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China Weighs Passport Reform

Zhong Jianhua, director of the Consular Affairs under the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently was questioned by delegates at the National People’s Congress (NPC) about the Passport for Public Affairs – a passport which should be issued in China only to government officials and public affairs employees in state-owned enterprises. Zhong’s response was that during the 1994 peak in trade with Russia:

“One province -- in northwest China alone -- issued hundreds of thousands of such passports. Even an old granny making a living selling eggs in the street could get one to Russia.”

China issues four kinds of passports: Diplomatic Passport, Service Passport, Ordinary Passport, and Passport to Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions. The Ordinary Passport is further divided into a passport for public affairs -- issued mainly to local government officials and state-owned enterprise employees for business trips abroad -- and a passport for personal affairs. Passports in China are issued by the Department of Consular Affairs under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also by the Bureau of Entry and Exit under the Ministry of Public Security.

An advantage to holders of Passport for Public Affairs is that these passports, along with diplomatic and service passports, offer visa-free entry. But in 1994, as Chinese flooded into Russia to seek business opportunities, the influx of people with passport for public affairs caused Russia gradually to tighten its policy on visa exemptions, and after one year Russia revoked the policy of visa exemptions to Chinese holders of Passport for Public Affairs.

Naturally, Russia’s revoking its visa exemption policy brought losses to Chinese enterprises. Some enterprises that were doing good business in Russia could not continue, others seeking debt repayment in Russia now had no way to get the money back, and some enterprises that had delivered goods to Russia now could not carry on further transactions.

China is alone with North Korea and Vietnam in issuing such a Passport for Public Affairs, a document often received with doubts by foreign visa and immigration officials. What happened to China’s Passport for Public Affairs in Russia reflects the treatment such Chinese passports have received in all Eastern European countries, according to Zhong Jianhua. Why then NPC deputies asked Zhong, should not such passports be discontinued? Zhong’s answer:

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has tried every means. Passport issuance and visa exemption is never solely up to the Foreign Ministry: Local governments issue passports in consideration of developing local economy, and visa issuance is something that involves sovereignty under other countries’ jurisdictions.”

According to regulations now in force, all Passports for Public Affairs must be kept in the possession of passport holders’ institutes, which brings great inconvenience to holders of the passports.

“We are discussing relevant, suitable leniency measures,” said Zhong who advocates a gradual reform in the system. China’s WTO entry does not pose a direct challenge to Passport for Public Affairs, he added, but a “kind of problem” arises when foreigners cite WTO’s “Without Discrimination” and “National Treatment” principles to challenge China’s system of issuing a Passport for Public Affairs.

Zhong, putting it bluntly, pinpointed two major problems in China’s passport system -- inefficient passport issuance and inefficient management. The prominent problem in passport issuance, according to Zhong, is “mixed-up functions of government and enterprises, top-down pyramid application and approval, tedious red tape, low efficiency and bungled business opportunities.”

Under the planned economy system -- state-owned managers, government employees and officials were subjected to a unified mode of administration. Every person belonged to a certain grade, and they underwent formalities at different levels for getting passports and approval for going abroad according to their own grade. All these have hamstrung international exchanges and efforts to expand the international scope of domestic enterprises.

“The second problem is dual passport issuances,” Zhong said. With the Foreign Ministry issuing passports to qualified applicants under one standard and the Ministry of Public Security issuing passports to qualified applicants under another standard, the nation falls short of “a scientific, specific administration standard,” said Zhong. It is not rare that one citizen holds two passports: One for public affairs and the other for personal affairs. A passport holder generally uses one or the other depending on the situation. “One holder, two passports” usually confuses and raises questions from visa immigration officials of foreign countries. “Then, holders are often refused a visa by foreign officials or get interrogated by entry inspectors, sometimes even detained,” Zhong Jianhua said.

A particular problem -- Chinese passports have become a tool of criminals who use them to escape justice, causing irretrievable loss to national security and assets. In some big corruption cases, suspected officials have fled aboard with passports they got after applying for them through standard procedures without official permission.

“As public servants, they should have had only one passport, the Service Passport,” Zhong said.

Under fire about the cost of a passport, which usually costs about a 12 yuan to print, Zhong Jianhua defended the cost citing official permissions from relevant government departments and deprecation of relevant equipment and labor costs. However, he added:

“We also disagree with the phenomena of some departments imposing additional fees under the excuse of a Passport-production cost.”

To sum up, Zhong Jianhua said: “China’s passport management system is the outcome of the period of planned economy, and this system is still in use today.”

It has been reported that as of April 1, all Chinese laborers who work abroad will hold an ordinary passport for personal affairs. Before that, on February 1 on-campus students taking a short-term overseas trip were shifted to using a private passport. A new version of the Diplomatic Passport will be introduced May 1. This year, administrative authorities will introduce other reform measures. The National People’s Congress, in particular, will start legislation concerning passport issuance.

Actually, Chinese students studying abroad are the first batch of citizens who will go abroad with ordinary passport for personal affairs.

