A few years ago, I went to Goroka, Papua New Guinea, to recover two Kamov Helicopters on behalf of a client/friend from Sakhalin Island, Russia (man, I loved writing that sentence!). I flew from Seattle to Honolulu, from Honolulu to Sydney, Australia, from Sydney to Cairns, from Cairns to Port Moresby, and from Port Moresby to Goroka. And then, after negotiating the helicopters back, the same return trip. Papua New Guinea is said to have a “cargo culture” in which the natives treat outsiders better than natives. That certainly seemed true for me.

I went to the grocery store (and when I say “the” I mean the only) one day and saw all of the locals get searched by rifle toting security guards both when entering and leaving the store. I came and went untouched. The same thing happened at the airports. The locals would have their bags opened and rummaged through, while my bags were never opened. I was scheduled to leave Goroka to return to Australia on a Wednesday but the plane (again, “the” means “the only”) plane did not arrive. Without my having to do a thing, I was given a front row seat for the next day’s flight.

The weight limit for carry-ons was 8 kg and a local right in front of me was stopped by a stewardess for trying to bring on a small bag and told, “You no go on de plane wit dat.” Me, I wanted to be sure I made my connecting flight from Goroka and I was let through without question, toting a bag that must have weighed at least 15 kg. Ah, the joys of being a foreigner.

There can be a bit of that in China as well, though I have always viewed it as somewhat of a more double edged sword there. Lucy Hornby, on her Reuters sponsored Countdown to Beijing blog just did a great post, entitled, “Being a foreigner, the ticket to privilege?” (h/t to All Roads Lead to China).

Ms. Hornby starts out by revealing how easy it was for her, as a foreigner, to get tickets to the Beijing Olympics:

I did this entirely legally. I want lots of guests to crash at my apartment in August, and see this huge moment for China. So when the first round of the ticket lottery opened, I filled out the online forms, met all the deadlines, and picked the maximum number of tickets — mostly for semi-final events where I thought I would have a better shot.

The tickets aren’t just for guests of course. I myself can’t wait to sit in the stands for at least one competition, and soak up the excitement. But I didn’t even bother to apply for the Opening Ceremony — I knew I had no chance, and anyway, applicants were limited to one ticket only. Who wants to be all alone in a crowd?
I got about three-fifths of the events I wanted, or 17 tickets for six events. That puts me among only 5 percent of Olympics tickets applicants, according to a membership survey by the American Chamber of Commerce.

Most Chinese I’ve told say the decks were stacked in my favor. “Of course you got tickets, you’re a foreigner” was the first reaction from my colleagues, taxi drivers, and anyone else I told.

An informal survey revealed many of them had given up halfway through the lottery process, which I also thought was a little daunting. Or they only applied for the opening and closing ceremonies. Or only popular weekend events. But still. Their reaction also shows how much Chinese citizens assume that the system will never work in their favor.

Hornby then notes how many former foreigner privileges are now being given to all who are wealthy, foreign or not:

Fast forward 13 years, and most of the privileges of being foreign, versus being Chinese, have morphed into being wealthy versus not. It’s pretty easy to get train tickets nowadays, if you book through an agency for a small fee, but the migrant workers still wait for days in line at the station.

What do you think?

  • Bill

    Love to be a rich foreigner in China.

  • Gary

    You can say the same thing about being an senior citizen in America. You can get a lot of respect by being old sometimes, but at other times you get treated poorly.

  • This situation reminds me of Russia in the early 1990s when there were “hard currency shops.” These shops were always brightly-lit and fully stocked with European-imported goods – a far cry from the regular, grim Russian shops whose own stock reflected, in both paucity and quality, the not-yet-loosened Communist economy.
    My host family once took me to one of the hard currency shops (in St. Petersberg, at the Hotel Pribaltiskya, I believe), and the only reason they could get in was because they were with me, and I had a US Passport. Otherwise they were banished like all the other dollar-less Russians to the regular grocery store, which in April 1992 I remember was stocked with piles of cucumbers, piles of potatoes, some scary looking meat patties, tins of apricot juice, and that’s about it…
    Interestingly, though, by that time Pepsi had started being sold in Russia. In the regular grocery store you could spent 12 rubles for a glass bottle with “Pepsi” printed on the label in Cyrillic. At that time 12 rubles = 12 cents (although still a fortune to a local). Whereas the hard currency shops sold European-imported cans of Pepsi for a dollar, which in 1992 was expensive by anyone’s standards. I bought one just for the hell of it anyway, so we could take a “Pepsi Challenge” against the one from the regular store. If memory serves, Russian one was actually better…

