Archive for August, 2010

At the Frienship Hotel

by on Saturday, August 28th, 2010

After the Cultural Revolution, when foreigners were first allowed to come and work in Beijing, they were all housed and watched over in the so-called Golden Fortress, a bulky gray compound behind a wall, a gate, and a guardhouse. I stayed there when I first arrived in China in 1984. In Hong Kong a year and a half later, Anna talked about her experience when she went to Beijing to teach English at the school inside the Xinhua [New China] News Agencyl. She arrived in 1979 as one of the first Foreign Experts. Much of her experience was typical for people living in a foreign ghetto. The crackdown on dancing she speaks of foreshadowed the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. For a more recent take on living in Beijing, try the link at your right entitled “I Was Hacked in Beijing.”

The buildings of the Friendship Hotel were started in the 1950s by the Russians and built in the Russian style with thick walls, similar to the Great Hall of the People. I was in the hotel proper, with two rooms and a bathroom. I didn’t mind not having a kitchen. Going to the dining room for meals enabled me to meet almost everybody there. I suppose this is how the friendships in the Friendship Hotel start.

I grew close to other foreigners. It’s now five years after I left, and we’re still in close contact. Because we were living in such an enclosed situation, we saw each other more often than you do in the normal world outside, and the relationships were more intense. We depended on each other more, and we found security in numbers. At parties I would stand by the door and count twenty-two or twenty-three different nationalities in the room, but there were no Chinese. Normally the authorities would not let the Chinese mix with us.

The French, the Italians, the Germans, the Americans all had their own groups, but there were very few British people in those days—two out of five hundred foreigners—so we merged with other groups, mainly with Latin Americans, Africans, Pakistanis and Indians. We had to make our own entertainment. There was a library, but the most recent writer was Dickens. Television, of course we didn’t have. We had film once a week, but we never knew what was on. Every Saturday we would party in someone’s place, dance all night and on Sunday ask where the next party was. There were several Latin Americans who had guitars and sang very well. Someone would sit down on the steps of Building Number One with a guitar, then someone else with a guitar, then everyone. Every spot on each of the twenty-five steps was filled. In the summer the singing would go on until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. The Chinese who worked there just couldn’t believe it.

All the outings were organized. Suddenly we’ve got a phone call and they’d say, “Tomorrow we’ve got a ticket for you to the Peking Opera.” Or sometimes it was the same day. Absolutely everything—tickets to the football match, the symphony, the ballet—was provided through the work unit, which in our case was the Foreign Experts’ Bureau, a body so obsolete Chou Enlai wanted to abolish it.

Sometimes I wanted to get out on my own, but there was nowhere to go. The restaurants closed at 7:00 or 7:30. Beijing was enormous, and Youyi Binguan [Friendship Hotel, pronounced yo-ee bing-guan] was so far away from everything. I never worked out the public transport. We had these cars. You jump into a car, and they’d take you there, but it was always a problem getting back. You’d tell them to come at a particular time, and that was never understood. You could buy dinner for the driver, but he couldn’t eat with you.

We started planning the Christmas party in October, working out all the details. Most of the people on the committee were Moslems, so instead of ham we had two sheep which we brought cheap from Xinhua. The dinner was in the hotel dining room. We reached an agreement with the hotel cooks for them to do the sheep. Then because we didn’t want to fiddle with cakes, we had a great big caldron of fruit salad. There were about eighty adults and sixty children. Everybody contributed 10 yuan [$7-$8 then]. We contributed some foreign money also and bought whiskey and wine and made an enormous big punch. We had a music program as well. The Chinese had never seen anything like that.

Dancing was not illegal then. We started off in the spring of ‘79 immediately after the Chinese New Year with a dance organized by the Foreign Experts’ Bureau. The poster outside the hotel dining room said, “Your Chinese friends will be invited.” We couldn’t pick our own guests. The following Christmas and New Year—the solar and lunar new years—we had more dances organized by the Bureau, and our own Chinese friends were invited. I even managed to invite my students, but of course they had to be vetted first. Eventually three girls and two boys came. I met them at the compound gate. They wanted to come to my place before we went to the dance hall, and I thought they just wanted to see it. But they had these little bundles with them. They disappeared into bathroom and took off their uniforms and put on these lively jumpers [sweaters]. All my Latin American friends were nice and would say, “Dance with this girl or she’ll die.” They had a whale of a time.The old Chinese people know how to dance—most were from Shanghai, China’s most sophisticated city. They were always the first on the floor, and they knew the steps from before Liberation—fox trot, and tango and waltz. I used to dance very well. At the first waltz, an old gentlemen spotted me and asked me to dance. This was a big hall, and for some reason he thought he had to cover all of it. So we went from one end to the other, turning all around and around, and oh my God he wouldn’t stop.

