China isn’t safe?

The other day I was visiting my favorite jianbing salesman (煎饼 a delicious crepe type breakfast food), and he asked me if America was safe. I told him that regarding food and transportation, America is pretty safe, but we still have too much violent crime. I figured this was a fairly safe answer, China has been plagued by food safety problems and fatal accidents in the double digits are fairly common. It would have also played into the stereotypical idea that America is dangerous because we all have guns, which would make it easy to believe (more on that tomorrow). Instead the chef just shook his head and said, “China isn’t safe”. His two female co-workers agreed. “Too many thieves,” one said.

Even in the tiny town of Longzhou many students feared for their lives off campus. They had been told by school officials that virtually every place in town was a hot bed of criminal activity after dark. It seemed like a ridiculous effort to keep the students from wandering too far away, but there was no way of knowing for sure. The students laughed in my face when I suggested that perhaps Longzhou wasn’t as dangerous as they had heard.

In Yizhou I found the students to be under the same impression, but when I questioned them about it, they started sharing their tales. Countless Mp3 players had been stolen at the market, money had been taken out of bags on buses and trains. The students unanimously agreed that going into town alone was a terrible choice. They “knew” none of the local people would help them if they were assaulted.

I’m guessing a few of you are starting to shake your heads, and you would be right to, since for a foreigner China is one of the safest countries I’ve ever been to. I can walk home in the middle of the night without the slightest worry. I think this is because foreigners live in a bit of a bubble when it comes to safety. We generally live in the nicer neighborhoods and are more likely to take some of the safer forms of transportation (e.g. avoiding 12 hour hard seat train rides).  I get the impression that foreigners are less likely to be targeted for violent crime. It is likely that the gov’t would punish such an “international” crime more harshly since it is eager to show its best face to the outside world. Additionally, English newspapers in China rarely report on local crime.

In fact, crime lurks just behind the veneer of safety. This is fostered by two major factors, one being that people feel little sense of duty to strangers (which I discussed last week), and the growing gap between rich and poor on China’s East Coast.

If you spend any amount of time at a Chinese train station you’ll see countless warnings about watching your goods. According to the video thieves had become more creative than most of my students in their pursuit of ill gotten wealth. It showed staged fights and elaborate costumes and fake ID’s to trick unwitting marks in to leaving their valuables undefended.

It seemed less fun after my friend was robbed on a two hour bus ride. Unfortunately she didn’t realize this in time to take any real action. The bag she had stored under the bus had been broken into by a thief (probably a child) who had been stowed under the bus as well. The police were largely uninterested in helping her, until they realized that she was an overseas Chinese.

Another friend felt endangered when a group of merchants selling sliced fruits strongly he suggested that he buy some after offering a piece on the end of a sharp knife. He told me he was helpless knowing that no one around him would come to his aid, but he did manage to get away. Now I don’t know whether or not he was in any real danger, but the fact that this scared him so badly means that crime is a real worry.

However, nothing really highlights the problem like my co-worker who has had 3 bicycles stolen from the hospital campus in as many years.

Again, as a foreigner China seems like one of the safest places in the world, and compared to many neighboring countries, it is. But for the average Chinese person petty and violent crime are of real concern, even if we don’t usually hear about it.

15 responses to “China isn’t safe?”

  1. xl says:

    It seems like a lot of these crimes are due to people being in close proximity, i.e. squeezed together on a bus, train, in the streets, etc. In the US, everyone’s more conscious of “personal space” so a person edging unusually close to another would raise a red flag whereas in China, people don’t have that luxury. Also, China has way more poor people proportionally than in the US and more opportunities for petty theft. The average jianbing place is probably an outdoor stand with customers walking up; the American equivalent would be a McD’s drivethru. That difference in setup alone can make a huge difference in someone even attempting to rob the place.
    That said, I’ve had a lot of friends during college and grad school in the US get mugged because we were all living in downtown areas near our universities, didn’t have our own cars, & relied on the metro to get around. And all of those muggings happened with a gun pointed toward my friends’ faces. Psychologically speaking, a one-time encounter with a gun is alot more damaging than coming home to find your wallet missing 3-4x a year. Basically, living in China requires you to stay sharp and constantly vigilant (unless you can afford a similar level of life as an avg American – personal car, access to safe food, etc.)

  2. This is a Very Good article

  3. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout…About TomAbout Yaxue CaoAbout CaseyComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China中文 ← China isn’t safe? […]

  4. 我觉得中国东边的城市应该是比较安全的。至于贼,哪儿没有。食品安全是个问题,但私以为不是什么大问题。

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      @Kuldahar: I would like to read your comment. Could you put it in English please.

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        Thank you for the translation Tom. I hate to miss anything!

    • Tom says:

      Quick translation: I think that China’s eastern cities are very safe. As for thieves, they are no where. Food safety is a problem, but not a big personal safety issue.

