What to Do When the Chinese Police Turn Up

Posted by Reading Time: 5 minutes

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.