Red tape has some Chinese seeing red

Red tape has some Chinese seeing red
China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

BEIJING - Chinese citizens may be used to jumping through bureaucratic hoops, but one question had everyone stumped recently: How do you prove your mother is your mother?

It set China's media and cyberspace abuzz after Premier Li Keqiang cited it as an example of the country's red tape that saps market vitality.

He was referring to media reports of a vacationer, known only as Mr Chen, who was told by a travel agency in April to prove the family link after he listed his mother as an emergency contact on an overseas travel permit form.

As he had moved to Beijing and was no longer listed in the hukou, or household registration documents, of his parents who live in Jiangxi province, he could either cancel the trip or travel to Jiangxi to try to get the certification.

Mr Chen's predicament is emblematic of the maze of bureaucratic red tape Chinese citizens often have to navigate, and the vested interests that make it hard to remove them.

"Utterly ridiculous," state media quoted Mr Li as saying. "I wonder if these departments care for the public or are intentionally obstructing them."

The issue was eventually settled with a 60 yuan (S$13) fee for the agency to drop its demand for proof.

Mr Song Yaoli, who works in the IT industry, can empathise with Mr Chen's experience.

The 42-year-old recalls having to take a paternity test to prove his daughter was his, when he moved his family back to China in 2011 after a job posting in Germany.

The Chinese authorities refused to recognise her German birth certificate and demanded a paternity test, which cost 4,000 yuan.

"I felt it was unfair because I brought a genuine certificate. Why should I have to bear this cost?" Mr Song said.

In the case of Beijing native Zhang Jiandong, 48, he wanted the title deed of his late father's house transferred to his own name.

For that, he had to produce seven certifications - including proof that his father had no adopted children and did not remarry. The death certificates of his mother, and both his paternal and maternal grandparents, also had to be submitted.

"After two months and four separate trips to the relevant office, the issue was finally settled, but I had to pay some 'unofficial fees' to people for the documents to be issued," he said.

Such cases are just the tip of the iceberg. There are local media reports about employers asking job applicants for written proof of "good morality", while students often have to pay a third-party company to certify that their academic credentials are genuine.

Bank loan applicants who are not married are often asked to produce documentation of their single status.

A local government agency went as far as to require proof that a one-year-old had no criminal record.

On one occasion, this reporter was asked by a bank employee to get the Singapore Embassy to certify that my Singapore passport was mine, before I could use it to withdraw money from my account. The employee insisted I looked different from my passport photo.

After Mr Li became Premier in 2013, he pledged to streamline administrative procedures to promote a leaner and more efficient economy.

Already, the central government has cancelled all non-administrative approval, meaning those that have no basis in law, such as its fixed allocation of how much edible salt can be produced by certain manufacturers every year.

The bureaucratic stumbling blocks are partly local governments and agencies. The authority to certify gives them power and allows them to be seen as more important among fellow government agencies. Certification is also a significant source of revenue, experts say.

An official report on administrative reform by the mayor of Suqian city in Jiangsu province recently attracted attention with its frankness.

"You can't bar a wolf with fences made of sausages," Mr Wang Tianqi said of local governments' reluctance to cut back on approvals despite Beijing's directive.

Public administration expert Liu Junsheng said that although the government has made "significant" strides in cutting red tape, many of the cancelled items are related to business, to give the slowing economy a boost.

Ordinary Chinese have yet to feel the policy's impact. But Mr Liu cautions against a broad-brush approach to cutting red tape.

"It is important to look at sectors. For areas like food safety or pollution concerns, we need stricter regulations and more approvals instead."

Additional reporting by Carol Feng

This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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