What to Do When the Chinese Police Turn Up

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Jan 28. – Most foreigners in China won’t have much of a problem with China’s police, unless they are really naughty, or just very stupid. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will not confront you from time to time. If and when they do, it pays to know how to act.

Just this week, I was involved in an incident with police in Shanghai. Although I had nothing to do with the incident in question, had matters been handled poorly, my detention may well have followed. The story I will relate will be very familiar to many long term expatriates in China, yet it could have all gone very badly wrong, and the lessons within are of note to any visiting businessman.

I was joining a group of long-term expatriates – some of whom have been in China for over 20 years, and most for at least 10 – at a pre-Chinese New Year dinner at a relatively obscure Chinese restaurant in the Puxi area of the city. A private room had been booked, and as most of us were associated with a branch of the local Hash House Harriers, the internationally known “Drinking Club with a Running Problem,” large quantities of beer were expected to be consumed over the course of the evening.

Everything went swimmingly well – great food, beer and conversation – until about 11 p.m. when members began, reluctantly, to leave. One of the first to go forgot his jacket. With Shanghai having snowed just a few days previously, after only a minute outside he realized and returned to collect it. However, when reentering the restaurant, he pulled the entrance door instead of pushing it – and the door handle came off in his hand. It had been attached by little more than cheap glue and some sticky tape. It was rather obviously a botched repair job awaiting someone to properly fix it.

Collecting his jacket, there was a minor discussion with the restaurant manager, who had darkly muttered something about “RMB1,000” to fix the door, regardless of the fact that collectively, our food and drinks consumption had probably given him the best takings of the week. The bill, in fact, had already been met and we were merely supping up our last dregs. Our door-handle-destructing friend shook off the manager’s comments as a mild complaint rather than anything serious, collected his jacket, and after a couple of raised comments towards the manager, departed into the mists of a Shanghai winter evening. It was, after all, a trivial matter.

However, the manager didn’t see it that way. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, still merrily swapping stories and drinking in our room, he called the police and reported a case of property damage. Five minutes later, those of us still left in the room – some 10 expats – were confronted by two uniformed and one plain clothes policemen, the manager, and a couple of burly-looking types in support – probably some local thugs to ensure we didn’t run away. It was a somewhat incredulous group of expats who were sternly told by the police to remain while they “established a few facts.” We were, in effect, witnesses to a crime, possibly guilty by association, and they needed to discuss this with us. The damage to the door, we were told, was now evaluated at RMB20,000 (close to US$3,000).

At this stage, the reaction of the various expatriates around the table determined the outcome. One, a fluent Chinese speaker, immediately became somewhat obnoxious, and began berating the police, in Chinese and English, for being so stupid. He even attempted, in beer-laden outrage, to perform a “moon” and expose his buttocks to them (he was restrained from doing so). However, the police reaction to this show of petulance was immediate – “I want to see all your passports. If you do not have, we take you all to the police station. You want to go?”

The police do have the right to apprehend anyone in China without a valid ID document in hand at time of request. For foreigners in China, that means carrying your passport with you at all times. Needless to say, very few people do, and of the remaining 10 of us, only two (who had had just flown into Shanghai that evening) had our passports. This ID-in-hand requirement is merely a way in which the police can always have a means to apprehend anyone they feel may be a suspect. Our door-destructing friend (of whom rather now less friendly images were being thought) had long vanished, so now we were culpable by association. An evening being dragged off to the local police station loomed. Nearly US$3,000 was being demanded.

The cold, sobering thought of what the police could do to all of us slowly began to sink into the more belligerent of our group. Our confrontational member was told to shut up, keep his butt in his pants, and stay out of it. Discussions with the police were held, and two of our party – one Brit, one Kiwi –somewhat bravely volunteered to accompany the police to their station to assist with enquiries and make a statement. The rest of us were free to go.

During the twenty-plus years I’ve been in China I have of course seen many incidents in which the police have become involved. However, what always astounds me is the confrontational attitude of many expats who ought to know better. I may also add that the worst offenders in this regard tend to be the Americans and the Brits. Perhaps used to living in countries where as a matter of civil liberty no national ID card is required, it can make them almost immediately aggressive when they sense their “civil liberty” being infringed upon. However, such behavior invariably ends in tears and the real way to deal with the police in China if you are drawn into an incident is to be low key, humble, and helpful. No policeman anywhere likes abuse and the Chinese police are no exception. Treat them respectfully, cooperate, and it makes your life easier. Even in the face of apparent unfairness, the police are (usually) there to help sort it out.

I may also add that there is a tendency – especially around Chinese New Year – for certain individuals in China to seek opportunities to earn extra income. I have no doubt the manager was attempting a shakedown. There’s also a tendency for Chinese to rely on the police as a quasi-debt-collecting or enforcement agency. However, in this particular instance, the manager had miscalculated.