The band was incredible. A jazz buff said it sounded like music from the Big Band era. He asked the players, “What have you been doing all these years [since liberation]?  You sound good, but obviously you’re a bit rusty.” The guitarist said, “Well, we haven’t been doing this, that’s for sure.” That was the only time we saw those musicians. I don’t know what became of them. Maybe they got better and went public.

In 1980 on the anniversary of Liberation, we had dances in the Big Hall. That was the first time I saw young Chinese couples without their uniforms and in tight jeans hugging their thighs and tight tee-shirts. They were performing like belly-dancers. After that the big squeeze came. My boss said, “Apparently people dance all night long and don’t go to work the next day. This is why the dances have been banned. People get too tired to be productive.” At that time I’d had a good look at the offices in Xinhua with nine people to a desk, no one working. I thought, If you have dances, and three people don’t show up because they’re tired, the other six can still sit down and read the newspaper.

Only a few foreigners had Chinese friends and contacts outside the hotel. They all spoke Chinese. It was very difficult without the language, but even for those people it was very risky. Nobody was supposed to know about their Chinese friends. There was a girl who got involved with a Chinese guy. She was had long, blond hair, so when she went to his place she put a great big padded coat on and a cap and a mask and hoped everybody would think she was Chinese.

People had to have written permission to come to see us, even our own interpreters. When my interpreter was still at my place after 8:00, the fuwuyuan [maid] would talk to him. He would say, “She’s worried about me. She thinks I should go. It’s late.” Once when I was laid up with my back, one of my students decided to visit and see how I was. It was January, and it was bloody cold. That kid cycled a couple of hours to the Friendship Hotel and wasn’t let in.

Sometimes we just thought they didn’t approve of our morals. When I was recuperating, people came to see me. If it was a male visitor, the fuwuyuan would invent reasons to come every quarter of an hour—change the hot water, bring the laundry, take the laundry, look at this, look at that. Whether that was curiosity or whether they were keeping an eye on me, I don’t know. There were quite a number of mornings when I didn’t want them to come in and clean the room. I would put up a sign, but they would barge in anyway.

We couldn’t visit anybody unless they had written permission to entertain us. My boss invited me, and a couple of teachers were there, and also a neighbor. A very nice lady from Xinhua asked me to her home. Her whole family were there and another couple of people from Xinhua and a neighbor. There was always a neighbor, so I thought it was probably a street committee person or someone like that.

I had a good bicycle, but I was terrified of the traffic outside the compound. Traveling in the car three hours back and forth to work, I invariably saw some disaster on the road. The only time I rode it outside the compound , my teachers came and took me in a convoy, one in front, two beside me, and one or two in back. We went to a park about ten miles away.

The daytime employees in the hotel were moved around a lot so they wouldn’t get too close to us. Despite all that, I got on extremely well with one of them. We always had a joke. When I was ill she looked after me. Through a foreigner who spoke Chinese, she told me that two or three days before, her son had been walking along the road, and someone threw something from a building opposite and hit the kid in the eye. The eye had been operated on, and they had had to take it out. She was devastated. She was hoping he could go to the university, but now she knew he would not be able to go [people with any sort of handicap were not admitted]. The second worry was that the hospital wasn’t totally free. Food and other things were quite expensive, and she didn’t know when she could pay for it. The third thing was that her bike was out of order. The hospital was very, very far out, and it took such a long time to get there, taking first one bus and then another. I said, “Take my bike.” At first she was reticent—no, she couldn’t. I persuaded her, and she was very grateful. Four or five days later she returned it. Someone had reported her for fraternizing with foreigners, so she was returning the bike. Shortly after that she disappeared from the floor.

In the winter it was extremely cold out. You could come back from the dining room through a network of basement passageways and not have to go outside. In one of the buildings there were lots of doors, and we didn’t know what was behind them. One day one was ajar, and I looked in to see reels and reels of what looked like—now this is the imagination probably—recording tape. Someone else passed by, and I said, “What do you think this is?”

“Jesus Christ!  This is where they’re listening to us!”

