Three-hour lunches make joke of bureaucracy

By Xue Guangda Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-17 22:18:01

We all hate having our time wasted. But if you're an ordinary person trying to get something from a government office in China, it's almost inevitable. It's not, for the most part, that staff are unhelpful or unfriendly. Rather, it's that the bureaucracy requires going to so many places, with so many forms, at such inconvenient hours.

I've only had to do this a few times. For Chinese, especially business owners, it's a constant. Traditionally, a lot of business bribery has been in order to shortcut the insane lengths of queuing and waiting needed to get something done by the book.

Premier Li Keqiang has frequently complained about this, calling the bureaucracy "ridiculous" and citing cases like "having to fill in a form to prove your mother is your mother" or a local hero needing eight official stamps to get a commendation from the central government. On a visit to Ireland, he joked, when learning that Irish family farms had only one form to fill in, that every Chinese official should be told about this.

Cutting through red tape is hard. Every stamp needed is an opportunity for petty power - or petty extortion. Local interests often prevail, as Li has also complained. But there's one fix that could be implemented from the top; standardized, longer appointment hours.

A friend recently went to renew a license, only to find that the department had decided to close 20 minutes early for lunch. That meant she had to wait for another three hours until they came back. In developed countries, a three-hour lunch break would be a joke. For a lot of Chinese government departments, it's the norm. 

A buddy of mine, working as an accountant for a central government department, described the hours to me.  "We break from 11 am to 2 pm. That's an hour for lunch, an hour for calisthenics - which most people skip - and an hour's nap time." That's a third of the work day gone, and all the people trying to reach them in that time frustrated. 

When a Beijing housing regulation change meant an influx of locals trying to register paperwork before the rules shifted, housing officials complained that, the horror, they had to work for up to eight, maybe even nine hours at a row.

They had to eat sandwiches at their desks! One was so stressed he fainted from the lack of nap time! Truly, these are the heirs of the Long March.

US life has plenty of forms, if not as many as China's. But you can reach the offices at sane hours.

Take the Department of Motor Vehicles, which virtually every American has to visit a few times in their life to get or renew their licence. It long had a reputation for being surly and inaccessible; Homer Simpson's hated in-laws, Selma and Patty, are chain-smoking, horrible DMV staff. But the DMV is typically open from 9 am to 5 pm, with no lunch break, five days a week. There are online options and easily bookable appointments. From a Chinese perspective, that's heavenly.

This might seem like a small thing, a few hours here and there. But think of the hundreds of millions of people who lose that time every year, and the little drip of irritation they feel with the whole system as a result. Isn't that something worth fixing?

It would also be a start toward solving one of the problems of government; that officials accept relatively low salaries in exchange for numerous semi-hidden perks. Salaries urgently need to be raised as a step against corruption, but that's a hard sell to a public sceptical of officials' deal.

Match better money with real hours, and both sides might be able to accept the bargain.

The author is a commentator on current affairs based in Beijing.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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