“Studying abroad has nothing to do with public affairs,” Zhong said. “They apply for passports to certify their student status. So an ordinary passport for personal affairs is enough.”

Back in 1996, the central government was thinking it reasonable to grant ordinary passports for personal affairs to Chinese laborers applying to work abroad. Under the excuse of having difficulty in applying for such a passport, enterprises were reluctant to accept the change.

“At that time, we adopted ‘a diarchal [government by two rulers] policy,’ allowing laborers going abroad to hold either an passport for public affairs or a passport for personal affairs. Our goal was to gradually converge the two into the latter,” Zhong said, “Now it seems this wish did not come true. Ordinary passports for public affairs and passports for personal affairs have gone along in parallel without crossing.”

Moreover, passports have been loaded with more content than an identity certificate. Enterprises use it as a useful tool to control their laborers working abroad, for example, by asking the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue a passport of two years’ validity to those who have two years’ contract. In this way, he Ministry of Foreign Affairs extends its jurisdiction beyond its obligation.

“I think overseas labor management should rely on legal or economic means instead of passport issuance,” Zhong said.

What will be the next steps in reforming overseas labor passports? Zhong Jianhua said:

“It is unclear whether to simply abolish the Passport for Public Affairs or to open up in some other area. Everything is still under discussion. It is our current priority to help them [workers] more conveniently get visas to work abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and local departments of foreign affairs are working in this field and have sent notes to foreign embassies in China.”

Some senior officials have said: “The ultimate goal is to abolish the Passport for Public Affairs.”

Zhong Jianhua also said: “Politically, the Passport for Public Affairs should have been abolished a long time ago. It wouldn’t be difficult. A notice from the Foreign Ministry would do. The key lies in how we can minimize the negative impact on society when we abolish it.”

If the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made the shift right now, enterprises would surely meet big difficulties in applying for visas. “Enterprises don’t welcome this shift because visa applications by the Foreign Ministry means to foreign visa official a government guarantee, thus it is much easier to get visas,” Zhong said.

Enterprises have developed two paradoxical attitudes [toward the Passport for Public Affairs]. First, state-owned enterprises and government-funded institutions complain about the Foreign Ministry’s tedious, low efficient passport issuance betting that the Foreign Ministry is the easiest way to get a foreign visas; secondly, private enterprises are happy to have fewer administrative authorities while complaining that the Foreign Ministry does not attend fast enough to their difficulties in applying for foreign visas.

“Whether to delist these enterprises from the Passport for Public Affairs depends on their government-assigned obligation to run public affairs. Government management will no longer cover those bearing little or no public obligations. The rest will be included in government management and service network to prevent possible passport abuse.”

Altogether 57 departments (the Foreign Ministry and local departments for foreign affairs) are authorized to issue passports for public affairs. A sudden abolishment will cut lots of their duties and greatly hurt their interests, which also poses another big problem. Moreover, it takes time for citizens and enterprises to understand and accept the move because this passport has always been managed in a self-transparent operation mode.

Zhong said: “Every thing is ripe to abolish this passport except the technical details of the operation. We wish enterprises could get ready so this passport can exit from the stage of history smoothly when we carry out the work. But now it is difficult for us to give a specific timetable.”

The reporter observed that it would appear that the power of the Department of Consular Affairs is likely to be attenuated as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs keeps opening up passport applications which means citizens will be excluded from the jurisdiction of the Department of Consular Affairs.

Zhong responded: “The scope of power is up to its obligations. The number of applicants under our department’s jurisdiction is an indefinite variable. In the 1950s, though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs monopolized passport, the workload -- only 7,000 passports a year -- was not heavy. If the Foreign Ministry still monopolized passport now, the workload will be imaginable to the 100-staff Department of Consular Affairs, even just 1% or 1‰ of Chinese, a population of 1.3 billion, applying for passports. Now the Ministry of Public Security has found themselves under great pressure for issuing passport for personal affairs.”

The department of Consular Affairs has a larger jurisdiction beyond its obligation but at the same time, controversially, less than it merits, according to Zhong who explained that “larger” refers to the department’s having extended its jurisdiction too far in issuing passports and “less” refers to the department’s not doing well in specific fields, for example, in controlling rampant overseas trip of bureaucratic officials with government money.

“If we can focus on our real obligations and whittle away those things that do not fall into our jurisdiction, I am confident we will be capable and energetic to hammer out detailed policies to end such corruption,” Zhong said.

Meanwhile, Zhong Jianhua complained that Chinese embassies in foreign countries are too often consulted on any problems Chinese happen to encounter outside China, even if these problems are not under their jurisdiction.

“First we try our best to raise their awareness about protecting themselves; second, we hope the Foreign Ministry won’t have to play such a “nursing auntie” role any longer,” Zhong said. “Our goal is to keep citizens out of harms way but not to discourage overseas trips amid fears of being swindled.”

( 北京青年报 [Beijing Youth Daily], April 2 translated by Alex Xu for china.org.cn)

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