When I lived in Russia, I felt incredibly safe as an average citizen (that is, someone not involved in politics or oil or big business or journalism). The sheer volume of people in places I lived and the large police presence made me feel more secure than I generally do in cities in the United States. The lack of vagrants and the knowledge that most people do not have handguns probably contributed to that feeling as well. The final contributing factor is the dark history these countries have of pitting people against each other as “thought police” to rat out enemies of the state. You get the sense that someone is always watching and would jump in when someone acts out of line.
Most of these reasons appeared to be true in China as well, especially the police presence and to a much higher degree, the thought police. Each of my tour guides refused to talk about the Tiananmen Square incident, the status of Taiwan, and a few other sensitive topics. If these came up in conversation, the response was an immediate “I can’t talk about that” and they would quickly direct the conversation elsewhere. Even more telling, all but one of my guides spoke very highly about China and its prospects for the future and how wonderful life was there. They talked about how great China was and how little desire they had to travel abroad because they needed to experience everything in their own great country before they looked elsewhere. These discussions felt very much like the product of brainwashing. Only one young man I met was openly critical of the government and how it abuses the vast labor force to get ahead while providing no worker protections. But even he wouldn’t touch the prohibited topics because you never know who’s listening.
But back to the topic of safety, what I can’t say is that the Chinese are willing to speak up when someone is acting inappropriately. In Russia, I constantly saw babushkas scolding young people in public for being annoying or loud. But in China, I was surprised on my internal flights and on the bullet train to see people watching movies at full volume on their mobile devices without using headphones, but no one around me said a word. I would guess this has to do with the polite nature of the Chinese people versus the brash, in-your-face nature of Russians. There are, however, many public reminders like this one about what it means to be a good Chinese citizen.
And there were other security and public order measures in China, many of which have come along with the advancement of technology. I don’t know if these exist in Russia now since I left almost 13 years ago. For example, some crosswalks have cameras that take photos of jaywalkers and display the offender’s image for all to see and look down on. They can even send you instant fines or spray you with water to keep you under control. The same applies for driving offenses. In my hotel in Beijing, the elevator had a reminder that you were required to use a passport with your real, legal name to register at the hotel or face seriously legal consequences. I was not travelling under my legal name at the time since I didn’t have time to renew my passport before my trip. The same warning appeared when logging into the Chinese version of the internet in my hotel in Nanjing.
I’ve had a lot of positive things to say about China in this series of posts, but don’t misunderstand. I’m not a pie-in-the-sky idiot celebrity like Sean Penn or Dennis Rodman extolling the virtues of these oppressive and corrupt states. I’m very grateful to have been born in America and not in China or Russia or most other countries. But I also don’t buy into the brainwashing we as Americans receive during our 12+ years of public schooling that this is the greatest country on earth and we can do no wrong. I believe that every country has things it does well that we should all try to learn from, and the fact is, I’ve felt safer roaming around Shanghai and Moscow in the middle of the night than I ever have in New York or Chicago or Denver. So if you have any hesitation about visiting countries with oppressive political legacies, set them aside and take that trip!
For the Christmas and New Year’s holiday in 2018, I spent 12 days in the People’s Republic of China. The trip marked the first time I had been to Asia in over 16 years. In these 12 posts, I share my thoughts, observations, and feelings about the PRC. For a highly readable, more in-depth account of past and future China from a westerner who lived there for many years, I recommend Rob Gifford’s China Road.