Shortly after I’d submitted my visa application, the phone rang. On the other end was a very pleasant sounding lady speaking with a choppy Chinese accent who said she was from the Chinese embassy in London, where my visa application was being processed.
“I want to tell you we received your application.”
“Not good. Problem.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“I sorry to tell you, we unable to grant you visa to come China.”
“What? Why is that?”
“Application say you are journalist. Journalist need special permission from Chinese government to come China. You have special permission from Chinese government?”
“Then no come China.”
I knew Chinese authorities are generally suspicious of overseas journalists. They kept their own journalists on a tight leash, but had no such jurisdiction over foreigners and this being in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing they were being especially vigilant, something that had never even occurred to me. In the face of such officious-sounding bullshit, I began to panic. “But I have a job to go to in China, and I’ve already paid for my flights. The tickets are non-refundable. Is there anything I can do?” I asked, more out of hope than expectation.
“Yes. You do new application. Only this time, say you do different job. No journalist. Understand?”
No, I didn’t understand at all. I thought I did, but I must surely be mistaken. “You want me to… lie?”
“No lie. Just say you do different job. No journalist.”
“But I don’t do a different job. So it’s lying.”
“But wouldn’t it be illegal?”
“Well, if you say so.” I still wasn’t convinced, but didn’t think I had much choice other than to do what this lady was suggesting. Even then, there was another problem. “If I submit another visa application, there won’t be enough time,” I protested. “It would take too long to process. I’d have to get new forms, fill them in, and post them back to you. It would require a few days. Plus, you have my passport, so I can’t even do that until you send my passport back.”
“Okay, first option is we keep passport and you come London, fill out form, submit same day. Pay express fee.”
“Is there a second option?”
“Of course. You just ask friend to do it for you.”
“Any friend. You have friend in London?”
“Yes, but won’t the application need my signature on it?”
“Your friend can do it.”
For a country evidently so pre-occupied with following rules and regulations, China seemed to be surprisingly lax in other areas. It didn’t make much sense, but I wasn’t going to question it. I just did what they said and had a friend go to the embassy, fill out another application on my behalf, and forge my signature. Job done. Days later my passport was returned to me boasting a Chinese L visa and couple of weeks after that, I was on a plane to Beijing.
This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 1 – The North is available now on paperback and ebook.