Stay safe in China
Crime in China
China is a vast country with wide regional variations in crime rates, but in general it poses no greater risk than most Western countries. Although you may hear locals complain about rising crime rates, violent crime remains rare. Many Western tourists are likely to feel safer in China than in their home country.
Generally, the crime rate is higher in the bigger cities than in the countryside. Nevertheless, they are no more dangerous than Sydney, London or New York in the western world, so if you avoid dodgy areas and use common sense, you will be fine.
Bike theft can be a problem. In big cities you may hear stories of locals losing three bikes in a month, but in some other places locals still park their bikes casually. Follow what the locals do. If you see bikes parked somewhere, just park yours or, better yet, tie it to a post. In a place where everyone takes their bikes to restaurants or internet cafes, this is a warning sign. Assume that your expensive lock is of no use at all. Professional thieves can pick practically any lock. In China, parking bicycles outside supermarkets or shopping malls is common and usually costs ¥1-2 per day (usually until 20:00-22:00). If you have an electric bike or scooter, you should be especially careful as the batteries can be targeted by thieves.
On buses on long journeys, there have been a handful of reports of groups of muggers robbing all passengers on board, especially on buses departing from Shenzhen. Today, all passengers are required to take a mugshot before boarding. You are expected to comply with the norm rather than deal with privacy issues this might raise. Since this measure was introduced, reports of muggings have drastically decreased.
Foreigners are not usually targeted by the police. Most offences are related to drug use or working on a tourist visa, with the consequence usually being a short sentence, a fine and deportation. If you happen to be accused of a more serious crime, you should note that the first 72 hours of the investigation are crucial. During this time, the police, the prosecution and your lawyers will investigate, negotiate and decide whether you are guilty. This is the reason why people have to endure harsh interrogation (or torture) immediately after arrest, as the police know that eliciting a confession is the fastest way to get a conviction. Note that Chinese law prohibits your lawyer from being present during the interrogation. If your case goes to court, your conviction is only a formality and the judge’s only job is to decide on your sentence. Signing a document during interrogation would be an extremely bad idea, especially if you do not understand what you are signing, and you should politely insist that you be given access to consular services and a translator. According to Chinese statistics, 99.9% of criminal trials in 2009 ended in conviction (most of which lasted less than 2 hours).
Traffic in China
While it is true that China has more fatalities in car accidents than any other country in the world, this is mainly due to its extremely high population. The death rate per capita is lower than in many Western countries. But apart from that, driving in China ranges from nerve-wracking to absolutely reckless.
Traffic rules are mostly practised half-heartedly and rarely if ever enforced. Cars are allowed to turn right at a red light and do not stop for pedestrians, regardless of the pedestrian signal. Cyclists and electric bikes tend to do what they want. Don’t be fooled by any signs and pedestrian paths; it is very common for a motorbike to ride on a pedestrian path. Occasionally, cars even ride on cycle paths and motorbikes on the pavement. Similarly, pedestrians often walk on the carriageway, especially at night as it is better lit. Look in all directions when crossing! Expect something coming at you or behind you from all directions at all times.
There have been cases of drivers deliberately running victims over again after an accident, as death results in a fine and (perhaps) a short sentence, while injury results in a potentially lifelong financial responsibility of the driver for the victim. Victims in these incidents tend to be very young, older and almost always from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. It is unlikely that a foreigner will be convicted.
It is advisable not to drive as a foreigner, as you will be ill-prepared for the type of Chinese compensation you will receive in the event of an accident. Accidents have been known to be “staged” in order to receive compensation, although this is not so common.
Terrorism in China
There has been an increasing number of terrorist attacks in China in recent years, with some high-profile attacks on people in Guangzhou, Kunming and Beijing railway stations. You should be careful when visiting train stations, although attacks can potentially take place in any public space.
Begging in China
Chinese traditionally have a strong negative attitude towards begging, so it is not surprising that begging is not a big issue in most places. However, it is never far from the scene and is particularly common just outside the main tourist attractions and at major transport hubs.
Be aware of begging children who may be victims of child trafficking. Although this is becoming less common, do not give them money. There have been several reports in the local media about begging scammers who kidnap children and pretend to be their mother to beg for money.
In China, locals usually only give money to those who have obviously lost the ability to earn money. Professional beggars have very obvious disfigurements. If you want to give them something, keep in mind that many Chinese only earn 30-70 dollars a day from hard labour jobs.