  • jane

    I was at a Chinese airport once waiting with my white male colleague to be picked up by the hotel. We both had rather bulky luaggages. When the chauffeur arrived he looked at me (a petite Chinese American woman), and then looked at my colleague, and walked pass me and proceeded to help my white male colleague with his luggage. We of course both immediately corrected him — that he is to help the lady first! Yes, things like this still happen in China on occasion, but I’d say overall people are more used to dealing with non-Chinese people and being a foreigner is gradually becoming less and less of an asset.

  • I would agree that China definitely has this so-called “cargo culture,” in most respects at least.
    I would guess that in regards to the Olympics, the relative ease for foreigners getting tickets is probably because with the sheer amount of Chinese people who want to go to the games, the organizers are probably doing their best to avoid a scenario where the audience is 97% Chinese at every single event. Unlike people of most Western countries, it isn’t quite as easy for Chinese people to go to other countries to attend events such as the Olympics. Couple this with the massive population, the fact that much of it now has expendable income for the first time, and this could easily lead to a situation where most non-Chinese are shut out of tickets.
    As for train tickets, I’m not really sure what that comment is referring to. Buying tickets during Spring Festival is a pain in the ass for everybody, but for regular tickets I would always buy them at the window in train stations, usually less than 24 hours in advance, just like all the migrant workers. None of us seemed to have any problems.

  • Pepsi challenge

    Dan Harris at the China Law Blog has a post today wondering whether in some countries, like China or Papua New Guinea, you are treated better if you are a foreigner, citing certain examples that would suggest the answer is…

  • mor

    “A few years ago, I went to Goroka, Papua New Guinea, to recover two Kamov Helicopters on behalf of a client/friend from Sakhalin Island, Russia (man, I loved writing that sentence!).”
    This could be the opening line to an interesting novel or movie. Actually, your story is very interesting.
    On the topic, the reason foreigners used to enjoy so many privileges and sometimes still do, is that they were/are perceived as naturally rich or at least richer than the average local. Some Chinese people say “dakuan” instead of “laowai”.

  • Lo Kok Kee

    Some years back, foreigners were charged extra for most things in China, e.g. train tickets, show admissions, museums etc., by having one price list in English and another cheaper one in Chinese. The tradeoff is a shorter queue, but I doubt you would consider that a privilege.

  • steve

    I regularly ride the D train from Shanghai and have noticed that when I ascend the stairs to the waiting lounges the police are there to greet everyone. They regularly stop 20-30 year old male Chinese guys and send them over to the security desk.
    Bottom line is, if you have a western face and are not spitting in the cracks and crevices, you are perceived as “social and economic lubricant” i.e. someone contributing to the growth of China.

  • Andreas

    It makes me sad to read about it, and it makes me disappointed to read the discussion, especially in a blog that has the following purpose: “China Law Blog focuses on business law in China. ” Is this how you look at law practice?
    I am Swedish and live in China. Nothing makes me happier to see when a foreigner is taken down on earth and treated as locals are. It is so sad to hear foreigners talk and expect to be better trated due to their white skin. Seriously, come back to earth. Chinese will overrun US and most other countries due to the attitude of western people not realising the world is changing.
    The negative part mentioned, being charged more. That is because they can charge you more! What lawyer or business man wouldn’t do that? Try speaking chinese with them and you will see that you get so much better treated. Take the culture where you go instead of bringing your own, that will help I promise! A mistake I am sorry to say that especially americans do going abroad.
    Of course they are less worried about a foreigner being a burglar at a nice compound and therefore not stopping you.
    The last comment. Foreigners are not the rich people in china! The are not target group for marketers. The chinese are the ones buying luxury goods and spending money.

  • Law Office of Todd L. Platek

    Have to chime in on this one, which is an old tune. Pre-1980’s, political power was everything in China. Money is displacing political power as the great equalizer. A foreign face? Still good stuff, but only insofar as it is convenient, to us foreigners in getting around, and to Chinese in bettering their lot in life in and out of China. Just the rugged, unattractive reality of living in an increasingly dog-eat-dog society in which over 1.3 billion souls compete for tiny pieces of the pie. If you’ve got to be a foreigner in China, have the good sense to be one with some humility and compassion.

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