Border Control, Chinese Style


"Borders are weird places," my wife commented wryly as we crossed a line that divides her own nation. We’d just spent an hour negotiating the hall that separates mainland China and the "Special Administrative Region" (SAR) of Hong Kong.

When you swan around the world on an Australian passport it’s easy to forget the power of frontiers, those arbitrary lines in the sand marked by guards, gates, fences and surveillance devices, designed to keep some people in and others out. For Australians these lines rarely represent more than a minor bureaucratic hassle. But borders look different when you travel with someone from China.

Officially, of course, Hong Kong has been part of the People’s Republic since 1997. In practice it still functions as a separate city-state with its own legal system, police force, currency and immigration regulations, under the military and foreign policy umbrella of the government in Beijing. Australians can stay for up to three months without a visa; mainland Chinese can stay for a week if they have a permit obtained from their hometown.

This isn’t as simple as it sounds, since a Chinese person’s legal "home" has nothing to do with where he or she actually lives. All Chinese citizens are issued with a hukou, or residence permit when they come into the world, permanently tying them to their place of birth. No matter where you reside, official business must be conducted where your hukou is registered.

For my wife this means journeying nearly 2000 kilometres west from Beijing to the city of Lanzhou. While we were there registering our marriage earlier this year, she applied to the Lanzhou Public Security Bureau to enter Hong Kong. After three weeks she was issued a permit, valid for 12 months, entitling her to one seven-day stay.

Permit in hand, a few months later we flew to the industrial metropolis of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, a much cheaper option than flying directly to the "international" SAR. From Shenzhen a steady stream of buses conveys travellers to the border. Before leaving the airport, however, we were subjected to the kind of intrusive surveillance common in China’s "sensitive" areas. A suited man climbed aboard the bus and without a word moved slowly up and down the aisle, videoing every passenger.

Half an hour later we arrived at Shenzhen Wan border crossing. What should have been a 10-minute process was cut short at the China exit point when my wife was brusquely informed that her permit was only valid for group tours — she couldn’t enter Hong Kong as an individual traveller. There had been no mention of this restriction in Lanzhou. I left the line and joined her on the Shenzhen side of the hall, as throngs of tourists filed through the checkpoint. With my Australian passport I could cross without problem, yet my wife couldn’t enter what was supposed to be part of her own country.

Just as we were angrily contemplating a holiday in industrial Shenzhen, another guard approached and directed my wife to a "tour group operator" outside the hall. If she handed over RMB200 (about AU$40) — exactly 10 times what she’d paid for the original permit — she could be registered for a "tour." It took a few moments to understand that we were expected to pay what amounted to an official bribe.

After the "tour operator" took my wife’s details and her money, we spent nearly an hour fuming in his office awaiting permission to continue our journey. A steady stream of mainlanders endured the same process, including five Buddhist monks pulled from a large group at passport control. Three of them were ultimately refused entry altogether.

We were luckier — eventually our approval came through and the "tour agent" escorted us back to the checkpoint. As my wife’s permit and tour registration documents were carefully examined, the agent instructed her to press the "Very Satisfied" option on the electronic survey machine on the border guard’s desk. My wife ignored him, so the agent helpfully leaned over and pressed it for her. Having been assured of his excellent customer service skills, the unsmiling guard waved us through. By the time we made the Hong Kong side of the hall we felt like convicts out on parole.

As we continued our journey to downtown Kowloon, I reflected on the Kafkaesque farce we’d endured at the border and pondered why Hong Kong makes the Chinese authorities so nervous. It’s often said that the present administration in Beijing looks to Singapore as a model — a one-party state with a barren, tightly controlled civil society and material riches galore, especially for those running the show.

Yet a lively, well-run, globally engaged Chinese society sits on the doorstep of the People’s Republic, providing an example of what the mainland could be if its government stopped treating its people like delinquent children. Unfortunately, while Beijing needs Hong Kong’s money, financial expertise and international cachet, it works hard to minimise the city’s influence on greater China.

Beijing’s resentment no doubt partly derives from Hong Kong’s colonial history. The fact that China’s richest, most modern and efficient city was created under foreign rule probably rankles, and it’s clear the Government is counting on Shanghai to one day completely eclipse the former colony.

Mostly, however, I think it’s the cosmopolitan, pluralistic nature of Hong Kong that makes the authorities edgy. It’s one thing for mainlanders to see the West, where the cultural chasm is vast even aside from political differences. But Hong Kong is recognisably Chinese, while being quite distinct from the mainland. As my wife said after a few days in the city, "On the surface it’s like the culture I know, but underneath everything feels different."

Neither of us can claim to be intimate with Hong Kong, so I can’t say how profound these differences really are, or even pinpoint their precise nature. I just know that during our stay we attended the Hong Kong International Film Festival and watched uncut films from around the globe, in contrast to the mainland’s restricted, highly censored cinema sector. We saw shops full of books that Chinese eyes are not supposed to see. We used the internet unencumbered by the slow connections and blocked sites that characterise the mainland online environment. And near the Star Ferry terminal on Hong Kong Harbour, we lay a flower at a temporary memorial marking the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre — a slaughter many mainlanders aren’t even aware happened.

After the scene at the border, these experiences made us more aware than ever of the invisible lines the Chinese Government draws around its citizens — lines that often aren’t apparent until you transgress the limits they set. In this sense the SAR frontier is more than just a physical divide — it’s a buffer against an alternative China.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.