Then the theatrics and the paranoia set in. We’d sit in the dining room tapping the table, looking for bugs. In every single corner in every room we were looking for bugs. We knew our telephone calls were taped because we could hear the equipment click on. If we dialed outside the compound, we knew the call would be monitored. The people who were suspected of all kinds of things were bugged even when they were talking within the compound. They always knew. I never had any letters tampered with, but there were a number of people who had letters opened and pages missing.

There was one incident which showed me a bit of how the authorities dealt with foreigners. We had to have a general medical check-up, and only after that could we get swimming pool cards. The check-up involved blood pressure, hygiene, and—for the married women—a vaginal exam. They didn’t say “venereal disease,” they said “vaginal check-up,” but we could tell what they were doing it for. Only the married women—no men—were to be checked for VD. Several married women were annoyed and said, “For Christ’s sake, first of al, the single women are not really virgins—not the adults. The Chinese think we are as out-of-date as they are.” The single women were not very happy either, because they wanted their annual check-up and Pap’s smear.

I drew up a petition and put it outside the dining room, where it got hundreds of signatures, and  presented it to the Expert’s Bureau. A few days later I got a phone call requesting me to come to the Experts’ Bureau. There was an old codger who didn’t speak a word of English, but he was obviously in charge, and there was a young girl who was asking questions and interpreting. There was a woman who was taking it all down in Chinese, and there was someone else who was just sitting there watching the show. It took four hours. They were really shocked to find out what strong feelings women had about the issue. At the end they assured me that they now understood and that the women would be treated the same. We would all have to undergo the examination. But then the whole thing disintegrated into thin air.

People were battling windmills all the time. We had a laundry system where you put your clothes in a bag and they collect it. They sewed tags with the room numbers onto the clothes where they were really obvious—like on the collar. One person said, “If they have to sew on these tags, why don’t they sew them on where they don’t show? Then it won’t have to be done every time, and it also won’t damage the clothes?”  He drew up a petition and hung it up, but one of the foreigners said that was the fifteenth petition on that subject. Nothing ever happened.

In the winter we went to a place in the compound which we called “the club,” a big room with two table-tennis tables, a billiard table and a well-stocked bar. The television, which only the barmen and barmaids watched, was always at top volume, as is customary in China. The patrons would be a handful of foreigners, mainly journalists, who wanted to unwind with a few drinks. We couldn’t hear ourselves talk. The girls behind the bar were handpicked for their moroseness, unfriendliness, and hostility toward foreigners. No matter how you asked for a drink, they scowled at you. At half past eleven, even if only two customers were in the bar, they rang a bell that woke up the whole compound. After the bell rang you couldn’t get a box of matches, even though the matches were right there. We had quite a few incidents with the foreigners losing their tempers and smashing something or throwing a drink on a waitress. Immediately watchdogs from the Experts’ Bureau would appear, sit down and take notes and make a report. People who wrecked things just had to pay to get them replaced.

Once, before they put in that awful bell, there was a table of Westerners and a table of Africans sitting in the bar. At half past eleven the young man behind the bar wanted us out. He went to the table of Africans first, and then came to us. One of the African guys was very drunk, and he was incensed at what he thought was racism. He got up and started screaming and smashed the table and said things like “Why don’t you go and tell them?  There’s another table there and you’re not saying anything to them.”

The Experts’ Bureau watchdogs were on the scene very quickly because the relationship between Chinese and Africans was a very touchy issue. That night at one o’clock they rang up the senior African there, someone who had been in the country for a few years, and asked him to come over to discuss the incident. The senior man tried to smooth things over, “Look, he was obviously drunk. I know him. He’s not a racist, and doesn’t think you…” blah-blah-blah. He rang the guy up first thing in the morning and said, “For God’s sake, apologize as fast as you can. I don’t know what they might do. They might send you back home.” His wife and six or seven children were also there. The guy had sobered up, and he did apologize, and then he had to pay the damages as well. And that was okay.

We had some politically interesting people at the hotel. Radical people, revolutionaries showed up from countries with repressive regimes in order to seek refuge. We had some Bolivian fighters, some Chilean fighters, Peruvian, lots of PLO people. In those days the Chinese were only too happy to give them a renewable contract. But after the Chinese made friends with the government, they cut off their help to the leftists. I know that most of the PLOs went back, the Bolivian guy went back. The Peruvians who worked at the language institute were told that the Spanish departments were closing down, and they had to go back.

