“On the Trail of Confiscated Copies of TIME in China”

Any fans of ridiculous bureaucracy battles should read this piece from the TIME magazine blog:

The note arrived in a nearly empty box sent to TIME’s Beijing Bureau. All copies of TIME Magazine’s May 14, 2012 issue with a cover entitled The People’s Republic of Scandal had been “safeguarded by customs.” Apparently, some customs officer had been entrusted with counting each confiscated copy ; there were, the receipt noted, 62 seized magazines. At the bottom of the customs document, there were five categories (with boxes to be ticked next to them) that described the possible fate of the seized magazines: 1. To be returned to sender 2. To be taxed 3. To be inspected 4. To be declared 5. To be dealt with. Our 62 magazines fell into the last category. They were being “dealt with.”

By whom had they been “dealt with?” And given that the customs receipt said we could contact the capital customs’ office within three months to retrieve the magazines, perhaps we could even get them back?

From that point ensued a surreal— and utterly common— exercise in Chinese bureaucratic futility. My colleague Jessie Jiang began working the phones. She first called the number on the receipt for the Beijing customs office. After many failed attempts to get someone to address TIME’s concerns, a customs official explained to Jessie that the magazines had probably been confiscated because of the “sensitive” nature of the issue. “As you know, China is very strict when it comes to ideology,” the customs officer told Jessie.

Beijing customs said they had no authority to allow the release of the magazines without a letter from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication. But several representatives of that bureau said there were no employees there who dealt with such matters—and that they had never written a letter reversing a confiscation decision before. One of the officials told Jessie: “This is China. We don’t allow foreign magazines to be distributed.” (Which, given the number of foreign publications available at upmarket newsstands in Beijing, is obviously untrue.)

The exciting conclusion is on their blog- check it out.


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