Hong Kong Dispatch: Administrative Efficiency Here and Abroad


I am an outspoken critic of Harvard on many administrative issues. In the wake of last year’s grade viewing fiasco, for example, the Harvard Crimson interviewed me on the subject, publishing the cattiest-sounding quotes they could pick out of the interview (thanks, Crimson…although to be fair, there were probably a lot of catty-sounding quotes to choose from).But over the last few weeks, the University of Hong Kong and the China Visa Office have made Harvard Law School and the DMV look like models of administrative efficiency.

The semester here started inauspiciously enough with the Faculty of Law Orientation Programme for visiting and exchange students. As the room, which was equipped for no more than 20 people, swelled to overflowing – even after we removed tables and added chairs – one of the organizers apologized to the group, noting that they hadn’t expected so many people at the meeting. The mandatory meeting. The mandatory meeting for a defined and pre-arranged group of individuals. That’s the one they didn’t know how many people to expect for.

My experience getting my student ID card a week later was even more painful. I had to sign a paper, to wait for my name to be called, so that I could give them my passport and collect a number and move to the other side of the room. When my number was called, they gave me back my passport and a few papers and sent me back to the first side of the room. Once there, I waited for my number to be called again, at which time they led me into a back room, took a picture, and took back the papers they had just given me (even though they contained information for me and were not filled out or edited in any way). Then they called my name, gave me my card, and gave me back the papers they had just taken away, unaltered.

Last week, the administrative bungling moved from the university to the government, as I attempted to secure a visa for my entry into mainland China for the fall reading week. To ensure the convenience of all those seeking to enter China, the China Visa Office closes for lunch from 12 pm to 2 pm.

Not having been aware of this at the time, I arrived at 11:45 am, passed through security, and took the lift to the seventh floor, where the elevator doors opened to reveal a bustling room filled with foreigners from around the world. I took a number – 193 – and was rather dismayed to look to the “Now Serving” sign and see 123. I took a seat.

For the first fifteen minutes, things moved relatively smoothly, and by noon, the four attendants at work had churned their way to number 148. At that rate, I’d be out by 12:30 pm…not bad for a government office. But then, it was lunchtime.

Rather than staggering the employees’ lunch breaks to avoid a disruption in service, the office immediately excused three of them for lunch at once, leaving one person to handle all of the applications herself.

12:05 pm. Now serving number 149.

12:10 pm. Now serving number 150.

12:15 pm. Now serving number 151.

By 12:45 pm, I had lost patience and departed for lunch, telling myself (naively) that I would be efficient, eat quickly, and be back right when the office re-opened at 2 pm, long before my number ever would have been called. A very small part of me actually believed it would play out that way.

The rest of me was not even remotely surprised when I strolled back into the visa office at 2:45 pm, with the “Now Serving” sign reading 225. I sighed, collected ticket number 315, and took a seat.

As I watched the four desks work their way through the mass of travelers, I began rating and comparing them, humanizing and rooting for the nameless, faceless individuals behind the glass.

“Desk 7 and Desk 10, you are machines,” I declared in my mind. “You get cookies.”

“Desk 5, you are a laggard!” I shouted silently, secretly pleased with the too-rare opportunity to use the word laggard.

“Desk 9, you are moderately efficient but generally unremarkable,” I decided. “I have no feedback to offer you.”

My heart welled with pride as Desk 5 seemed to pick up the pace, then turned to stone as it slowed to a lazier pace than ever. Our love affair was torrid, our break-up earth-rending. “I believed in you, Desk 5!” my brain cried.

Desk 9 beckoned. At last, my time came. And 60 seconds later, my time went. It was done. No incident, no delay, not even any talking except for the clerk telling me, “Pick up in 4 days.”

Just like that, it was over, leaving me to wonder, what the hell was everyone else doing that was taking so long? Were people declaring as their purpose of visit, “Protesting government mistreatment of Falun Gong?” Had someone listed under planned business activities, “Arms dealing services?” Might someone have sought clarification from a clerk on whether they’d be eligible for a multiple-entry visa to facilitate their baby smuggling operation? I can’t be sure.

But it’s a sad day when I think back to my last trip to the DMV and think, “Yeah. That was nice.”

Ken Basin is a 3L who is currently studying abroad at the University of Hong Kong, and is being every bit as diligent in Hong Kong as he would be in Cambridge. His complete adventures are chronicled at kbasin.blogspot.com.

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