One of my best friends was a Pakistani radio journalist, a Buddhist supporter who had been persecuted at home. Each year his contract was automatically extended. He had a lovely wife and a couple of kids. In 1980, I think, diplomatic relations were opened up between China and Pakistan, and he was told his contract would not be renewed. He was devastated. He couldn’t go back to Pakistan. He was terrified to leave China. He came to Hong Kong for a while, but his English wasn’t good enough for Hong Kong. He went to Bangladesh. When his wife and children went back to Pakistan, he wrote and implied that I should write to his wife’s address. I wrote from England, but I never had a reply. I heard that he was in Washington working with the radio there. I don’t know about his family.

I remember a Peruvian husband and wife, both professors, and three kids. Their university had been closed down because it was too radical, so they didn’t think they would be employed as intellectuals if they went back. They were thinking of returning to Peru to buy a wheelbarrow and go around selling vegetables. I don’t know what happened to them.

At that time the authorities were also trying to weed out foreigners who had been witnesses to the Cultural Revolution and were perhaps pro-Mao. I think that was also true during the trial of the Gang of Four and when the first hints appeared that Mao might have been to blame for all kinds of things. A friend of mine had gone to China as a Maoist and taught English, German, and Spanish. When his contract expired in August, 1980, he was told his university couldn’t renew it. When he said he didn’t really have anywhere to go, they offered him a job at Xinhua News Agency as a “polisher,” a sub-editing job. It was a long step down. He was really very hurt. He came to Hong Kong, and he died here.

Personally, I think they also didn’t want the long-term foreigners anymore because they were instituting “self-management,” which put individual work units in charge of their own budgets. These work units wanted to keep more money for themselves by getting rid of all the Africans and their big families. The new contracts were less expensive and didn’t allow an Expert to bring a spouse and kids. I started off at 600 yuan a month [about $400 in 1979] for the first year [or about the same as Experts are making five years later, when it was about $300], and I made 650 yuan the second year.

In the old days, in addition to our salary, they took us around on holiday. During the first year we had six weeks’ holiday at Xinhua’s expense. They took us to Hangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, Huangshan, Wuxi, Lushan. We didn’t pay a penny for lodging, but we paid a little for food. All that was discontinued to save money.

At the end of my first year, most of the Latin Americans were going back home.  The new people, mostly from the States, came on different kinds of contracts, some specialized projects for six months. They kept to themselves. So in the last seven or eight months of my stay there, all the good times were past and gone. We used to talk about it, those of us who were left behind. “Oh, remember last year, oh, wasn’t it marvelous.”

The Traveling Economist, Part 2

by on Sunday, August 15th, 2010

At the time of our 1986 interview, Michael had just completed his third trip by rail around China. He had traveled mostly third class, or “hard seat,” which usually means enduring almost unimaginable overcrowding. The hard seat cars were filled with people standing, trying to work themselves onto your seat, chewing and spitting out sugarcane, vomiting from motion sickness and throwing litter everywhere. The employees’ frequent attempts to bring drinking water, to mop up and to clean the toilets, which made first and second class quite presentable, barely seemed to make a difference in third class. But if you wanted to mean the average Chinese, the real “masses,” this was probably the best way to do it.

In addition to the physical hardships, in those days you had to endure the constant frustration of dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy. For example, you could only buy tickets for the various sections of your journey one at a time. You had to stop at each place and buy a ticket and seat or berth assignments just for the next place, usually with difficulty. The Chinese way is to use guanxi, special connections, by getting friends to buy tickets. Without special connections, travel could be maddening. You find yourself becoming very passive in some situations and very aggressive in others.

Pigs packed for the market

Pigs packed for the market

It’s hard to tell how much my impressions this trip were different than on previous visits because I got a different quality of picture. This time a lot more people were willing to talk to me a lot more openly, and I got quite a good picture of what the more educated people think, the people who come up to you and want to practice their English. I got the sense of some fear and great frustration, real impatience with the pace at which China’s changing—not fast enough. They were very aware of the outside world through listening to English broadcasts and reading foreign books, and they were really aware of China’s backwardness.

Often they would say straightaway, “China’s a very backward place, isn’t it?”

I found that a very difficult and embarrassing question to answer because frequently at that particular moment I was just thinking the same thing. So immediately I would switch to another gear and say “No no no no—not at all. You’ve got so many advantages, so many things you can do. You must take a more optimistic view.” Often I felt I had to say things I didn’t quite feel.

