Archive for March 7th, 2008


Your Papers Please, Or, No, Your Home Is Not Your Castle!

Just in case you had begun to forget that China is still a totalitarian police state…

Yesterday morning, I was recovering from a marathon writing session I undertook as a quick job for ¥2,000 (about $300). I had written a report explaining the state of China’s current legal code and enforcement (or lack thereof) of intellectual property rights. This was sort of a Tom Sawyer fencing painting thing, in the sense that my employer was basically paying me to research and write on a topic I had been planning to research anyway for a possible submission to The New Individualist. But because this paper was very different from a philosophy paper in terms of how much research it required, it took a surpringly long time to put it together – about a week to do the actual writing.

So there I am, after a well-deserved night’s rest, finishing off my breakfast, when I get a knock at the door. And there are standing a man and a woman, apparently working for the police. I’m not sure they were actual police officers, since their uniforms didn’t look like the more fascist-looking uniforms most cops here wear. But they did have fancy ID tags with them, and I could tell by their demeanor that these weren’t salespeople or Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Not that JW’s are likely to be legal here, but you get my point.)

Already a little intimidated, I ask, “Ni huiswa yingwen ma? (Do you speak English?)” The guy just glances at his partner, and shakes his head no. Crap. I could make out from them that they wanted to see some paperwork of mine, and it seemed to me pretty likely that this would probably be the official form I filed with the police when I first moved into my apartment. Whenever you live somewhere in China, before you even spend the night there once, you’re supposed to file with the police. It’s supposedly for your own safety, but I gather that it’s more so that it’s easy for the police to find people.

They looked that form over, and still seemed to want more paperwork. So I got the only other paperwork I had – my passport with visa, and the contract I signed with my landlord. It turns out that it was the latter they wanted. They kept pouring over those documents, and it was clear that they weren’t entirely satisfied. Since Allison still isn’t back from her trip to Hong Kong and Macau, and she’s out of calling range as long as she’s there, the only thing I could think to do is call my landlord, who, as I may have mentioned, speaks fluent English as well as her native Chinese. I explained the situation to her, and handed the phone over to the police-guy. Some bantering back and forth. I don’t know if it’s just me, but as a non-speaker, I have to say that Chinese speakers often sound like they’re very angry with each other when they speak back and forth to each other. Allison tells me that they’re not, but it often sounds that way to my ear. The look on the guy’s face didn’t suggest anger, but the tone of his voice did.

But after they spoke, he handed the phone back to me, and Mara (my landlord) assured me that nothing was wrong. Apparently, a lot of people live in flats in this apartment complex who haven’t properly registered, and these guys are just going around checking into it. I think this is kind of plausible, if only because so many flats here are used for businesses and storage. It probably wouldn’t be hard to make some arrangement for someone to live in a flat that, on the police’s files, is actually a place just being used to store computer merchandise.

The thing is, I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t answered the door. Would they have simply moved on to the next flat? Did they have the means or ability, legal and otherwise, to force the door open? Or would they have simply returned with someone who did? I doubt that they actually need a warrant here. I imagine it might’ve depended on whether they could’ve told if anyone was inside. Unless I scrupulously kept my lights off and never played music or anything, and never rose to answer the door whenever someone knocked, I think it would be kind of hard to pretend no one lived here.

Still, I kept wondering all day – unless you’re a felon on parole, or a convicted sex offender, would anyone in the US be subjected to something like this? It was fairly perfunctory, true, and they at least gave me time to put on my pants before coming in. I may not speak Chinese, but they didn’t know that, and in any event I can tell that they didn’t ask permission to come inside. Once I opened the door to see who they were and what they wanted, they waltzed in. In retrospect, that’s kind of scary. Well, I suppose it beats how things were here 25 years ago or so, but that’s cold comfort.