and the morning's still-digesting baozi (steamed bun) threatened to reappear.

Moments earlier a middle-aged woman had entered and promptly cut in front of me in the queue. Normally I'd be irate, but today I didn't care; she had generously offered me a brief stay of execution.

With my passport in one hand and apartment rental contract in the other, I felt like a dead man walking. I was doing something I should have done a long time ago: register for my temporary residence permit. I thought I could use my old residence permit from my previous address to renew my visa, but unbeknownst to me I'd lost it when I moved four months ago.

During the chaos of unpacking and wrangling with an uncooperative landlord, I neglected to inform the police of my current address. A week passed before I realized, but by that stage I thought I may as well use my old permit, blissfully unaware it was lost. 

Every foreigner is legally required to report to their local police station within 24 hours of changing address. It's a relative ripple in the sea of Chinese bureaucracy, but for whatever reason I had dropped the ball and now I was paying for it.  

The night before my apartment looked as if it had been ransacked. Drawers were overturned and papers strewn everywhere as I searched for my old permit. Panic soon turned to dread as I scoured online expat forums and the PSB's website to learn the punishment I could expect. A 500 yuan ($80.45) fine seemed the most common fate.

I considered my options, although none were particularly appealing. First, I could walk head bowed into the PSB and 'fess up in polite Chinese. I would effusively apologize for hurting any feelings and ask that my three-and-a-half-year track record as an exemplary laowai be taken into account when dishing out punishment.

Second, I'd go in and play the obnoxious foreigner. Dressed in a suit and exclusively speaking slow, loud English, I'd become insulted if they told me I'd broken any regulation. If matters spiraled out of control, I'd feign receiving a phone call and urge them to hurry up and print my new form so they could be rid of me.

Third, I'd innocently claim I had just moved in to the neighborhood that morning. Oh, yes, the contract claims I've been living there since October, but I've actually been overseas and have just returned to China. This lie hinged on a freshly stamped passport showing I'd returned to China three days earlier, and the possible leniency that the 24-hour deadline could be overlooked inside a week.

Standing in line at the PSB, I still had no idea how to play it. I was dressed too informally to pull of option No. 2, but lacked the fortitude to run with either of the others. "Next!" called the policewoman at the counter.

I told her I wanted to register for my temporary residence permit - technically not a lie. I commented what a nice neighborhood it was as I handed over my forms, making firm but hospitable eye contact.

"Where's your old permit?" she quizzed, eyebrow arched as she thumbed through my passport. "I lost it in the move, you know how it is," I replied meekly.

An awkward pause lingered and she let out a sigh that was hard to interpret.

"Happens all the time," she said matter-of-factly, stamping my new permit. If being careful when you pack and move apartments isn't the best policy, maybe honesty is.


See the original article here.