There is a great deal of inertia in China. Most people, although they may wear new clothes and listen to Western music, still plan very little. Buildings often seem to have been built with no forethought. I mentioned this to a Chinese friend, and he said, “Well, in China, to think is no good. To act is no good.” Then he paused a moment, and he said, “Often to think is dangerous.” I thought that was a very interesting comment because he was a well-traveled, thoughtful person.

A traditional market in Guangxi Province

A traditional market in Guangxi Province

There’s a real division arising between the generation that went through the Cultural Revolution and the one that can’t imagine what it was like. I spoke to a group of Chinese students who were holding English language sessions about politics. They were led by an English teacher who the Red Guards had locked up in a room by himself for five years during the Cultural Revolution. This English teacher told the assembled group about his experiences, and one of the young kids there just said out loud, “I can’t believe that.” The teacher just threw up his hands and said, “Ah, well, this is youth for you.”

There were times when I felt that I was speaking to someone who really understood what I was saying and I understood what he was saying and we got on great. I found that really stimulating. Those people were keen to find out about things. They could explain to you lucidly what a given situation was, so they had obviously thought about what was going on. When that happened I felt really comfortable speaking to them and quite optimistic.

I had other conversations which caused me to think a bit. I spoke to some older intellectuals, people who were politicians but not members of the communist party and therefore in a bit of a delicate situation.  Besides, they were probably in their early sixties, late fifties and had experienced all that generation went through. They were obviously supporters of Deng Xiaoping, and they were really keen on the new policies of economic reform. Yet when I was speaking to them they’d sometimes really drift off. They could understand what we were saying in a very concrete sense, there was no linguistic problem, and yet sometimes I would ask them a question, and they would just completely go blank. They’d just start up and say something like “The weather’s pretty nice this time of year.”

The first couple of times this happened I thought, “Maybe they’re trying to evade the questions.” Later I thought, “Maybe they really have been programmed—not just during the Cultural Revolution, since 1949—not to think about certain questions.  Most of what they talked about was trivia, apart from occasional flashes of enthusiasm for the present direction of Chinese policies. You couldn’t ask them a concrete question about matters of fact which they surely must know. They just switched off, which was chilling.

The only way I could come to terms with the problem of no privacy was to set my own standards and decide that no one else was going to invade them. So, for instance, I was staying in one place in Shanghai where I wanted to have a shower. I went in the bathroom and just as I was going through the door a Chinese guy pushed his way past me, went to the lavatory, dropped his trousers and began to carry on his performance. I was embarrassed at this, and I washed my hands and so on, but after a time it became obvious that he wasn’t going to leave. He was going to wash himself all over in my presence. So I then had to decide whether to allow him to do this without making any kind of objection at all or whether I should demonstrate to him that I wasn’t pleased. I just stood in the corner of the bathroom looking at the wall whilst he went about washing himself. Intrusions are sometimes very difficult.

I’m not sure that you should knock down the cultural barriers, you see. If you don’t maintain this individual attitude, if you don’t carry a bit of your own culture and your predispositions around with you, then you’ve got no way of reconciling your irritations, which are quite natural reactions. You can’t explain them, and you also can’t express them. So I just said, “Well, OK, I’m British, that’s fine, there’s no problem about that. I don’t need to pretend that I’m Chinese.”

You can’t in any case because you’re so painfully obviously not Chinese. You walk around the cities and you sort of think you’re normal, but everyone else thinks you’re not. It’s like chimpanzees with humans. If chimpanzees live long enough with a human family, they pattern themselves on the humans, but all the humans know they’re chimpanzees, and they behave with them accordingly.

I realized, when I went round a zoo with a Chinese person, that he was treating the monkeys just like I’d been treated for some time previously. People will poke you, either physically or metaphorically, to see what the monkey does. Their delight when you say something in Chinese is rather charming, but there are lots of less pleasant and less polite ways in which they do it—constantly, day in, day out. It’s a petty irritation all the time. Youths on the street will pass you and make funny noises at you. They’ll all laugh at you, and if you react they’ll all think they’re fantastically clever. You know they don’t want to talk with you. They’re just interested in showing their mates how clever they are in seeing if they can get some kind of reaction out of the waiguoren [foreigner].

I did become more irritable as the trip went on. The most severe reaction was during an encounter with a trishaw driver in Nanshan. [A trishaw is a bicycle with a platform, seat and extra wheel attached.] In that place as soon as they saw a foreigner going past they would shout for you to take one of their tricycles. They would bark at you in an insultingly crude, subhuman fashion as if to say you would never understand anything else. “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn. uhn!” I just got really tired of them tugging at my sleeve and pulling me and pushing me and refusing to talk to me. So I just turned round and I started barking at the guy, “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn!” It got something out of my system.

