The Absurdity Allegory and China (AAC) blog makes an excellent legal point in its recent post, “Breaking Eggs in the Bird’s Nest.” The post is on a March 21, 2008 State Department fact sheet concerning the 2008 Olympics. This fact sheet has received its fair share of coverage from the blogosphere for warning visitors to beware of crime in China and telling them not to expect privacy from the Chinese government (here, here [link no longer exists], here, here, here, here, and here [link no longer exists]). All well and good.
But AAC spotted something crucial in that directive that everybody else seems to have missed or glossed over. AAC notes how “there is a much shorter passage, a single sentence, that many who are planning the trip need to pay particular attention to.” That is that if you end up in a Chinese jail, the US government cannot help you get out:

The Department of State or the U.S. Embassy and Consulates General cannot have an American released from prison.

AAC has this to say about this warning:

Is that clear? Can it be any clearer? What this says is that there are no get-out-jail-cards in this game; there’s no stopping at Go to give Dad a call; no one’s going to make your bail before the sun goes down. That’s a fact. And another fact is that if you end up being hauled off to jail, there’s a very good chance that it will permanently alter your perceptions of basic human nature, and it won’t be for the better.
All you folks who have visions of “making a statement” – from unfurling politically sensitive banners to setting yourself on fire atop the Water Cube – think again. This is not Kansas, and, truth be told, it never will be. In fact, it has never had any desire to go that way at all, since not only do the Chinese disagree with Kansans’ views on intelligent design, they also think that all US police forces in Kansas and elsewhere are wimps when it comes to dealing with youth who want to shake things up. They have a history of dealing harshly with that sort of thing here, and if you are unfamiliar with those events, bone up before getting on the plane with your high-minded ideals. They may not beat you to a pulp in front of the camera, but they’ll have you shitting your skivs when the door closes and the world’s on the far other side. And that will only be the beginning. This is something that everyone with an axe to grind and enough money to come to Beijing during an Olympic year needs to know. The State Department has warned you that they cannot get you out of jail. They’re not lying. No matter what you think of George Bush, Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice, you must understand that the State Department is not crying “Wolf!” This is China coming-out, and if you want to wreck it for them, then they’re going to make you pay. And the price may be a lot dearer than you can even imagine.

Though I am sure most experienced travelers understand that US (or German or French or whatever) law typically ends at the border when it comes to criminal violations, you would be surprised at how many travelers either do not know this or think that their embassy or consulate will be there to bail them out no matter what. Now before you laugh, please realize many US companies believe their US trademark or patent registrations extend to China, so it is certainly not that large a legal leap for people to believe US criminal law extends to them wherever they may go.
My firm has assisted on a number of criminal cases inside China for American (and European) defendants and, nearly without exception, we are told (usually by both the defendant and his family) that the US Embassy is not doing enough to get the defendant freed from the Chinese jail. When we explain that the US government will not usually employ its political capital on this or that drug or fraud case, our clients seem downright surprised.
So to add to what AAC has already said, let me make it perfectly clear. If you get arrested in China, the role of the US government (be it the consulate the embassy, or whatever), will almost certainly be limited to helping you find a lawyer, helping you contact your family for assistance, and maybe helping you with the logistics of having your family or friends get food or magazines into you at the jail.
I am NOT expressing an opinion as to how anyone should act during the Olympics, but it certainly does not hurt to know the potential repercussions.

  • bianxiangbianqiao

    This is a very timely advice. Given the high emotions stirred up in the Chinese population by these activist wachos, the authorities have every incentive to deal with them harshly and every disincentive to be easy going. The entire population is watching them. Governments in China cannot survive if they are caught allowing foreign jerks and weirdos run crazy in front of the Chinese people. Per Danwei and ESWN, even those Chinese who did not care about the Olympics are calling on the boycotters to screw not only themselves but their very, very close relatives. I am too refined to repeat those words, like the authors of this blog.
    My suspicion and concern is that the activist wachos might be taken care of even before the police can get their hands on them, which would be a very lucky outcome for them. The moment they unfurl a high minded banner, patriotic feng qings will be rushing over with baseball bats from the university campuses in Haidian faster than Marion Jones on drugs. Believe me, these guys and gals will swing their bats on the wacho skulls more vigorously than Berry Bond after getting his man-made androgen shots. This point is related to the legal issue in question more closely than it appears. It has to do with the Chinese sense of justice. When the Chinese crowd sees a (unarmed or disarmed) criminal in the street, their first reaction is not to get the police, but to beat him to death on the spot. Frankly speaking I am worried. Thing may very well turn really ugly in August. The trouble may not be entirely coming from the authorities.

