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.