I didn’t go to China just as an academic to let the thing wash over me. I wanted to enter into some kind of dialogue. I also went there partly with the idea of seeing whether I would want to work there. So I felt these things quite strongly. I decided I wouldn’t want to stay. I missed too much about Europe, intellectually and physically. Chinese food—ordinary people’s Chinese food—is terrible. Really. I don’t care what people say. I’ve eaten Chinese food in the best restaurants, and I’ve had really nice Chinese meals both in China and in Europe. But the Chinese usually really eat badly, and I eat badly when I’m in China.

Apart from that, in Europe I’m part of the political structure, if you like. I have a say in what goes on there. I feel that I’m valued. I can influence things, and in China I can’t. I just receive. I just sit. I just suffer, and the Chinese can do what they like to me. I don’t like being in that situation.

So I feel more reconciled now to being a European than was the case before. It comes home to you how lucky you are in many ways to be a Westerner. Chinese people frequently will tell you how lucky you are to be able to do the things that you do in China, how lucky you are to be able to travel from here to there, how lucky you are to have so much money. So I think that when you put it all together, it’s not something that’s worth despising.

The Traveling Economist, Part 1

by on Saturday, August 7th, 2010

In February 1986 I had a three-hour interview with an English economist who had just come to Hong Kong from China and was thinking of writing a book on the black market. At the time Michael was in his mid-thirties, a tall, dark-haired, handsome man. He had an aura around him which you often feel with long-term travelers who endure months of privation—an offhand, casual, self-sufficient strength paired with loneliness and a need to talk to another speaker of the same language.

Because of its length, I divided the edited transcript into two parts. The first contains his observations of sleaziness, black markets and thievery; the second, his personal reactions to traveling around China under very harsh conditions and talking to people.

Note: The problem of unregistered residents remains a major problem in China. Foreign Exchange certificates were phased out in 1998. To find out more on FEC, check out the link on the right entitled “China’s Foreign Exchange Certificates.

Michael’s story

There is a distinct sleaziness about what is going on in China right now which is reflected in the way people dress and behave. There’s a very crass kind of youth culture. The women dress either a bit more soberly or a bit more flashily than the men. I was surprised to see women going around with furs, particularly in Shanghai with its pre-war image of these really beautiful women. It’s almost like going back to the thirties. There’s a real pursuit of a kind of nostalgia. It’s the hip thing for men below a certain age to dress in a remarkable new fashion. They have their hair permed, they wear long jackets like they used to in Britain in the fifties with tight-fitting, flared trousers and high-heeled shoes—often women’s shoes. Young men all over China affect this peculiar style of dress and behavior. It shades into something I would call “the return of the spiv.” In Britain after the Second World War when everything was rationed, we had people called “spivs,” the black marketeers who came out on the streets to sell silk stockings or whatever. They used to dress in a particular way with a Trilby hat and wide-shouldered gabardine coats and jackets.

In China quite often these “spivs” are engaged in that kind of business. You see quite a few on the train. They’ve got rolls of notes in their back pockets. Generally they’ve been all round China taking products from one place to another. The ones I met were traveling “hard bunk” [second class] and “hard seat” [third class], though they certainly could have afforded to travel “soft class” [first class] if they’d wanted to. I met one guy taking products from Guizhou to Shandong. He had not only been all over China, he boasted that he’d also been outside to Britain and France. How he did it I don’t know, but I’m certain he was telling the truth because he could describe the places quite well.

Most Chinese people don’t even know that Paris is the capitol of France—or even that France exists. As a Brit I’m always surprised that Britain is on the map when other places are not. An astonishing number of people—ordinary manual workers—have mentioned to me that that London has fog and that Margaret Thatcher is the Supreme Ogre of Great Britain. They all say, “Mrs. Thatcher, Mrs. Thatcher, I know. I have often seen her on television.”

A lot of trading seems to be done by commercial travelers. Shops often don’t specialize, for example in electric rice-cookers and electric fans. They buy whatever seems to be in short supply where they are. Maybe they have a salesman who’s traveling around, “Ah great, it’s difficult to find widgets in Hunan Province, but this guy in Shandong just sold me a huge supply at an amazing knock-down price.” You often suspect that they can’t actually get rid of the widgets at the other end, but they might buy them all the same and fill the shop up to the ceiling.