  • Reminds me of what a (genuine) old China/Vietnam/Soviet Union hand I knew during my first year in Mainland China used to say: “If you get arrested for spying, you’d better be a real, genuine spy, otherwise your home government will do nothing for you. If you are a real spy the government you’re working for may think it worth it to arrange a transfer, otherwise – tough luck”

  • nh: The State Dept can’t and won’t help you get out of jail for two reasons:
    1: Extra-territoriality ended in 1949.
    2: So long as you’re in China, you are subject to Chinese law, regardless of which passport you hold.
    It’s got nothing to do with business negotiations or Wall St or boardgames.

  • jim

    you know,, maybe we can’t get the countries to boyc–t the olympics, or even get the heads of state to boyc–t the opening ceremony, but maybe people will just stay home and turn the tv to something else. i think americans should watch nfl football in the middle of august.
    i have lived in beijing for 12 years now. they are currently demanding that we all leave the country by july 1. we have to leave and nothing other than one month visas will be issued until october.
    i was at the major league baseball games on march 15 and 16,, security was everywhere. these guys are going to turn the olympics into a police state. no live tv for anything other than sporting events. anyone and everyone living in china is going to be cut off from the rest of the world. only limited access to the internet and you can expect to be watched the entire time you are here.
    do yourselves a favor,,,, don’t come! vote with your feet and wait for the 2012 olympics in london.

  • Before you go to the Olympic Games in China

    Amid the violent protests in Tibet and the calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the US State Department issued a fact sheet regarding the upcoming 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. The fact sheet says that China is generally safe but the recent vi…

  • bianxiangbianqiao

    That’s a great idea. I was hoping you folks (or least some of you) would stay away from BJ so I can still make my annual trip back home this year. Summer is the only time I can go. Do you think it will happen?

  • I would think that most “prot–sts”, as long as its just unfurling a banner or anything, would probably end up with deportation, but if the damage to China’s “Olympic peacefulness” is that harsh, the government might call for jail time. I just don’t see a large population of foreign protesters becoming political prisoners in China.

  • jim,
    From the tone of your post, you should be ecstatic that you are finally leaving the hellhole that’s Bejing, China … so why the pouting?

  • I am not going to tell people that they shouldn’t try to unveil Taiwanese or [other such] flags at sporting events or some other kind of protest. I am against the politicisation of sport, but these games have already become politicised through the actions of the Chinese government. It’s just that I don’t think the Chinese are going to interpret such protests as anything but foreign imperialism, but I might be wrong.
    On the other hand, buying/selling/consuming narcotics or any other serious misdemeanor is something that the Chinese authorities would love to catch foreigners doing – so don’t give them a chance.

  • jim

    interesting to see that the chinese govt mouthpieces have placed you hear to read the govt cue cards. since you are the mouth of the government, maybe you can also act as the ears of the government as well and pass along some complaints from an old beijinger.
    beijing is anything but a hellhole. it is one of the most interesting cities to be in at the moment. the problem is the chinese security bureau is overreacting to all of the troubles in [the Western Region] and doing a rotten job on the PR side of the situation. as your website rightly points out, most of the western press is way off base on who is really causing the trouble and who is beating [whom]. the reality is that the [t-people] are the ones breaking windows and smashing cars. it is the nepalese police beating the peaceful [people on the streets] in nepal that is catching all the western media attention.
    but why the hell should we have to pay for this dude? couldn’t the boy scouts at the MLB games march on the field? what was the danger in that? why do all of us foreigners living in beijing have to leave by july and then be totally inconvenienced with one month visas until the fall.
    the knee-jerk security concerns of the bao an ju are going to ruin the olympics for you guys, not the few ruffle headed [people speaking their minds on the streets] out there who are dying for attention. quit punishing the common folk in your obsession for catching the few wackos out there. you don’t need to cancel live coverage of the games, you don’t need to put cameras in the hotel rooms and you sure as hell don’t need to worry about the boy scouts. what you guys need to do is relax.
    and if you want to go about pissing off guys like me who have been a friend of china for such a long time, then you may as well dump gasoline over your head and strike a match. quit looking for your enemies at every turn. i never said beijing was a hellhole and no westerner reading my post would have gotten that impression.
    so take those notes back to your boss and tell him he should lighten up.