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Questions Never Asked

For Foreigners in China, Daily Life Is Free
Of Government Intrusion — Until It Isn’t
April 27, 2007

People often ask me how much I feel the authoritarian arm of the government living in China. The answer is never — until I do. If that sounds circular or nonsensical, then I’m being clear.

Most foreigners living in China have little sense of government intrusion in their daily lives. You can walk into a lot of hip bars or restaurants filled with beautiful people, great music and pricey drinks and never think for a second about living in an authoritarian nation.

In fact, it’s entirely possible to live here for years with virtually no interaction with the state apparatus, wandering a wide avenue within which you can do essentially whatever you please. But if you try to exit that avenue, you get pushed back hard — and then you either retreat quickly to the center of the road or face some consequences. For foreigners, this could mean a loss of opportunity or business or, at the very worst, being kicked out of the country. For a Chinese national, it could be far worse.


[Go to the Forums]1 Share your thoughts on this column or any other aspect of expat life with Alan and your fellow readers in an online forum.2

Expats living here with open eyes and ears understand this reality, even if they don’t all quite acknowledge it. Every once in a while, something happens that makes you stop and remember where you are and what the system is really like. What drives home the reality is that few people ever want to talk about these incidents, at least publicly or for attribution. No one wants to have his or her name associated with a complaint. Everyone feels they have something to lose and nothing to gain. And so things move along, until the next little flare-up occurs and the whole thing repeats itself.

Earlier this week, the influential New York art rock band Sonic Youth played in Beijing. Carsick Cars, a young Chinese group with a growing reputation, was scheduled to open. After performing their soundcheck, someone from the government showed up to tell the band they couldn’t perform.

That may sound like a minor incident, but it — and what didn’t happen afterwards — goes to the heart of life in modern China. The official reason for the cancellation was that the band hadn’t applied for a permit, but that’s a technicality that is generally ignored. Carsick Cars is apolitical, and was recently featured in the state-run China Daily newspaper. So what was the real issue? There’s a lot of speculation, but it’s impossible to be sure — and no one really wants anyone else to try to find out, for fear that inquiries could get someone in trouble without really solving anything.

The angriest people in the venue may have been Alex Schapiro, a 22-year-old Baltimore native who has been in Beijing a little over a year, and her Chinese boyfriend. They were the only ones to demand a refund, which they eventually got. “Once we realized the band was banned from playing, we tried to create a chant to get people angry or just to react in some way, but it didn’t work,” she says. “Then I knew I couldn’t stay. I realize the action was completely unrealistic in terms of affecting change, but a lot of foreigners come here and fall into passivity and forget what they know about how you are supposed to act and react to things.”

I think Ms. Schapiro is largely right — but also a bit naïve. Many expats living here may become passive, but many have also concluded that Chinese people have a better sense of how to work within this opaque system. A fairly rational cost-benefit analysis may explain why many people were angry during and after the show, but the next day no one with a stake wanted to talk.

After all, what’s the upside? There’s nothing in it for the band members, all 21- and 22-year-old college students with bright futures, unless they suddenly can’t play anywhere. There’s nothing in it for the promoter, who wants to keep promoting. There’s nothing in it for the friend of the band who helped spread word of this banning. He has his own interests to consider. If Sonic Youth ever want to return to China they’ll have to apply for a visa like everyone else. You can’t blame anyone for protecting their own interests, but the end result — as I’ve seen quite a few times — is things get swept under the rug.

A few weeks ago, a neighbor told me about friends of theirs facing a horrible dilemma. The expat family was in danger of losing their house in a compound. They had purchased it four years ago, paying cash, but now the person who sold it to them wanted it back. Because the compound was constructed illegally, there are no titles or deeds.

To make a very long, confusing story short and simple, after multiple court cases stretching over more than 30 months, a judge ruled that because the compound is illegal, the sales contract (drawn up by an experienced lawyer) was worthless and they had to give the house back. Whether the approximately $200,000 would be refunded had to be decided in a separate court case. The couple had a strong suspicion that if they left the house — which they were ordered to do — they would never see a cent.

The couple provided me with outlines, timelines and documentation, but then the husband said his lawyer advised them not to have their names published. It was just too risky. A Chinese native who’d moved abroad years ago, he accepted that whatever outcome he achieved would be largely based on his lawyer’s level of connections, rather than on legal principles or “fairness.” His wife, who isn’t from China, was agitated. “People think things have changed in China,” she says. “But they really haven’t.”