Then, of course, an important part of the way business is done is the black market. If you’re a tourist, you come across the black market straightaway because outside most of the main tourist hotels there are people who will offer to change money for you. These “spivs” want to change local Chinese money for foreign exchange certificates [FEC], which you as a foreigner are given at the bank in exchange for your own currency. The certificates are supposed to be the exact equivalent of Chinese notes, but in practice there’s a considerable difference. I believe the going rate is 1.4 yuan for every yuan of FEC.

A new shop which took only FEC

A new shop which took only FEC

The reason they do this is because ordinary people can get things with FEC which they can’t without them. Those things are mainly imported goods available only at friendship stores [stores for foreigners and privileged Chinese] or special stores licensed to sell imported products. For instance, a person can take illegally acquired FEC to a Chinese shop selling Chinese goods, like Shanghai Phoenix-brand bikes, which are scarce objects with waiting lists, and skip the waiting list by offering foreign exchange certificates to the shopkeeper. Some goods you can get at a cheaper rate if you offer foreign exchange certificates.

The reason for the black market is China’s shortage of foreign exchange. The government tries to ration it by allocating FEC to certain types of people, notably foreigners, as a means of making it more convenient for them. This black market operates not just in privately run stores, but also in state stores. And everyone seems to turn a blind eye to it. It’s only where it becomes either very large-scale or very obvious, too embarrassingly obvious, that anybody takes any action on it.

Indeed this black market extends to a number of things, such as grain ration tickets. That’s perhaps another area where there’s a shortage and where this is got round by having a black market. Grain is rationed. That’s to say mainly rice, but also other staples are included in the grain category. The state buys it from the peasants at a quite high price and sells it in the cities at about half that price to people who present ration tickets. Everybody who’s registered to work in the city and has a local resident’s registration card gets ration tickets for a certain amount of food every month, depending on the kind of work he or she does. This gives the people access to the subsidized grain. But very frequently people fall outside the system.

A lot of those outside the system are people who came into the cities who can’t register. In some cities, maybe a quarter of the population is unregistered. That’s a big section of the population. Lots of people drift into the cities from poor areas in the countryside because they fancy their chances are better in the city. There are also the construction workers in the Special Economic Zones, people who were drafted to work on state projects or hired by labor service companies. I don’t know the exact figures, but let’s say in the case of Zhuhai 50,000 people have come in from the countryside to build the skyscrapers and all the infrastructure there. They have not been able to register and therefore can’t get ration tickets legally. The only way they can live in Zhuhai—and the only way Zhuhai can be built at all—is for them to go out on the street and buy grain tickets on the black market. If the government put a stop to it, all sorts of other things would stop, and the whole economy would grind to a halt. This is the intriguing thing, the way that the government’s legal system lags far behind the actual situation. That’s something I spent quite a bit of time looking into. I was interested in finding out the circumstances of these people and what was happening to them.

The unregistered residents who are very poor—not the traders I mentioned earlier—were driven into the cities by necessity. The way they get by, if they get by at all, is to rely on friends or relatives. You meet a great number of people, particularly young people, who’ve come in and have no job and no income, and they’re supported entirely by friends, living in friends’ houses, constantly worried about their status or whether they’ll be able to get a job. The Chinese call them “black residents”—in other words, illegal residents. I think the government won’t let these people register because officially they’re still very much against large-scale migration into the cities. The authorities want some control over the migrants, some possibility of turning them out in the future.

Just after the Cultural Revolution a lot of people wanted back into the cities when they were released from their duties in the countryside. Particularly a lot of students came back into the cities, and in some cases the local governments were forced to allow them to register—just through sheer weight of numbers, through the strength of opinion, through the amount of influence their parents could exercise. A lot of these students were children of quite powerful people, including party figures, and they pulled strings and managed to get their children registered. But now there’s a more general movement to the city, and registration has still not been possible for most people.

This time I really did notice people who were living like hobos traveling on freight trains from station to station, looking really disheveled, really filthy, hair sticking out all over, wearing rags. When I asked people where they were from, they would generally say they were from some poor farming area, particularly from places in Hunan Province. Even amongst themselves, the Chinese would be commenting on beggars and saying, “Oh, you must be from Hunan,” so Hunan must be fairly well-known for that, whether it’s true or not.

Of course as a foreigner you’re a likely target for whatever beggars might be around. Many Chinese push them away or ignore them. Others go out of their way to put money in the hat. There aren’t many beggars. I think most people would rather stay poor or rely on friends or relatives. There are other, less obvious beggars, people who will try to get money out of you by one ruse or another or practice the general thievery rife in China amongst taxi drivers and others.

