Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

So many police, and so little crime

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A police car is parked at the entrance to the Chunxi Road pedestrian mall in Chengdu.


A police car is parked at the entrance to the Chunxi Road pedestrian mall in Chengdu. Photo Store

CHENGDU, China -- I arrived in China more than a bit paranoid.

I was travelling on a tourist visa, which was easy to obtain, and not a journalism visa, which, after several weeks of trying, I concluded was impossible to obtain, more so since the Communist government's clampdown to prevent foreign journalists from snooping around for corruption stories.

The tourist visa meant I would raise suspicion if I interviewed people, particularly officials. I joked that if I was arrested and deported, it would make a great story, but I knew it would be no joke if it actually happened.

In addition, I had been warned security police would go though my stuff when I was away from my hotel room, photos of military bases (even personnel) could lead to arrest, police were everywhere and watching 24/7.

There also were warnings about muggers, pickpockets, passport thieves and scammers of all kinds, especially crooked taxi

And then, before landing in Beijing on my way to Chengdu, I was given arrival and departure cards that had to be filled out exactly to prevent difficulties.

The departure card seemed especially ominous. In addition to listing rules about reporting to authorities, it also stated I had to keep the card and my passport in my possession at all times or it "may delay your departure from China."

It seemed to be a not-so-subtle reminder that China is a police state.

In addition, I was carrying about $2,000 worth of Chinese banknotes, called renminbi (people's currency) or rmb, an acronym that is said quickly so that it sounds like r&b, the abbreviation of rhythm and blues.

The exchange rate in Vancouver was 5.2 rmb per C$1 -- or 10,400 rmb in 100-rmb notes (the largest issued in China).

As nerve-wracking as carrying large amounts of cash into a foreign environment can be, it nevertheless is a sensible thing to do because most transactions in Chengdu are in paper, not plastic, and it can be difficult to find bank machines that allow withdrawals.

So, as I said, I was a bit paranoid when I arrived in Chengdu at night... and saw police... everywhere... 24/7.

But my anxieties pretty much disappeared the first day when I realized Chengdu is a modern, bustling city that felt as familiar and non-threatening as downtown Toronto.

One morning I realized the man beside me at the buffet table spoke English. So we sat together.

He was from Seoul, South Korea, and, like me, arrived in Chengdu fearful he might be robbed or arrested.

His wife had forced him to travel with only a small carry-on bag so he could keep it in his possession at all times.

"I had heard many bad things could happen in China," Young Ha (Felix) Kim said. "But when I got here I found it totally different. People don't watch or care. In the street, I could be a ghost."

There are police everywhere, but they are not armed (only the army carries guns in China) and they seem to do nothing other than establish their presence everywhere. Which likely explains why everyone agrees there is so little crime in Chengdu, despite the lack of crime statistics to prove it.

I found one credible source online that indicated the number of murders in China is about 50 per cent greater than in the U.S., but the rate per 100,000 is one quarter the rate in the U.S. (where just about anyone can obtain a gun).

The U.S. Bureau of Diplomatic Security reports the crime rate in Chengdu is "low," and unlikely to be witnessed by foreigners, with the exception of pickpockets and taxi scams -- drivers (usually unlicensed) taking off with suitcases still in the trunk.

I remained wary of pickpockets and kept my wallet in my front left pocket, the front right reserved for my passport and "departure card."

There was a safe in my hotel room where I stashed my cash and credit card (I took only one). If staff were colluding with the police to search my things, I was not aware of it.

Credit card fraud is a problem. In fact, one day walking in Chengdu, my translator's phone rang with news that someone was using her credit card information to make illegal purchases.

There are scammers. One day, the same translator parked her car near a subway station. We returned to find a "boot" on the front tire, and a note with a phone number was on the window. When she called it, a man arrived and explained he had put the boot on to "protect" the car from theft. For 50 rmb, he removed it.

Machines that scan money for counterfeit notes can be found next to most cash registers and all 100-rmb notes are passed through them before they are accepted.

Mind you, those machines are found in the better shops and restaurants. Most street vendors simply throw money into a box and make change from the jumble inside.

Police are everywhere, but they don't seem to do anything other than keep the peace. There are traffic police in cruisers and SUVs, but they do not enforce traffic regulations. Traffic enforcement is done by overhead surveillance cameras ever watchful for speeders or seatbelt and cellphone scofflaws.

The presence of all the cameras on freeways and ring roads means traffic accidents are recorded and find their way onto the Internet. It could be that this is by design, a sort of cautionary public service. Much of the raw footage shows gut-wrenching, likely fatal collisions, often involving pedestrians being run over by huge trucks.

Chengdu drivers are as aggressive as any I have experienced, and the streets are chaotic tangles of buses, trucks, cars, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians, all jockeying for advantage. But in the 12 days I spent in Chengdu, I never saw an accident, not even a fender-bender.

I found people to be scrupulously honest. Purchase something and vendors would make change down to the last fen (penny) even though it made more sense to simply round off.

I was never cheated by a taxi driver, and they all issued receipts.

People, however, will cheat the government.

In an effort to prevent under-reporting of cash flow, receipts with little windows customers can scratch to win prizes are being introduced. The result? Customers demand receipts and vendors can't under-report sales.

And in a country where corruption is both the biggest political and criminal problem, there is, ironically, no tipping, so there is no incentive to cheat in order to curry favour with customers, who happily save the money.

It would seem crime in Chengdu is inversely proportional to policing.

Take my own behaviour. I didn't make eye contact with police and never took close-up photos of them, not even the cop I found sleeping on a sidewalk bench.

And I broke into a sweat when I was leaving China and could not immediately find my "departure card."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2013 A13


Updated on Friday, December 13, 2013 at 6:42 PM CST: Corrects typo.

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