I often internally cringe when listening to someone back from their first two week trip to China. Those people virtually always come back raving about the place and talking as though it is flawless. Some amazing combination of Paris and Fiji or something. That’s fine, but what too few seem to realize — and which I am going to have to write about somewhat elliptically for this to stay up on the net — is that at its heart, China can be a risky country. I am not telling anyone to be afraid or not to go there, but I am saying that it ain’t Kansas.
Directly and indirectly from people who call the China lawyers at my firm and from friends who live in China and from what I read, I am sensing there has been an increase in foreigners getting into legal trouble in China. Criminal trouble. Yes, in nearly all of these cases these foreigners did something stupid . . . but still.
Let’s ignore fault and blame for now and get straight to practicalities. Do not contest your cab fare and then get into a an argument with your taxi driver in China. Because if you end up coming to blows, there is a decent chance you will end up in jail and there is even some chance you will end up in jail merely for not paying. I do not know what the odds are in either situation but I do know that it happens more than most people realize.
The same is true of bar fights. In many countries the police will take both inebriated fighters to jail and release them a day or two later. But in China it is not unheard of for the foreigner to face years of prison time.
What should you do to prevent these sorts of problems? One, let it go. You’ve been scammed out of ten dollars? Put that in perspective and move on. You’ve been dissed by some loser at a bar? Walk away. Disarm that person with humor. Be the rabbit. Two, if you are arrested and given an offer that will involve you quickly getting freedom, consider taking it, because it probably will be the last offer you get. And whatever you do, don’t believe it will all just eventually pass over, because if anything it will get worse. Your Embassy or Consulate will usually do whatever they can to help you, but that oftentimes consists of little more than alerting your relatives and giving you a candy bar or two. It’s not that they don’t want to help or are unwilling to help, it’s just that legally there is very little they can do to help.
Whenever we write posts like this we get comments and/or emails accusing us of deliberately scaring off people so as to pad our own pockets. Wrong. Our pockets get padded the more people go to China, not the less. No, we write posts like this because we do not want to see foreigners (mostly young foreigners) get into trouble in China. So don’t. Please.
There are all sorts of other ways foreigners can and do find themselves behind bars for doing things they never realized could lead to criminal prosecution, and the below posts detail some of them:
- Foreign Executives Arrested in China: Please Do NOT Look Away
- How To Avoid Getting “Detained” in China and Why Your Odds are Worse than you Think
- China Customs Violations and How to Avoid Jail Time
- How to Close a China WFOE and not go to Jail
- Pay Your Wages In China Or Go To Jail. Do Not Pass Go.
- China Business. China Jails. China Hostages.
- Shutting Down A China Rep Office Without Going To Jail
- Avoiding Chinese Jails. I’m Talkin’ To You.
- Sanlu’s Lessons For Foreign Managers In China….Because Jail Is Probably Not Where You Want To Be
- Avoiding Chinese Jails. The Thai Bar Edition
UPDATE: On a somewhat related topic, Foreign Policy Magazine just came out with a hard hitting article on hostage taking to ensure debt repayment, entitled, Hostage Taking Is China’s Small-Claims Court: Everyone in China — including the police — treats kidnapping as just the price of doing business. Wow.