There are other black markets as well. You could make a lot of money on bicycles. It’s been illegal for some time to take bicycles across provincial lines for sale by private people, but people were doing it in large numbers. To crack down on the practice the government finally just increased the cost of a bicycle ticket by about three times in one year. So that’s another example of a black market which the government recognizes, but which it has decided to tax rather than stop.

Parking for bicycles

Parking for bicycles

Bicycle thievery is really commonplace. There aren’t very many bicycles that a Westerner would normally think are worth stealing because the difference between one bicycle and another—apart from the make—isn’t really obvious. None of them has gears or particularly good brakes. If you look at what bicycles cost compared to what people earn, then you can see why people steal them. Bicycles are quite expensive things for many people. The police do clamp down on bicycles theft quite a bit. They do get people’s registrations, they have checkpoints in the roads, and they do swoops on bicycle parks. I think keeping track of bicycles are a big element of police work.

There are a lot of police—city police, military police, and transport police—a surprising number of military police. I asked people why there were so many military police when their duties were not exactly obvious. All the people came up with was to say, “Well, it is just characteristic of the communist party to be so obsessed with social unrest. I expect it’s the same in all socialist countries, isn’t it?”

My contact with the police was purely accidental. I had a camera and a whole lot of money stolen, so I had to report these to the police and I had to go through the whole bureaucracy. [Certain items like cameras and watches are registered with customs when you enter the country, and you have to leave with the same items.] The camera was quite a simple matter. I was traveling on a train and someone took it out of the bag on the luggage rack of the carriage I was sitting in, an open “hard seat” carriage. I don’t know how the thief did it or when exactly. So it was very difficult to do anything about that.

The money was more interesting. A Chinese friend was showing me around the town, and right before I was about to get off the bus somebody took my wallet out of my pocket. The doors opened then, and this guy ran off. I’d just noticed that it was missing, and I just turned round to look for it and couldn’t find it. Two people identified the guy who took it. One was this friend of mine, and the other was the conductress of the bus. So the police had two descriptions, and apparently they identified the person pretty much straightaway. I filled out a very long, long form with questions and answers in Chinese and then in English, descriptions of absolutely everything to do with what I’d lost in the minutest detail.

Anyway, they asked me to come back three weeks later after my trip to Hainan Island. I came back, although with some trepidation, because while I was in Hainan I met someone whose friend had had something stolen and been asked to do the same thing. The police asked her to attend the execution of the guy who’d robbed her, who was a professional thief. She refused, and it caused what she described as a rather a nasty incident with the local authorities. They expected her to do it, and they were surprised when she refused. How it ended up I don’t know. I don’t think she witnessed the execution, but they weren’t pleased.

Another point of view, of course, is that if you report these things to the police then you should be prepared to go through with the consequences. But when I reported this thing to the police, it didn’t occur to me that they might execute someone for such a small crime. The advertised executions are usually for rape or for some very large fraud or something of that kind. But in my case the police told me that the thief was not a professional. I steeled myself to go see them in order to ask them to exercise some leniency, but that wasn’t apparently necessary. I asked them what sentence he was likely to get, but they couldn’t tell me. All they were interested in, really, was for me to supply a signed statement on the evidence that would enable them to take the guy to court. So it didn’t come out as badly as I’d feared.

You sometimes wonder whether you should report things or not. Many Chinese people believe it’s useless to report things to the police. Maybe it is. Everyone told me, “The reason you got your stuff back was because you were a foreigner. The police made special efforts. If you had been Chinese the police wouldn’t have bothered.”

Well, obviously my thoughts are affected by my own experience, but I would say without a doubt the crime rate has increased in recent years. The Chinese don’t fear foreigners as much as they used to. [The punishment for stealing from a foreigner is much higher than for stealing from a Chinese.] I had a watch stolen in 1981 when I was traveling around in Guilin. That was taken, I think, by one of the hotel staff. I’d left it on a ledge for a couple of minutes and went back, and it was gone. Thieving isn’t new, but it’s rising.

Chinese people are always extremely careful about their belongings, and they’re surprised that Westerners leave things lying around and not thoroughly locked up. I traveled for a while with a Chinese guy who, every time the train stopped, would rush to his luggage a bit further down the car and wouldn’t reappear until the train started again. He came back on one occasion and pronounced to me in a sententious tone, “A moving train is a safe train.”