How I Became a Prop for China

In March, against the consulate's advice—my journalist's visa was almost certainly going to be ready by next week, or the week after!—I put in for a tourist visa and flew to China. After another month of waiting, my faith in the liberalized visa process was eroding. Finally, I showed up in person at the Olympic media center, in a down-at-the-heel hotel south of the main Olympic construction site. There, an official outlined the problem: The Olympic committee had nothing against my visa request. But new rules or none, the Olympics office was only authorized to grant short-term visas. Long-term visas were the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry. And the Foreign Ministry did not see itself as responsible for Olympics reporters. So my request was being volleyed back and forth indefinitely.

What if, I asked, the Olympic committee were to offer its longest visa, for 90 days, and then follow it up with another 90, and so on? Could I get five or six of those in a row, till the Olympics were over? Certainly, the official said—first, you need give us an application.

I pointed out that I had already done that at least twice. After some searching, the Olympic committee found one of the applications. It was all set, they said, and it was off to the Foreign Ministry for approval. I called the Foreign Ministry to see if it had arrived. A friendly officer, speaking very good English, told me that it had. But, he admonished, I really should have applied in New York instead. Now, he said, the ministry needed to figure out which department ought to handle it.

But the next day, the officer told me he had "good news"—the visa was approved. I needed only to go pick it up from the Public Security Bureau.

The Public Security Bureau, or Gong An, is the police department, among other things. Its visa office is a newish building with an open stairwell and polished stone surfaces, not far from my apartment. It's a quick cab ride, except that taxis are forbidden to drop off or pick up passengers on the block facing the Public Security building.

The visa department was on the second floor, in a room ringed with stations behind counters—like a giant, well-kept bank branch, staffed by uniformed police officers. I had been told to report to Window 19. The officer there asked where my documents were. Having nothing but the passport, I handed it over. She studied my visa. "This is not a journalist's visa," she said. I explained that was why I was there, because I was changing it to a journalist's visa. She asked me to wait while she summoned a case officer to deal with me.

While we waited, the officer at Window 19 said she had another question. What was the difference, she asked, between a "journalist" and a "correspondent"? Well, I said, a correspondent is a journalist, but specifically one who works somewhere other than where his or her employer is based. Satisfied, she turned back to her work.

The case officer arrived. Had I filled out a form? (What form?) Did I have an I.D. photo? (A what now?) Photos were in the back, he said. And I could get the form at Window 38, across the room. Window 38, when I got there, was empty. I turned back to Window 19. In the half-minute it had taken to go back and forth, both officers had vanished, replaced by a different set of people in the same uniforms. Everything else was as before.

I turned around again, to Window 38. To one side was an unattended stack of application forms. Every seat was taken, so I crouched down at the counter, took out a pen, and began to fill one out.

I was halfway through when the case officer reappeared, at Window 38, looking down at me. Did I have a residence registration form? he asked. I did not. If I lived in a hotel, he said, the front desk could provide one. I live in an apartment. Then the local police would have to issue me one, he said, and I would have to come back with it.

Also, he said, you can't fill out the form with that pen. I was baffled. He pointed to the instructions at the top of the form, which said, in English, to use "blue or black ink pen." My pen was black, a medium-point Paper-Mate, the pen I always carry. The ink is black; the plastic casing is black. I held it up. See, I said, it's a black ink pen.

That's not a black ink pen, the officer said.

I handed it over. He took it and made a few test scribbles, black marks on the paper. He handed the pen back dismissively.

This is not a black ink pen, he said. This is a ballpoint.