Buddhism in China
Buddhism was brought to China from India via the Silk Road and has formed an integral part of traditional Chinese culture since the Tang Dynasty. No trip to China is complete without visiting at least one of the many Buddhist temples. Unfortunately, the presence of foreign tourists unaware of local Buddhist customs has also led to many scams, with many fake monks and temples preying on unsuspecting visitors.
Note that Buddhism in China generally follows the Mahayana school, as opposed to the Theravada school, which is predominant in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Mahayana Buddhist monks are required to live vegetarian and usually grow their own food in the temples or buy their food with temple donations. As such, they generally do not beg for food.
Monks also do not sell religious items (these are sold by lay people, not monks), nor do they offer “Buddha’s blessings” in exchange for money or threaten you with misfortune if you do not donate. In most temples, there is a donation box in the main hall for devotees to donate to if they wish, and the monks never go out in public to ask for donations. According to traditional Buddhist philosophy, it is up to each person whether and how much he/she wants to donate, and genuine Buddhist temples will never pressure for donations or ask for any amount of money in return for services. Monks also follow a very strict daily routine and are not allowed to indulge in material luxuries, consume alcohol or engage in any form of sexual activity.
Pollution in China
Pollution is a serious problem in the world’s factory. Beijing is the most polluted city in the world, according to some figures. 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. Talking about air pollution has become a part of life for both locals and expatriates. Even the country is not immune, depending on the province.
Places in higher elevations or plains such as parts of Yunnan and Sichuan, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and remote islands like Hainan usually have good air quality. Visitors should be prepared to see smog in almost all major cities, including on the coast, which can be quite heavy.
You will also hear a lot of noise. Construction and renovation are full-time activities. The ears of the Chinese and long-time residents are trained to filter and tolerate it.
Natural disasters in China
Being a large country, China is affected by a number of different natural disasters. Pacific typhoons hit the coast during the summer and autumn months, bringing physical destruction and torrential rain. Flooding also occurs, especially along the major rivers. In the northern parts of the country, risks include winter storms and smog. Much of the country is prone to earthquakes.
Frauds in China
Tourist areas in Beijing and Shanghai have become notorious for various scams. The most notorious is the “teahouse scam”. Variants can also be found in bars and cafés. While some fraudulent teahouses have been stormed by the police in recent years, there are still a significant number of scam reports from travellers and even local Chinese.
Around Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing in Beijing and the Bund, People’s Square and Nanjing Road in Shanghai, you may see one or more scammers starting a conversation in relatively fluent English. Sometimes they help you haggle and show you around. All is well until they invite you to a teahouse, café or pub, place the orders before you get a chance to speak (or the tea and drinks are ready) and leave you with an inflated bill. Sometimes the scammers work in teams to increase the amount to be ordered. Never start sampling tea or other items without first getting, checking and keeping the written menu. Make sure you place the order or agree with your hosts on everything you want to buy.
Although it’s not exactly a scam, the tea house staff bring snacks to your table and ask if you want anything. The prices are not listed and are not mentioned when you take something. Note that the peanuts, sunflower seeds, sultanas, etc. that you take are not free. You have to pay for them. In Shanghai, a foreigner was reportedly taken to a teahouse by a group of women, given a bill for ¥7,000 and threatened by the owner. The tourist called the police, which resulted in a quick raid on the teahouse.
Another scam, especially in the Wangfujing area, is claiming to be “art students” with an exhibition. They are taken to small shabby art shops and pressured to buy overpriced reproductions. The same scam has been observed around the Forbidden City in Beijing.
If you find that you are being or have been scammed, call 110 and report it immediately. The police are sensitive to foreigners being targeted in this way and giving the country a bad name. In China, you have the right to ask for a “fa piao”. (发票), which is an official sales invoice issued by the tax authorities. It is against the law if the owner refuses to give it to you. In the case of scams, they will usually refuse as it is legal proof of their usurious price. If you have already been victimised, you may consider returning to the shop with a few friends to ask for a refund and threaten to call the police. If you paid with a credit card, you may be able to get the charge reversed.
Please note that while it is important to avoid scams, it is still common for English-speaking Chinese to genuinely want to start a conversation with you – even in touristy areas, show you around the city and invite you for a drink and a meal. Being paranoid about all invitations and interactions with Chinese will ruin your travel experience.
