I needed a Chinese visa.
Ordinarily this process would be fairly straight forward: assemble required documentation, mail completed visa application materials with passport to consulate/embassy, receive passport with approved visa. Not so. At least, not so in Uganda.
Instead, I went to the Chinese Embassy in Uganda to apply in person for a visa to enter the Middle Kingdom.
I heard someone say once that the consular office of an embassy does more to advance, or impede, a country’s diplomacy than any other. Consular officers have more direct contact with citizens in a foreign country than any other officer at the embassy. And I think I agree.
As was the case with me, the people who apply for a visa have some vested interest in the country to which they are apply for a visa. Their application indicates a desire to visit the country, or move there, as the case may be. The people who apply for a visa represent an active public, a public that could very well be a key audience for diplomacy efforts.
As I discovered when I went to apply for a Chinese visa, this was not a visible consideration of the Chinese government in the set up of their consular offices at their embassy in Uganda.
The consular office of the Chinese Embassy in Uganda opens at 8:30AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. During this time, visa applicants and Chinese citizens may go to the consular office to take care of any consular business they may have.
I arrived just a few minutes after 9:00A to discover the line out the door. Apparently whoever designed the consular offices had not given any thought to the people who were not being seen or had not yet been seen by a consular officer. Anyone who has not yet turned over their application waits in a crowded line for however long it takes to get to the window.
As time passed, I began to worry that I wouldn’t be seen that day, all while fending off the kind solicitations of the foreign service nationals working for the Chinese embassy asking if I was Chinese (as in a citizen). I almost said yes a couple of times because the other Chinese people who came through during my wait were escorted directly to the window and seen without having to wait. I suppose that is what happens when you are a citizen of the embassy’s country. Something about the consular office’s primary duty being to protect and serve citizens of the country they represent.
Eventually I reached the actual consular office (to this point, I had been standing outside and in the hallway that leads to the security annex before the consular office). That is when a security guard from earlier that morning spotted me and told me to go to the front. Confused, but also very compliant to orders from people in security uniforms, I followed her to the front of the line and stood next to the people crowded at the window. She told me to get in line behind the person being served and still confused I just stood there. When she told the person second in line that he needed to step back and let me in, he refused and said something (I think) to the effect that I needed to wait like everyone else. I was fully prepared to go back to my place further back in line, but the security guard pushed a few people back and nudged me in before I could think. The only thing I could think as I took the place she had made for me was that this was not the way to make new friends.
I finally slid my application under through the window three hours after first reaching the Chinese embassy, and I made arrangements to expedite my visa for pick-up that Friday. The submission process itself, for me, was very simple and over in just a few minutes. A model of Chinese efficiency.
On Friday, I was running late and did not reach the Chinese Embassy until after 12:00PM. With just fifteen minutes left before the consular office closed, I dashed in and slid my receipt under the second window from where people could retrieve their passports. I got my passport back just as the Chinese consular officer closed the slot at the submission window.
As I left the rather sterile environment of the Chinese embassy’s consular office, I wondered if the Chinese are not missing a critical opportunity to advance their public diplomacy efforts, or for that matter if all embassies are missing an opportunity to advance their public diplomacy objectives through the consular offices.
Some informational posters, books for the taking about life in the faraway country, even just national television highlighting the country’s entertainment industry. Little tidbits that reflect a great and storied culture.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any organization, agency, or department.