By Kapp, Robert A.
The China Business Review , Vol. 30, No. 4
THE US-CHINA BUSINESS COUNCIL
The SARS virus declines; the visa mess continues.
Before atypical pneumonia, before the Metropole hotel super-spreader, before the World Health Organization (WHO) advisories on travel to China, there was the visa mystery.
Long before China declared publicly that it faced a medical emergency in severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), American businesses knew they were facing a different emergency of unknown origin.
Last August 16, I wrote to the leadership of the US Department of State (DOS) that American companies working in the People's Republic of China were facing sudden, unexpected, and disruptive changes in procedures governing the issuance at US posts in China of visas for PRC citizens seeking to enter the United States for purposes directly related to legitimate US commercial interests.
The Council's corporate members were unable to learn the content and extent of the new procedures that seemed to be operating. Normal business functions in the large and expanding arena of US-China commerce were, and still are, severely challenged.
Nearly a year has passed since the visa mess insinuated itself without notice into the normal operations of American businesses-and universities, research labs, student exchange programs, and other forms of American interaction with the world.
In contrast, two and a half months have passed since SARS burst onto the world stage. Today, while uncertainties remain, the SARS tide appears to be receding. There can be little doubt that the energetic actions of governments at the local and national levels, along with the strenuous efforts of international health agencies led by the World Health Organization (WHO), have been crucial to stemming the epidemic.
On the visa mess, however, progress toward the restoration of balance is far less clear. US companies engaged in normal trade and investment with China continue to report that Chinese citizens on legitimate business missions are finding the process of securing normal US travel doc-uments impenetrable, unpredictable, inordinately time-consuming, arbitrary, and more frequently negative where once it was otherwise.
The cost of this systemic implosion is clear to the affected individuals and businesses, whether the firms are small or large. A snapshot of the damage inflicted on smaller US companies by the visa mess was offered at a recent hearing by the House Small Business Committee. So far, other congressional committees with more direct jurisdiction over the entire visa process have failed to confront the visa problem, either in regard to China or globally.
Viruses and visas are different issues, of course, but some of the contrasts in the two situations are instructive.
The central contrast between the US and global responses to SARS, on the one hand, and the continuing visa meltdown on the other, lay in public authorities' approach to public information. Faced with the SARS crisis, national health authorities in the United States and many other nations leapt, together with the WHO in Geneva, into the work of hard science and of instant, sustained public outreach.
The authorities quickly informed health workers and the general public across the globe about what was happening and what could be done. (China was, as noted in my last Letter, slow to act, but then acted with energy). A whole set of policies and measures-especially the rapid deployment of information resources-are at the core of the decline in SARS numbers worldwide as summer begins.
Contrast the visa mess.
The visa crisis emerged in the wake of September 11, 2001. The impulse to act immediately to strengthen US border security was both understandable and necessary.
That the response was also profoundly bureaucratic and heavy-handed was perhaps, at first, inevitable. It also carried heavy political freight. As the attempt to rationalize and strengthen the management of US border security got going, DOS, which had always held authority over the granting of visas, came in for withering political criticism for having granted visas to people bent on committing terrorist acts against American citizens within the United States. …