If a stranger on the street invites you for tea or a drink, you should choose a place yourself, stating that you feel like eating or giving some other reason for your choice. If they are strangely insistent on going to their “place” and make endless excuses to reject your proposals, use your common sense to see if it is a scam.
Finally, high prices do not necessarily indicate fraud. In a tea house or bar, ¥50-200 per cup or pot of tea (including hot water refills) and ¥15-60 per bottle of beer are not uncommon. Tea tasters can also be charged high prices for each sample. Again, to avoid being ripped off, just ask for the menu and keep it. Although it is quite possible to pay ¥1,000 or more for a single pot of tea in an upmarket tea house, ordinary teas should not be nearly as expensive. Such delicate tea would only be offered to tea gourmets, not a casual tea taster. Besides, it is considered socially offensive to take a new friend to such an expensive place and expect them to foot the bill. If someone takes you to an expensive place and expects you to pay, it is most likely a scam.
Broken Vase Fraud in China
Despite its name, the broken vase scam (碰瓷儿) has nothing to do with pottery. Rather, it is an allusion to a story in which Qing Dynasty swindlers, carrying cheap imitations of fine pottery, deliberately bumped into passers-by and dropped the items, later accusing the victim of bumping into them and demanding compensation. It is well known that Chinese passers-by often ignore accident victims and leave them to die in the street, often for fear of becoming victims of this scam. In one variation, pedestrians or cyclists would deliberately crash into or suddenly run in front of a car, pretending to have been hit and injured, and then demand compensation from the victim of the scam. Even “good Samaritans” who help people in genuine distress have subsequently been accused and successfully sued for damages by the people they were trying to help.
By and large, these incidents are not attempted too often with foreigners, as the scammers do not want to draw too much police attention to their actions. Nevertheless, be careful when using a vehicle of any kind and always record your journey with a dashboard or bicycle camera.
Illegal drugs in China
Acts related to illegal drugs are severely punished in China. Although mere drug use and possession of small amounts of drugs (e.g. less than 200 grams of opium and less than 10 grams of heroin or methamphetamine) are not criminalised and can only be punished by up to 15 days of administrative detention and/or a fine, smuggling, trafficking, transporting and manufacturing illegal drugs are crimes punishable by death. A British citizen was executed in China in 2009 for drug trafficking. In addition, possession of large quantities of drugs (exceeding the quantity mentioned above) is a crime punishable by up to more than 7 years imprisonment, and assisting others to use drugs is a crime punishable by up to 3 years imprisonment. With few exceptions, fines are attached to every conviction for a drug offence. Be especially careful in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, as these provinces border Southeast Asia, which is a major drug-producing region. Police in Beijing and possibly other cities conduct drug tests in bars and nightclubs frequented by foreigners, and a positive drug test can lead to arrest and deportation.
Prohibited items in China
Due to the fast pace of change in China, some items (especially media) may still be banned by customs, even though they are easy to acquire in the country itself. A search of your belongings for prohibited items such as those listed below could happen when entering China through an airport, although in practice this rarely happens these days.
- So-called anti-Chinese materials are generally confiscated: these include the Tibetan Lion Mountain flag and materials about Falun Gong or the Tiananmen Square incident.
- Books: Any books with photos of the Dalai Lama or the Tiananmen Square events will be confiscated. Expect to be questioned if you bring a book with a portrait of Chairman Mao. George Orwell’s books were apparently confiscated at Chinese airports.
- Pornography: A severe penalty is imposed on all pornography and penalties are counted based on the number of pieces you bring into the country.
Stay healthy in China
Personal hygiene in China
Outside big cities, public washrooms vary from slightly unpleasant to absolutely repulsive. In cities, it varies from place to place. High-quality toilets can be found in major tourist attractions (e.g. the Forbidden City), international hotels, office buildings and high-end department stores. Washrooms in McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut or any of the coffee chains listed in the drinks section are usually more or less clean. While those in ordinary restaurants and hotels are barely acceptable, those in hotel rooms are generally very clean. Some public facilities are free, others cost from a few mao to one or two kuai (¥1-2). Separate facilities for men (男 nán) and women (女 nǚ) are always available, but sometimes there are no doors at the front of the cubicles.
The sit-down toilet, familiar to Westerners, is rare in China in public areas. Hotels usually have them in the rooms, but squat toilets are more likely to be found in places where Westerners are scarce. Many private homes in urban areas now have sit-down toilets, and a big advantage of having a local host is that they have clean bathrooms. As a rule of thumb, a western establishment like McDonald’s will have a western toilet.
