Questions Never Asked
For Foreigners in China, Daily Life Is Free
Of Government Intrusion -- Until It Isn't
April 27, 2007
People often ask me how much I feel the authoritarian arm of the government living in China. The answer is never -- until I do. If that sounds circular or nonsensical, then I'm being clear.
Most foreigners living in China have little sense of government intrusion in their daily lives. You can walk into a lot of hip bars or restaurants filled with beautiful people, great music and pricey drinks and never think for a second about living in an authoritarian nation.
In fact, it's entirely possible to live here for years with virtually no interaction with the state apparatus, wandering a wide avenue within which you can do essentially whatever you please. But if you try to exit that avenue, you get pushed back hard -- and then you either retreat quickly to the center of the road or face some consequences. For foreigners, this could mean a loss of opportunity or business or, at the very worst, being kicked out of the country. For a Chinese national, it could be far worse.
Expats living here with open eyes and ears understand this reality, even if they don't all quite acknowledge it. Every once in a while, something happens that makes you stop and remember where you are and what the system is really like. What drives home the reality is that few people ever want to talk about these incidents, at least publicly or for attribution. No one wants to have his or her name associated with a complaint. Everyone feels they have something to lose and nothing to gain. And so things move along, until the next little flare-up occurs and the whole thing repeats itself.
Earlier this week, the influential New York art rock band Sonic Youth played in Beijing. Carsick Cars, a young Chinese group with a growing reputation, was scheduled to open. After performing their soundcheck, someone from the government showed up to tell the band they couldn't perform.
That may sound like a minor incident, but it -- and what didn't happen afterwards -- goes to the heart of life in modern China. The official reason for the cancellation was that the band hadn't applied for a permit, but that's a technicality that is generally ignored. Carsick Cars is apolitical, and was recently featured in the state-run China Daily newspaper. So what was the real issue? There's a lot of speculation, but it's impossible to be sure -- and no one really wants anyone else to try to find out, for fear that inquiries could get someone in trouble without really solving anything.
The angriest people in the venue may have been Alex Schapiro, a 22-year-old Baltimore native who has been in Beijing a little over a year, and her Chinese boyfriend. They were the only ones to demand a refund, which they eventually got. "Once we realized the band was banned from playing, we tried to create a chant to get people angry or just to react in some way, but it didn't work," she says. "Then I knew I couldn't stay. I realize the action was completely unrealistic in terms of affecting change, but a lot of foreigners come here and fall into passivity and forget what they know about how you are supposed to act and react to things."
I think Ms. Schapiro is largely right -- but also a bit na´ve. Many expats living here may become passive, but many have also concluded that Chinese people have a better sense of how to work within this opaque system. A fairly rational cost-benefit analysis may explain why many people were angry during and after the show, but the next day no one with a stake wanted to talk.
After all, what's the upside? There's nothing in it for the band members, all 21- and 22-year-old college students with bright futures, unless they suddenly can't play anywhere. There's nothing in it for the promoter, who wants to keep promoting. There's nothing in it for the friend of the band who helped spread word of this banning. He has his own interests to consider. If Sonic Youth ever want to return to China they'll have to apply for a visa like everyone else. You can't blame anyone for protecting their own interests, but the end result -- as I've seen quite a few times -- is things get swept under the rug.
A few weeks ago, a neighbor told me about friends of theirs facing a horrible dilemma. The expat family was in danger of losing their house in a compound. They had purchased it four years ago, paying cash, but now the person who sold it to them wanted it back. Because the compound was constructed illegally, there are no titles or deeds.
To make a very long, confusing story short and simple, after multiple court cases stretching over more than 30 months, a judge ruled that because the compound is illegal, the sales contract (drawn up by an experienced lawyer) was worthless and they had to give the house back. Whether the approximately $200,000 would be refunded had to be decided in a separate court case. The couple had a strong suspicion that if they left the house -- which they were ordered to do -- they would never see a cent.
The couple provided me with outlines, timelines and documentation, but then the husband said his lawyer advised them not to have their names published. It was just too risky. A Chinese native who'd moved abroad years ago, he accepted that whatever outcome he achieved would be largely based on his lawyer's level of connections, rather than on legal principles or "fairness." His wife, who isn't from China, was agitated. "People think things have changed in China," she says. "But they really haven't."
"Actually, they have changed," her husband insists. "It is much better than when I was young. But there is a long way to go."
The family remained in the house well past their eviction date, though they worried about being harassed, having already felt threatened once when their former landlord came to the house with several men and demanded they leave. Recently they were shocked to actually win a case in the execution court, the only place that can ensure that verdicts from other courts are carried out. The ex-landlord agreed to return the money within five days and they promised to leave in two weeks. The family is looking for a house to rent, but are still nervous about whether the landlord will honor the latest agreement.
I discussed the case with another friend who lives in their compound. He confirmed the basic outline, and then wanted to know why I was interested. "You're not going to write about this, are you?" he asked, concern in his voice. "If you do, don't mention the compound's name."
Share your thoughts about this column or any other aspect of expat life with Alan and your fellow readers in an online discussion.3
Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are some edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on trouble off the beaten path