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Despite the new veneer of individual freedom, China remains a police state, with the state interfering with and controlling the lives of its subjects to a degree most Westerners would find it hard to tolerate – as indeed many of the Chinese do. This should not affect foreigners much, however, as the state on the whole takes a hands-off approach to visitors – they are anxious that you have a good time rather than come away with a bad impression of the country. Indeed, Chinese who commit crimes against foreigners are treated much more harshly than if their victims had been native.

Crime is a growth industry in China, with offi­cial corruption and juvenile offences the worst problems. Much crime is put down to spiritual pollution by foreign influences, the result of increasing liberalization. But serious social problems such as mass unemployment are more to blame, as is the let’s-get-rich attitude that has become the prevailing ideology.


In mainland China dial the following numbers in an emergency:

  • Police: 110
  • Fire: 119
  • Ambulance: 120

In Hong Kong and Macau, dial 13999 for any of the emergency service

The police

The police, known as the Public Security Bureau or PSB (gong’an ju in Chinese), are recognizable by their blue uniforms and caps, though there are a lot more around than you might at first think, as plenty are undercover. They have much wider powers than most Western police forces, including establishing the guilt of criminals – trials are used only for deciding the sentence of the accused (though this is changing and China now has the beginnings of an independent judiciary). If the culprit is deemed to show proper remorse, this will result in a more lenient sentence. Laws are harsh, with exe­cution – a bullet in the back of the head – the penalty for a wide range of serious crimes, from corruption to rape.

The PSB also have the job of looking after foreigners, and you’ll most likely have to seek them out for visa extensions, reporting theft or losses and obtaining permits for otherwise closed areas of the country (mostly in Tibet). On occasion, they might seek you out; It’s fairly common for the police to call round to your hotel room if you’re staying in an out-of-the­ way place that sees few foreigners – they usually just look at your passport and then move on. While individual police can be very helpful and go out of their way to help foreigners, The PSB itself has all the problems of any ice in a country where corruption is widespread, and it’s best to minimize contact with them.


As a tourist, and therefore someone far rich­er than anyone else around, you are an obvious target for petty thieves. Passports and money should be kept in a concealed money belt; a bum bag offers much less protection and is easy for skilled pickpockets to get into. Be wary on buses, the favoured haunt of pickpockets, and trains, particularly in hard-seat class and on overnight journeys. Take a chain and padlock to secure your luggage in the rack.

Hotel rooms are on the whole secure, dormitories much less so, though often it’s your fellow-travelers who are the problem here. Most hotels should have a safe, but it’s not unusual for things to go missing from these. It’s a good idea to keep around US$200 separately from the rest of your cash, together with your traveller’s-cheque receipts, insurance policy details, and photo­copies of your passport and china visa.

On the street, try not to be too ostenta­tious. Flashy jewelry and watches will attract the wrong kind of attention, and try to be discreet when taking out your cash. Not looking obviously wealthy also helps if you want to avoid being ripped off by traders and taxi drivers, as does telling them you are a student – the Chinese have a great respect for education, and much more sympathy for foreign students than for tourists.

If you do have anything stolen, you’ll need to get the PSB (addresses are given throughout the guide) to write up a loss report in order to claim on your insurance. Though most PSB offices have English speakers around, take a Chinese speaker with you if possible, and be prepared to pay a small fee. Make sure they understand that you need a loss report for insurance purpos­es, otherwise you could spend hours in the station as the police fill out a crime sheet, which is no use either to you or them.

Offences to avoid

Sandwiched as it is between opium growing areas in Burma and Laos and the major Southeast Asian distribution point, Hong Kong, China has a growing drug problem. The Chinese are hard on offenders, with deal­ers and smugglers facing execution, and users forced into rehabilitation. Even so, heroin use has become fairly widespread in the south, particularly in depressed rural areas, and ecstasy is used in clubs and dis­cos-which explains the periodic police raids on these places. In the past, the police have turned a blind eye to foreigners with drugs, as long as no Chinese are involved, but you don’t want to test this out. On the official UN anti-drugs day in 2001 and 2002, China held mass executions of convicted drug offenders. Visitors are not likely to be accused of political crimes, but foreign residents, including teachers or students, may find themselves expelled from the country for talking about politics or religion The Chinese they talk to will be treated less leniently. In Tibet, and at sensitive border areas, censorship is taken much more seri­ously; photographing military Installations (which can include major road bridges), instances of police brutality or gulags is not a good idea.

Sexual attitudes and behavior

Women travelers usually find incidences of sexual harassment much less of a problem than in other Asian countries. Chinese men are, on the whole, deferential and respectful A much more likely complaint is being ignored, as the Chinese will generally assume that any man accompanying a woman will be doing all the talking. White women may get some hassles, however, in Dongbei, where Chinese men may take you for a Russian prostitute, and in Muslim Xinjiang. Women on their own visiting remote temples or sights definitely need to be on their guard – don’t assume that all monks and caretakers have impeccable morals, As ever, it pays to be aware of how local women dress and behave accordingly: miniskirts and heels may be fine in the cos­mopolitan cities, but fashions are much more conservative in the countryside.

Prostitution, though still illegal and harshly punished, has made a big comeback – wit­ness all the new “hairdressers”, saunas and massage parlors, every one of them a brothel. Single foreign men are likely to be approached inside hotels, it’s common prac­tice for prostitutes to phone around hotel rooms at all hours of the night. Bear in mind that China is hardly Thailand – consequences may be dire if you are caught – and that AIDS is on the increase.

Homosexuality is officially regarded as a foreign eccentricity, and gay sexual activities are technically illegal, though increasingly tol­erated. Gay Chinese men often approach foreigners, partly because they are much less likely to shop them to the police.