Noel Smith

4 minute read

“The master sees things as they are without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way and resides at the center of the circle.”

From Laozi’s Dao De Jing, 6th century BC.

Every country has its own brand of bureaucratic obstacles. But then there are countries that seems to approach burearcy like Ted Williams approached batting. Williams employed a methodological, scientific approach to the game. He dissected the strike zone. That is to say, there are always those who take things to the next level. In this post, I’m not talking about baseball. I’m talking about bureaucracy. And it is China, the envious juggernaut of bureaucracy, that takes the cake.

Ted Williams

Ted Williams' Strike Zone

Bureaucracy was created in China during the Qin Dynasty (221- 206 B.C). China has had well over two thousand years to perfect their craft. Needless to say, in the 21st century, they do not disappoint. If you have ever had the opportunity to see a true master at work, you know what I’m talking about. I’m talking Kobe and MJ (both MJs) in their prime. I’m talking Tyson before the orgies in Japan and the face tattoo.

If you come to China to live and work, you need to register at the paichusuo (local police station) within 24 hours of your arrival. When you change jobs, or rent an apartment, you have to update your file there as well. You need to bring your passport (with a valid work visa), your employment contract, your rental agreement (lease), visa photos, a copy of your landlords ID card, and a copy of passport info page plus the last entry stamp.

I have done this many times, and each time I find myself in awe of the sheer beauty of it all. Here is a clip I secretly took during my last trip. And Here is a YouTube video from my friend Austin (that I haven’t met) explaining the process as he strolls down the streets of Chengdu in the rain.

Like most civil servants I have seen in China and in America, the people working in the paichusuo seem sublimely detached with almost a regal air about them. They eat from the “iron rice bowl” 铁饭碗,meaning they have a job that affords them a life of security.

The most recent time I went to the office, I needed a copy of my previous registration. There was a copy machine in the office so I asked the officer if she could possibly make a copy for me. Without looking in my direction or even looking up from her cellphone, in a tone that was a perfect mix of pity and contempt, I was told that the copy machine was reserved for official business only. Even though I was familiar with this particular paichusuo and the neighborhood at that point, I asked her if she knew where I could get a copy. I often do this so that I have material for future fodder during dinner conversations. She responded with a deadpan that would make Stephen Wright jealous.


I went a block away and paid .50 RMB ($.07) for a copy at a local print shop. When I returned there were two other officers waiting for me. One identified himself as the “leader.” When I was asked to go to another building for tea, my pessimistic side thought that they were going to ask me to teach their children English. I was wrong. He just wanted to chat. Along with normal smalltalk topics, he wanted to discuss things such as the price of cars in America, gun violence in America, and how safe China is comparatively.

It’s in everyday situations like this, faced with the obstacles of the bureaucratic machine of China, that the wisdom of the Dao De Jing makes perfect sense: “Accept the world as it is… If you accept the world, the Dao will be luminous inside of you.”

Essentially what Laozi was saying is that when you are in a situation that you have no control over, you can fight, or you can go limp. And that’s one of the best things I learned about life in China–I’ve learned to let it go and just go limp!

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