Take your own paper handkerchief (卫生纸 wèishēngzhǐ, or 面纸 miànzhǐ) as it is rarely provided. You can sometimes buy it from the ATM at a public toilet; you can also buy it in bars, restaurants and internet cafés for ¥2. Put used paper in the bucket next to the toilet; do not flush it away as it can clog the often poor sanitation systems.
The Chinese tend to distrust the cleanliness of bathtubs. In hotels with fixed bathtubs, disposable plastic bath liners can be provided.
Wash your hands frequently with soap, or better still carry some disposable disinfectant wipes (which you can find in almost any department stores’ or cosmetics shop), especially after using public computers; the main cause of a cold or flu is touching your face, especially your nose, with infected hands.
Food & Drink safety in China
Although there are few widely enforced health regulations for restaurants, every major city has an inspection system that requires each establishment to clearly display the result (good, average or poor). It is hard to say how effective this is, but it is a start. Restaurants usually prepare hot food when you order it. Even in the smallest restaurants, hot food is usually prepared fresh instead of being reheated and rarely causes health problems.
Western fast food chains may use good hygiene measures, but note that the food itself comes from the usual Chinese supply chain. Recent investigations (July 2014) have revealed significant health and safety problems with meat supplied to Western chains by a Shanghai meat supplier, prompting these companies to withdraw many products from sale.
You should be extremely careful when buying food from street vendors. This is especially true for meat or seafood products; they can be very unsafe, especially in warm weather, as many vendors do not have refrigeration. Also, meat is sometimes substituted with a cheaper version, and pork may actually be used for a lamb kebab. In the worst cases, these street vendors have used rat, fox and cat meat. A rule of thumb regarding street food is to make sure it is thoroughly cooked while you watch; also, visit stalls frequented by locals and watch out for disposable chopsticks wrapped in plastic.
Mild stomach discomfort can occur with both street and restaurant food, but will pass once you get used to the local food. Ginger can be effective against nausea.
Chinese don’t drink water straight from the tap, even in cities, and neither should you. All hotels provide a thermos of boiled water in your room (refillable by your floor manager), a kettle for you to do it yourself, or a sealed plastic bottle of standard mineral water.
Some homes and businesses have fairly large water filters installed (which need to be changed twice a year) to improve the quality of the water for cooking and washing. This still does not make the water from the tap drinkable, but it does improve the water quality considerably. Be aware of this when looking for accommodation.
Tap water is safe to drink after boiling, but you should still avoid drinking too much of it as heavy metals and chemicals may still be present. Note that most of the food you eat in restaurants in China is prepared with such water, so it is more about limiting your exposure.
Bottled purified drinking water is available everywhere and is usually quite cheap. ¥1 is normal for a small bottle, but in some places it will be more. Make sure the seal on the cap is not broken. Beer, wine and soft drinks are also cheap and safe.
Smog in China
Most smog or haze outbreaks consist of fine particles that are 2.5 micrometres or smaller (PM2.5). N95 masks provide good protection against smog because they are at least 95% effective against fine particles about 0.1 to 0.3 microns in size. They are 99.5% effective against larger particles of 0.75 microns or more. As with most things in China, be sure to choose a reputable brand like 3M.
Due to rapid industrialisation in China, pollution and heavy smog are unfortunately part of everyday life in most major cities. Beijing is often in the news for this, but Shanghai and smaller cities like Harbin have also experienced it frequently. A white surgical face mask can help with the occasional dust storm, but a simple cloth or paper mask will not protect you from smaller airborne particles, so consider buying an industrial-strength N95 mask, especially if you suffer from respiratory problems.
On the website http://aqicn.org you can find detailed hourly air pollution readings for most major cities. Remember that it is the main reading (PM2.5) that should concern you the most.
Health care in China
Health care for foreigners Most major Chinese cities have clinics and hospitals that are more suitable for foreigners, with English-speaking and Western-qualified staff. Although they are expensive, it is worth seeking them out if you plan to stay in an area for a long time. For non-urgent medical treatment, consider travelling to Hong Kong, Taiwan or South Korea for a higher standard of treatment that is not necessarily more expensive.
