Getting a visa - credits and debits
The media coverage of the recent National Congress event in Beijing highlighted just how differently the world is viewing China. The BBC prime evening news bulletin over three or four days featured world affairs editor John Simpson and colleagues reporting live from a very chilly looking Tiananmen Square - and all this at local Beijing time of 6.00 am ( which may have accounted just a little for Simpson's slightly grumpy on-air demeanour
At the same time China is also taking much greater pains about the way it engages with the rest of the world. This may have begun with spectaculars such as the 2008 Olympics but now includes rather more workaday matters. All of which came home to me the other day while applying for a visa to travel to China.
Four years ago doing the same thing, I found myself queuing in the street and round the corner for Chinese consular services in a basement in the vicinity of Portland Place. When I finally got insider and into the cramped premises I was interviewed by a harassed and none too welcoming member of staff.
Today the visa management service is outsourced and much of the mechanics can be sorted online. If there is a degree of urgency and the postal application process doesn't suit , their office is now located in the heart of the City of London - a literal stone's throw from the Bank of England in very agreeable premises and with -in my experience - very helpful staff ( to the extent that when a problem with my documentation came to light, a possible way around it also quickly proposed.) All sorted out over a couple of days and at a cost of under £100 for an express service.
My latest experience seems to highlight how painless it is for us to travel to China to do business - I found myself wondering just how straightforward it is to make connections in the other direction Being 'open for business' to China seem to grow in importance week by week with the date when China become the world's largest economy seeming get a years or so closer with each survey reported. In particular, the expectation is that over the next five years there will a trend which seeks to ally western technology and expertise with Chinese capital and domestic demand to meet growing markets within China.
For us, here is concern that the Schengen arrangements which mean that a single visa allows the Chinese visitor to travel to 25 countries in Europe - but which the UK is not a party to, may be a source of problems. I have taken a look at both the UK and Schengen processes and also tried to compare each with my own experience of seeking a visa to China to see how they compare.
For both Schengen and UK visas the applicant in China has to have a personal interview to progress the application - the UK has some 12 locations across China where this can be done; France and Germany have only six and five for example. I gather that the actual application form for a UK Visa is only available in English whereas the Schengen form does come in Chinese. The Schengen form is not too demanding in terms of detail whereas the UK form seeks a lot of information on personal domestic and financial status ( this maybe because the UK uses the same form for a general business visitor as for a prospective entrepreneur/ investor).The processing times of applications is a little problematic. UK Border Agency has a target to complete 90% of all visas application with three weeks but it seems that business visas often take a lot less than this; Schengen visas vary with the issuing country but seem to be take about 5 -10 days to complete. Finally the Schengen visa costs 60 euros while the basic cost for a UK visa is about £80.
The rules of the process stated baldly don't give any real sense of how they are applied in practice or ( as I note above) the nature of advice and assistance that might be available to signpost an applicant through the process which can make the difference
However taking my own experience of the Chinese process - and the rules for Europe and the UK - the perhaps suprising conclusion appears to be that China is the most open for business ( in the simple sense of actually getting into the country) and that the UK may well be a more daunting prospect than are our neighbours in Europe - which isn't the happiest of conclusions. It might just be in our best interests to develop a more discriminating approach to different sorts of visa seekers than our current process provides?