The upside of the matter was that after two hours being detained and questioned, our friends were released, having paid the manager RMB500 (US$74) for the damage to his door. The manager, who in the opinion of the police had called them unnecessarily, had to provide an official receipt for that amount and report back to the police station himself with a full and complete set of all his business licenses.

All was well that ended well. But had our belligerent friend managed to expose his bottom or been allowed to continue his anti-China rants, it might well have been a different story for all of us. When the police turn up – cooperate. And if it’s serious, make sure you get hold of one of your friends to either accompany you or find out where you are going. It’s also not a bad idea to carry in your wallet and with you a photocopy of the ID pages of your passport, it’s usually enough to avoid being unnecessarily implicated and avoid a trip to the station. If the matter is more serious (such as involving an injury or a crime) then they may take your passport if you have it. If so – you must ask for an official receipt. The police are obligated to provide one to you. That said, the vast majority of such foreign exposures to incidents involving the police in China are trivial. There’s no need for alcohol or stupidity to make them worse, and especially when the police are asked to become involved.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates and the publisher of China Briefing. Readers may submit their own stories of China’s police being involved with incidents with expatriates in the comments section below.

7 thoughts on “What to Do When the Chinese Police Turn Up

    Gary Edwards says:

    Greetings….KIWI???…….I was the none English Police station attendee…..I am Australian !
    “New World”, “Antipodian”, “Southern Hemispherian”…but not Kiwi.
    (Although my ex wife was…but that’s a different story!)
    Anyway….as I pointed out to William……..we ended the Tiger with a Bash to remember!

    Interestingly……….at 10am Thursday morning I had a knock on the door from 2 members of the local constabulary on a “random” check of registration with the local Police station. (a first in 11 years of living in China!).
    Unfortunately, having only picked up my new visa on Wednesday afternoon, my new Visa number did not match the visa number on my registration!! (I was planning to re-register that very afternoon)…….thus, 1 hour of argument about any fool can see it was my old visa (which was valid until Feb 3, but was cancelled with the issue of the new visa) number…..and the new registration wasnt yet done.
    Good grief……as the ex Australian PM (Malcolm Fraser, not Bob Hawke) once remarked to a disgruntled voter….”Life wasnt meant to be easy”!
    How true.

    Please pass on my warm regards to Shirley & apologies for being singled out by “the fizz” by virtue of her being the only Chinese person there!

    May the Bunny be kind to us all…Cheers,


    I actually carry my passport with me everywhere I go. It’s not heavy or anything and it easily fits in my bag behind my wallet, so I don’t see the problem. Furthermore I would put the name of the restaurant online, such that nobody else would every want to go there again 🙂

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    @Gary – my apologies for calling you a Kiwi – and on Australia Day too! Thanks again though for your assistance in dealing with the issue.
    @Thijs – thanks also, however we won’t name the joint involved. There’s punishment enough in that they won’t have 20 people each month eating and drinking their way through a down-down. Cheers – Chris

    Sam says:

    Another good idea for Americans is to opt for the Passport Card ID (a 15USD option) when you apply for a new passport next time. It is a new card the size of a Drivers Lisc that fits inside your wallet easily, and contains all of the identification as in a normal US Passport. Works well in situations like this, but can’t be used for international travel.

    Definitely tell us the name of the rest so we can avoid it in future….

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    @Sam – thanks for the tip. We’ll remain quiet about the restaurant – it may be the manager rather than the owners who screwed up, and I disapprove of publically leaking such info to obtain a wider audience for the sake of revenge.
    Their punishment is they lost our not insignificant business, and thats adequate for us. Thanks – Chris

    David Oliver says:

    I had an altercation with a motorbike taxi in Beijing just before CNY in the bike lane at some traffic lights. I hit the back of his cabin with my handlebar but didn’t do any damage. Thinking nothing of it I got of my bike to go around him but he got off his motorbike and grabbed my handlebar. Without looking at the ‘damage’ he wanted RMB200 or 300 in compensation.

    Telling him to f%@k off I tried to pull my bike away but he wasn’t having any of it. Even after I grabbed his throat and pushed him against the railings he wouldn’t let go. I had a package in one hand – in hindsight perhaps a good thing – and was still holding my bike otherwise I would have started punching him.

    At that point even though I was angry I realized I had a look more to lose than he did. The crowd were just curious onlookers at this point but I’m sure he could have recruited them as witnesses if I had hit him.

    I thought knowing my luck it would end up with a trip to the police station and, as I was going back home to NZ early the following day, endless hours would be wasted or worse.

    Finally after inspecting the back of the bike and agreeing there was no damage we parted ways. After 15 years living here I haven’t had any run in’s with the Chinese police and would prefer to keep it that way.

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    I recall a certain driver of an expensive imported car who deliberately used to have the occasional minor ‘accident’ to encourage people to cough up some cash. It used to happen at least once, sometimes twice a week until his foreign boss caught on.

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