It seems that few people manage to escape China without a tale of being conned out of at least a couple dollars. Whether it’s buying goods in Beijing’s silk market at prices 1000% higher than locals would pay, getting tricked into paying additional “fees” at hotels, or having a cabbie take you the long way back to the train station. Today we’re going to be exploring why scamming isn’t seen as an ethical problem in China.
While many people think that these scams are simply a result of increased tourism (which is definitely a factor), this does not completely explain its prevalence in the middle kingdom. After all, foreigners aren’t the only ones getting tricked, it may actually be more closely tied to the idea of “waicunren” which we explored yesterday.
When a vendor decides just how high to set the price, place is often an important factor. Obviously when it comes to foreigners they don’t usually have to ask, generally speaking vendors see white tourists as the richest, and their clothing often betrays the extent of how true this stereotype is (I once saw a man enter a tourist mall in Beijing wearing an expensive suit and Rolex, it was like bees to honey). When it comes to their fellow Chinese customers though, they only need to exchange a few words before they can establish where the other person is from. This is because nearly every province and city has a slightly different accent that betrays the speaker’s origin.
Social ethics kick in at this moment and a person from a more distant place can be fleeced without concern.
Let’s say you visit a shop selling tea from Fujian province in Chengdu. They have a base price for those from the city, a lower price for those from Fujian, and a higher price for those from everywhere else. Upon hearing a Fujian accent, they would begin discussing their exact origins, and if a close connection is found, an even deeper discount would be expected.
Note: My friend living in Chengdu sees this so often that he encourages all of his students from other provinces to learn a few phrases in the local dialect to save money.
Since there is virtually no connection with a foreign country, the vendor is freed from all social expectations, and can extract as much cash as the unwitting “outsider” is willing to part with. The next time your shopping in a tourist heavy area, listen for people discussing place during the bargaining process.
This behavior though is not restricted to China’s cities either, it can even be found in China’s cancer villages. Locals realize that their food is completely unsafe to eat, but are unable to exert any control over their environment, so they often sell the heavy-metal laden grain to areas beyond their social circle. This common practice is seen as acceptable (by others in the village) only because they are not harming people from their clan or village, it affects “outsiders” beyond their concern.
So again expats, take heart. It’s not only waiguoren being scammed, it’s all of us “outsiders.” And the next time you notice a familiar accent in the market, try telling them you particularly enjoyed the scenic sites of their home town or try convincing them you are a local (dialects come in handy here), the price might just come down once they realize that in some small way, you really are connected.