The quality of Chinese hospitals for the Chinese population is quite uneven. While some of the newer hospitals in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing are equipped with state-of-the-art medical technology, overcrowding is a problem in many other hospitals, and the quality of care in these hospitals leaves much to be desired. The quality of care in these hospitals leaves much to be desired. Local doctors are known to prescribe more expensive treatments than necessary; infusions are routine in China, even for minor ailments like flu and colds, and doctors tend to prescribe antibiotics liberally. Most locals go to the hospital for even the smallest ailment. You should keep a larger amount of cash on hand for emergencies, as treatment may be delayed if you are unable to pay in advance.
Ambulance transport is expensive, has to be paid for in advance, has little priority in road traffic and is therefore not very fast. Taking a taxi to the hospital in an emergency is often much faster.
Common therapeutic drugs – things like penicillin or insulin – are usually available with a prescription from a pharmacist and are much cheaper than in Western countries. You can usually ask to see the instructions that came with the box. Western medicine is called xīyào (西药). Less common medicines are often imported and therefore expensive.
In larger cities, there are strong controls on medicines, and even “standard” cold medicines like paracetamol or dextromethorphan may require a prescription or a foreign passport. Opiates always require a prescription, but Viagra never does.
In smaller towns and rural areas, many medicines, including most antibiotics, are often available without a prescription.
Common symptoms in China
- Colds: 感冒 gǎnmào
- Fever: 发烧 fāshāo
- Headache: 头痛 tóutòng
- Stomach pain: 肚子痛 dùzǐtòng
- Sore throat: 喉咙痛 hóulóngtòng
- Cough: 咳嗽 késòu
Most Chinese doctors and nurses, even in larger cities, speak little or no English. However, medical staff are plentiful and hospital waiting times are generally short – usually less than 10 minutes in general clinics (门诊室 ménzhěnshì) and virtually no waiting time in emergency rooms (急诊室 jízhěnshì).
In most major Chinese cities, there are private clinics and Western-style hospitals that offer a higher standard of care at a much higher price. The doctors and nurses speak English (and sometimes other foreign languages) and are often employed or have acquired their medical qualifications in Western countries. They offer a very easy and convenient way to get familiar Western treatment from Western-qualified doctors, although you will pay a premium for these services, starting at a staggering ¥1,000 just for the consultation. Find out in advance whether your insurance will cover all or part of this cost.
For major surgery, it is worth considering a trip to Hong Kong, Taiwan or South Korea, as the standard of treatment and care is more in line with Western standards.
Make sure that needles used for injections or other procedures that require piercing the skin are new and unused – insist that the package is broken open. In some parts of China it is acceptable to reuse needles, albeit after sterilisation.
For acupuncture, although disposable needles are quite common in mainland China, you can bring your own needles if you wish. The disposable type, called Wujun zhenjiu zhen (无菌針灸針, sterilised acupuncture needles), usually costs ¥10-20 per 100 needles and is available at many pharmacies. Note that there should be minimal to no bleeding when inserting and removing the needle if the acupuncturist is sufficiently skilled.
Although Traditional Chinese Medicine is widely practised in China, regulation is rather lax and it is not uncommon for Chinese doctors to prescribe herbs that are actually harmful to one’s health. Do your research and make sure you have some trusted local friends who can help you if you want to see a Chinese doctor. Alternatively, you can go to Hong Kong or Taiwan as the practice is better regulated there.
If you are making more than a short trip to China, it is a good idea to get vaccinated against hepatitis A and typhoid, as they can be transmitted through contaminated food.
In parts of southern China there are mosquitoes that transmit malaria, dengue fever, etc.
China has only officially recognised the threat of an AIDS/HIV epidemic since 2001. According to the United Nations, “China is currently experiencing one of the fastest expanding HIV epidemics in the world. Since 1998, the number of reported cases has increased by about 30% annually. By 2010, there could be up to 10 million infections and 260,000 orphans in China if no action is taken”; Chinese President Hu Jintao recently pledged to fight the spread of AIDS/HIV within China. Sex workers, clients of sex workers and injecting drug users are the most commonly infected groups.
New diseases sometimes pose a threat in China, especially in the more densely populated parts of the country. In 2003, there was a severe SARS outbreak in China; this is no longer considered a major threat. There have been recent cases of bird flu; avoid undercooked poultry or eggs. Partly as a result of the SARS experience, China’s government has taken the global threat of swine flu very seriously. If you have a fever or are otherwise obviously ill, it is possible that you will have to spend several days in quarantine when entering China from summer 2009.