World ? Asia ? China

China: Safety

China was long touted as one of Asia's safest destinations, but this is changing rapidly. So be cautious about theft in the same places as anywhere else in the world -- crowded markets, popular tourist sights, bus and railway stations, and airports. Despite the rise in crime, the main danger of walking the ill-lit streets at night is of falling down an uncovered manhole or walking into a phone or power wire strung at neck height. Take standard precautions against pickpockets (distribute your valuables around your person, and wear a money belt inside your clothes). There's no need to be concerned about dressing down or not flashing valuables -- it's automatically assumed that all foreigners are astonishingly rich anyway, even the scruffiest backpackers, and the average Chinese cannot tell a Cartier from any other shiny watch. If you are a victim of theft, make a police report (go to the same addresses given for visa extensions in each city, where you are most likely to find an English-speaking policeman). But don't necessarily expect sympathy, cooperation, or action. The main purpose is to get a theft report to give to your insurers for compensation.

Street crime increases in the period leading up to Chinese New Year as migrants from the country become more desperate to find ways to fund their journeys home. Be especially vigilant at this time of year.

Harassment of solo female travelers is slightly more likely if they appear to be of Chinese descent, but is very rare.

Traffic is a major hazard for the cautious and incautious alike. In Hong Kong and Macau, driving is on the left, and road signs and traffic lights are obeyed. In mainland China, driving is on the right, at least occasionally. The rules of the road are routinely overridden by one rule: "I'm bigger than you, so get out of my way," and pedestrians are at the bottom of the pecking order. Cyclists ride along the sidewalks, and cars also mount sidewalks right in front of you and park across your path as if you don't exist. Watch out for loose paving slabs caused by these selfish SUV drivers; usually they only spurt up dirty water, but twisted ankles sometimes occur, too. Cyclists go in both directions along the bike lane at the side of the road, which is also invaded by cars looking to park. The edges of the main roads also usually have cyclists going in both directions. The vehicle drivers are gladiators, competing for any way to move into the space ahead, constantly changing lanes, and crossing each others' paths. Pedestrians are matadors pausing between lanes as cars sweep by to either side of them. In cities they tend to group together and edge out into the traffic together, causing it to swing ever farther out away from them, often into the path of oncoming vehicles, until eventually the traffic parts and flows to either side, and the process is repeated for the next lane. Whether it's more hair-raising to be in the vehicle or on the street is an open question. Driving tests are laughable, and even though China only has 2% of the world's cars, it already has 20% of all traffic-accident fatalities. The latest scourges to watch out for are rechargeable electric bicycles, which silently whiz along the sidewalk catching many pedestrians completely unawares.

Visitors should be cautious of various scams, especially in areas of high tourist traffic, and of Chinese who approach and speak in English: "Hello friend! Welcome to China!" or similar. Those who want to practice their English and who suggest moving to some local haunt may leave you with a bill that has two zeros more on it than it should, and there's trouble should you decline to pay. "Art students" are a pest: They approach you with a story about raising funds for a show overseas, but in fact are merely enticing you into a shop where you will be lied to extravagantly about the authenticity, uniqueness, originality, and true cost of various paintings, which you will be pressured into buying for dozens of times their actual value. The man who is foolish enough to accept an invitation from pretty girls to sing karaoke deserves all the hot water in which he will find himself, up to being forced by large, well-muscled gentlemen to visit an ATM and withdraw large sums to pay for services not actually provided.

Dealing With Discrimination

In mainland China, in casual encounters, non-Chinese are treated as something between a cute pet and a bull in a china shop, and sometimes with pitying condescension because they are too stupid to speak Chinese. At some sights, out-of-town Chinese tourists may ask to have their picture taken with you, which will be fun to show friends in their foreigner-free hometowns. ("Look! Here's me with the Elephant Man!") Unless you are of Chinese descent, your foreignness is constantly thrust in your face with catcalls of "laowai" (or "gweillo" in Cantonese areas), a not particularly courteous term for "foreigner." Mocking, and usually falsetto, calls of "Helloooooo" are not greetings but similar to saying "Pretty Polly!" to a parrot. Whether acknowledged or not (and all this is best just ignored), these calls are usually followed by giggles. But there's little other overt discrimination, other than persistent overcharging wherever it can possibly be arranged. Indeed, in general, foreigners get better treatment from Chinese, both officials and the general public, than the Chinese give each other, once some sort of communication is established. People with darker skin do have a harder time than whites, but those with no Mandarin will probably not notice. Hong Kong and Macau are both more tolerant, although souvenir shops and markets will overcharge wherever possible. Hong Kongers married to foreigners know to leave their spouses at home when they shop for dinner.

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