Over the course of the summer I was harassed four times by Public Safety Bureau officials leaving my building. Each time they asked for my registration card, and each time I told them that I did not have it. Why didn’t I have it? Well, there’s no law saying you are required to carry it, as I confirmed with the officers each time. It was in my apartment so I would not lose it.
The first time I was foolish enough to stop and talk with them, making me later for work. This was way back in June, and I made two more mistakes: speaking to them in Chinese and telling them who I was. Ironically, these actions, which you might think would make them more likely to treat me well, ended up causing problems.
They accepted that I would not go back upstairs (so weird that someone would not want to be late for work!) Finally they agreed that I could just find my name on the registration list from their offices. Since I follow all laws in China, and I was properly registered, I found my name quickly and went on my way.
The next week, every time I came home there was a little card on my door reminding me to re-register. That’s right, my prize for stopping and talking to these petty bureaucrats was that I had to take time off from work (they are open from 9AM to 5PM) and re-register. Even though I was completely legally registered already!
As you might imagine, I was more than a little irritated when they tried the same trick three weeks later. Fortunately, I wised up, spoke quickly in English, and pushed past them. You might think this would be a bad strategy, but it worked perfectly. As it did two weeks after that.
Each of these incidents was on the way to work, and each time I ended up in a foul mood, although perhaps no more than normal. I’m grouch. It’s just the way I am.
However, the fourth time they showed up, it was at 9:30PM and I was biking back from dinner. Let’s just say I was NOT happy to see these bullies out there harassing the foreigners YET AGAIN. Now I’m not endorsing what I did, but I will say it worked and seemed to completely baffle them. They ask me for me registration card and I told them I did not have it and tried to push past them. A man asked me why I did not have it and I explained I had registered, re-registered and was completely in compliance with the law. This is when things got a little interesting.
He continued to push me about my card at which point I went into a rage and started yelling at him about how I was tired of being harassed even though I am law-abiding, tax paying member of society. I remember him yelling back, “Why are you upset?” which to be honest was much more comical than menacing. Finally I told them it was ridiculous that they made me go down to the PSB so frequently and walked away, more than a little nervous that they might follow me.
My question is this: what is their motivation? At first I thought maybe they were looking for a shake-down. There can be big fines if you’re not registered, but going after foreigners in Beijing is not likely to be a good strategy, and no doubt the PSB knows that. The most likely theory seems to be that they are trying to remind us who is in charge here. My third theory is that they are trying to more or less legitimately raise money through fines based on real legal statutes.
Whatever it is, this seems like a particularly poor plan just before the Olympics. When I first came to China six years ago my impression was that police would be harassing me all of the time. In reality they mostly leave foreigners alone, if for no other reason than they are afraid that we will only speak English.
My expectations for the conduct of the government has changed since I have lived here, but for people just arriving, police constantly going after foreigners will only feed into pre-existing notions. And it’ll be even worse among journalists with no China background coming out here for the Games. Beijing still needs to work on its PR skills.
Anyway, it’s not like the police are beating up foreigners, right?