23 November 2009 2009 nian 11 yue 23 hao

Journal: More Tales of Bureaucracy

I like pushing the envelope, finding out just where the boundaries are and how much I can get away with. Chinese bureaucracy can be frustrating at times, but when the matter isn't too urgent or important I quite enjoy the adventure. In some ways, it's the ultimate test of linguistic and cultural competence. The Australian equivalent might be organizing a Christmas barbecue with your extended family: making the phone calls, planning the time, arranging who's bringing what. And always there's some new surprise that you hadn't expected.

Over the last month or so, China has been providing H1N1 vaccination to certain population groups, such as health workers and school students. Two weeks ago, free voluntary vaccination was expanded to all permanent residents of Beijing, that is, holders of a Beijing hukou. Still, that includes only about half of the city's real population. Then last weekend, it was announced that the policy would be extended to all Beijing residents, regardless of hukou.

I haven't heard of anything like this in other Chinese cities, which just shows how well-off Beijing is. I'm not sure what the public health rationale behind this move is, mind you; production of the vaccine is not unlimited, so why should ordinary, healthy Beijingers get a shot before vulnerable populations in other parts of the country? I still welcome the policy, of course. But the funny thing is, the media is reporting that some people don't even trust the vaccine, despite the WHO's tick of approval. I suppose that people here are just as surprised as the rest of the world that China was the first to have an H1N1 vaccine in production!

The H1N1 pandemic hasn't turned out to be as bad as originally feared, at least so far. True, the fact that the Chinese government made a statement last week politely asking local authorities to please stop under-reporting cases does give some cause for concern, but it's mainly my love of a good challenge that asks: can I, as a foreign resident in Beijing, get the free vaccination too?

After searching, I came upon an article in the China Daily, which let my hopes down. "All Chinese eligible for Beijing H1N1 vaccine", read the headline (my emphasis), and it went on to say:

Foreigners working in embassies and consulates can also apply for free vaccinations from the department of foreign affairs, the bureau said.

That would seem to exclude me, a lowly company employee. Nevertheless, by that time I had already tracked down the phone number of the nearest clinic offering the vaccination, one of 402 vaccination sites in the city. In China, the principle of "no harm in asking" doesn't always hold true, and most people will avoid asking too many questions for fear of raising suspicion, but in this case I figured I really had nothing to lose by calling the clinic to ask.

The person who answered the phone was very helpful and, even better, spoke clear and standard Mandarin. She said that in fact I could get the free vaccination, if I first obtained a document from my local Residents' Committee showing that I had lived in Beijing for 6 months or more. Now, the Residents' Committee were bound to ask to see my registration, the slip of paper that foreigners are supposed to obtain at the local police station when they move in, and in times past this would have been a stumbling block for me. But at the moment I am perfectly "legal", so this was good news for me.

The nice thing about dense cities is that you can find most amenities within walking distance. I first went to the Residents' Committee office at the base of our building, and they directed me to the main office across the road (which, being badly signposted, I couldn't find without the help of a local policeman). They told me to talk to a certain Ms. An from upstairs, and I was very lucky to catch her just as she getting on her bicycle to go to a meeting, avoiding the "such-and-such is not here today, come back tomorrow" routine by a small margin.

Ms. An didn't actually know anything about the document that I needed, but she promised to make enquiries and phone me back. Of course, this is just the kind of thing some people say just to get rid of you, but she seemed sincere enough. As we talked, it became apparent that she only knew Beijing hukou holders were eligible for free vaccination, and hadn't heard the recent news that this had been extended to all residents. And why should she? She's a bureaucrat, not a journalist.

So, I'm not sure yet how this story will turn out. My fingers are crossed.

Today was also the day that my results from the Chinese Proficiency Test were supposed to be available. I called the school this morning, and they said to come pick them up. So this afternoon Yuxiang and I strolled over, only to be told that the results wouldn't be available until Thursday! So today I didn't actually achieve anything concrete, but that's often the way it is with these things. One trip is never enough.


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