“Actually, they have changed,” her husband insists. “It is much better than when I was young. But there is a long way to go.”

The family remained in the house well past their eviction date, though they worried about being harassed, having already felt threatened once when their former landlord came to the house with several men and demanded they leave. Recently they were shocked to actually win a case in the execution court, the only place that can ensure that verdicts from other courts are carried out. The ex-landlord agreed to return the money within five days and they promised to leave in two weeks. The family is looking for a house to rent, but are still nervous about whether the landlord will honor the latest agreement.

I discussed the case with another friend who lives in their compound. He confirmed the basic outline, and then wanted to know why I was interested. “You’re not going to write about this, are you?” he asked, concern in his voice. “If you do, don’t mention the compound’s name.”

Share your thoughts about this column or any other aspect of expat life with Alan and your fellow readers in an online discussion.3

* * *

Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Below are some edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on trouble off the beaten path4.

Yan Li writes: I came to the U.S. from Chengdu, Sichuan, six years ago and have not had a chance to go back and visit. Your column is one of my most important sources about what real life in China is like now, and made me picture many familiar and amusing scenes. Every time I read it, I feel like I was right there.

I am sorry about your exhausting and frightening road experience in my home province. I was told the road conditions have been greatly improved, so you can imagine what it was like 10 years ago, when I took a similar trip. Our bus was really beaten up, and kept running into trouble. By the time we arrived at Four Girls Mountain, many major parts had been changed or repaired. Several times when the bus passed places where you could see only half of the road foundation left above a 1,000-foot cliff, I began to look back on my life to see what I could do better “if I would be given the chance.”

But the stunningly beautiful mountain valley and hearty Tibetan people made the trip worthwhile. I am also glad that I made the trip alone while I was young, so I didn’t have to be concerned with the safety and comfort of family members, especially kids. When I have kids in the future, I am not sure I will take them along on the same adventure. But reading your column made me long for China. Hmmm…should I buy an air ticket tomorrow?

Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your own experience. It is particularly gratifying to hear from Chinese readers.

Patrick Groden writes: Your columns are a reminder of a trip I took to China in 2002, with my then-6th-grade daughter. Our travels weren’t very wild, but the combination of being the responsible parent and speaking essentially no Chinese made for a number of joyless moments. We traveled for two weeks, without guides, from Beijing to Xian, Guilin and Yangshuo.

There were several stressful times, mostly involving negotiating transport. You could lay the lack of language skills at my feet, but the Chinese notion of Westerners as walking commercial opportunities didn’t help. I found that you never knew what to expect when someone Chinese offered to help. On some occasions it was really an attempt to sell us something or steer us to a favored provider. Other times it was just what you’d hope for — directions or assistance without strings. I found that it made needing help a problem, as I could never be sure until the last minute if things were becoming more complicated rather than less. Do you have these experiences?

Just about everything in China, even in Beijing, seems to require an effort. Someone has to sweat the details.

Yes, I have those experiences. You can sometimes feel people eyeing you like a walking ATM. You don’t have to sweat a lot of details but guides are usually fairly reasonable and good. Still, as my last column showed, you’re never far from finding yourself in a pickle.

Don Edmonston writes: I spent two years in Shanghai during the mid-1990s and have so many adventures to recall. I don’t think any were as harrowing as what you described, but some were pretty spooky. I can definitely relate to your emotions. However, the harrowing experiences are some of my best memories and are what made my China stay a period I will recall fondly. A staid, well-arranged trip is easily forgotten, but pulling a car out of a ditch and hanging precariously on a mountain road are experiences for a lifetime. My kids had a wonderful two years they will never forget and are the much better for it. They appreciate the flat world more than most Americans their age.

I agree, Don — but that’s after it’s over and you’ve survived. I love these trips, but that one pushed too far.

Jonathan Reed writes: In regards to Mike Periu’s experience [see the bottom of my last column5], I’m happy to say my son and I had a much better experience with American Express Global Assist (which we got with the gold card) this past summer. My son left a 24-hour contact in his eye too long and developed eye pain in Tokyo, where he was spending the summer. Global Assist made an appointment for him with a well-qualified, English-speaking ophthalmologist and gave him precise subway directions to get to the doctor.

Admittedly, medical problems are easier to solve in Tokyo than in rural Nicaragua. But our experience this past summer was that Global Assist was efficient and prompt.

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