    • hooey_ru says:

      Are you talking about “东边的城市” being safe because CCTV told you that all people from Tibet and XInjiang are terrorists and thieves? I guess this is why ethnic minorities in China are often refused basic things such as hotel accommodation – because they are perceived as a security threat.

      • Marian Rosenberg - Haikou #1 Translation Agency says:

        Because I look ethnic (with my curly brown hair and blue eyes) I was once refused cheap hotel accommodation on the grounds that “we don’t like people from Xinjiang.”

    • Chopstik says:

      Apparently, my last response didn’t take because I formatted it incorrectly. What it should have said was:

      I’m wearing a look of bemusement and incredulity.

  5. Joe Santos says:

    My wife and I just got back from a whirlwind ten-day tour of Dalian, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. With the exception of Dalian, where my friend Hank had a driver, we walked and took subways everywhere. Despite the completely insane crowds*, at no point did I ever feel even remotely threatened. We wandered alleyway markets, took the Shanghai subway all the way out to the zoo, and just generally went wherever we wanted, and it was all good. I will say that, having traveled to Italy previously, we had already learned the tricks of pick-pocket-proofing ourselves. Tracy has a purse that’s impossible to get into casually and which she keeps securely on her front side, and I keep one hand on my wallet whenever we’re in a crowd. Still, there was just no sense of danger even though we stuck out like two sore Laowai thumbs wherever we were.

    *Seriously, I want to tell people back home that you know how sometimes, around rush hour, the subway in NYC is so crowded you have to shove your way on board and fight to find a space? That’s every subway in every city in China all the time.

  6. […] 中国见红博客:中国不安全?——外国人在中国一般都会感到很安全,但当地中国人却不太同意。到处可见的防盗提示和防盗门似乎证明了这一点。 […]

  7. Chopstik says:

    Tom, I’ll relay just a quick story. The worst that has happened to me while in China is being ripped off. I have walked several miles through areas that others have thought me insane for going through with no problems. But then again, I also stand out whenever I’m in China and that has, as you pointed out, offered some sort of magical protection. In some ways, I’m glad for it but I also recognize that is a very double-edged sword and it could easily go the other way in the wrong circumstances.

    My story is of a friend who was Taiwanese-American who was traveling with us 10 years ago in China. One morning, she was attacked by a vendor who wanted her to buy something. The friend was saved by some others who realized she was not a native Chinese – they thought she was from Singapore (either way, she was a foreigner). They involved the police who then went after the vendor and the vendor was forced to apologize repeatedly. The friend, who wasn’t seriously hurt – though she was frightened – had the option (according to what she understood from the police) to see that the vendor was severely punished. She chose to let the incident go and left while the police were haranguing the vendor. As a foreigner, she was granted a privilege that she wasn’t aware of at the time. While hers is a bit of an extreme example, I think it has been (perhaps slightly more) indicative of the foreigners’ status in China which may be what lends to some of the stories of feeling safer in China than in their own home country (in this case, the US). I think, however, that there are varying degrees and understandings of “safety” and that feeling of such is overstated in China. I suspect I would not want to be a foreigner (particularly Japanese) during periods of extreme xenophobia. (I’m thinking The Naked Listener may have some input on xenophobia from Hong Kong in the 1960’s – if she’s that old – that I vaguely recall but not all of the details at the moment.)

    In other words, I guess safety is relative.

  8. Kaiwen says:

    @Tom “我觉得中国东边的城市应该是比较安全的。至于贼,哪儿没有。食品安全是个问题,但私以为不是什么大问题。”

    至于贼,哪儿没有 means quite the opposite, “As for theives, where aren’t they?”

    In terms of bicycle theft, it may have been because of our particular area of town, or that foreigners often get nicer/ newer bikes (We tried to find a “secondhand” market, to no avail, the best one was long gone in pre-Expo / Olympic cleanup), but it was rampant at my university in Shanghai. I easily lost three bikes in less than one year, and I chained them up much better than the locals in some cases. In retrospect, part of the problem was we couldn’t take bikes into our dorm and had to lock them outside.

  9. jixiang says:

    Petty crime is a real problem in China (I myself have had three bicycles stolen from me in Beijing), but I think violent crime is less of a problem than in many other countries, including Western ones. And I have taken 12 hour train rides in hard seats and lived in not very nice neighbourhoods, so I am not living in a bubble.

    You have to take students’ opinions with a pinch of salt. I know lots of university students in Beijing who will tell you the city is extremely dangerous and that they don’t dare to go out of their campus at night, but this is much to do with them not being from Beijing, not knowing anything about the world outside their campus and listening to too much of the warnings their university gives them, which make it sound like the city is simple crawling with dangerous maniacs.

    The truth is that China, while not super-safe, is still pretty safe when you think how poor many of its people are.

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