I’m not sure if you’ve ever been dropped into a foreign land where basically no one speaks your language. It’s a strange brew: A cup of fascination, a tablespoon of excitement, a teaspoon of frustration, and a pinch of fear. China is definitely one such place. And it’s made even more alienating by the many different flavours of surveillance you experience here.
At immigration you pass the typical infrared temperature scan, x-rays, and photo checkpoints. Then the fingerprint scanner – all 10 digits please. I don’t remember doing this when I visited ten years ago. I expect if I come back in another decade they’ll want a DNA sample.
Out beside the airport luggage carousel, in the change room (a fantastic idea; bravo, China), I discovered my bag had been searched by the Chinese customs and immigration authorities to confiscate a spare camera battery I had inside. They had politely left me an official note about it too, which basically said “Don’t worry: the search was closely monitored by CCTV cameras.”. Thanks, I guess.
I proceeded to the bathroom, where I found that the mirrors have built-in LCDs displaying the weather – a pretty neat idea. I wondered if they also had a camera to monitor hand-washing technique? (In China, the mirror looks at you!)
Wandering towards our hostel on the main street, I noticed the speed-cameras’ flashes were popping non-stop. At first I thought “Boy, a lot of people speed in China,” before I realised – silly me – the cameras were taking photos of every car.
After correctly guessing which building contained our hostel – it was the charmingly derelict one, with broken concrete steps and peeling walls, exposed wiring in the stairwell, and absolutely no hostel-related signage in any language – we met the quirky manager Feguo and his dog ‘Bingo’ (a great name, playing on the Mandarin word for ‘dog’). Feguo immediately told us not to touch Bingo the dog, because “He doesn’t like strangers.” A curious choice of dog for a hostel.
When we asked for our private room key, Feguo told us there isn’t one. “But don’t worry,” he said. “You’re belongings are safe – we have CCTV!”, pointing to the cameras. (I want to stop the story here to make a small privacy digression: Of course the CCTV made the place seem safer, and maybe CCTV even does reduce crime. But China was already an ultra-low crime country, long before everyone started spying on everyone else. And wouldn’t a room lock work just as well, or better, anyways?)
Outside on the charming pedestrian-only cobblestone street full of shops, food stalls, and people, we occasionally noticed a group of Police passing by, as one might expect walking in such a public place. Except that instead of walking beside each other (like normal human beings), they walked single file, in lock step, staring directly forward like robots. Weeeeird.
After these few days of reflection I began to think that your interaction with the Chinese panopticon – where basically everyone is surveilling everyone – is like getting a great big hug from someone you don’t particularly like: It’s supposed to be something nice, something that makes you feel safe. But being so unexpected, and so over the top, it’s mainly just creepy.
The More it Changes, the More it Stays the Same
Eleven years after a very long first trip to China where, while travelling 18000km through 17 provinces I learned passable Mandarin, got daily stares and requests for photographs with strangers, travelled down the Yangtze on a passenger ferry with many people who’d never seen a white person before (except on TV), didn’t hold a fork for a month, learned about wholly new world views, got arrested in a region now closed to tourists, and acquired a Chinese name, I have finally returned. But only for a few days: My girlfriend Anna and I are en route to Russia, where we’ll ride 6600km on the “iron rooster” (the colloquial Chinese name for trains) to Saint Petersburg.
In the west, we hear all the time how quickly China is changing. I expected eleven years of changes in China would be like fifty years in any other country, so I was very interested to compare the differences from then to now.
The first big change I noticed, besides the MapsMe locations of major infrastructure being outdated (things change too fast!), was in the train stations. Today they have electronic ticket machines. Huzzah, I thought! No more 40-minute queues between hip-width steel bars (built to physically force people to queue, as there really is no other way here). Excitedly I stepped up to the machine, which I actually believed might have a language option. Silly me – of course it didn’t.
If this city is any indication, buying train tickets has now become harder than a decade ago. Because back in 2008 most stations had one ticket window where foreigners were directed. There, the attendant could either speak very rudimentary english, or at least offer more patience with awful Mandarin. But nowadays in Harbin (a city of 5m people – yes it’s probably bigger than your city) it took us one hour of being bounced from slightly friendly to outright hostile ticket attendants – interrupted constantly by queue-jumpers (oh, bring back those steel hip-bars!), to buy our tickets.
And they weren’t the tickets we originally wanted, either. Just to test my thinning patience (bearing in mind we’d been basically 24 hours without sleep, and were in the heat carrying all our luggage as we’d yet to reach our hostel) all the sleeper tickets were sold out. This was quite a shock – we were basically going to the middle of nowhere and booking it four days in advance.
We reluctantly bought the “hard-seat” tickets (literally the name of the ticket class, and a perfect description of what you receive) for the overnight train. I knew from my last trip that hard-seat overnight train rides in China are a very special kind of torture: Your mind begs you for sleep, but your body refuses, owing to the completely vertically-backed seats, men spitting loudly, people watching soap operas on their phones (a new addition since 2008), and the stench of shit and cigarette smoke wafting from the toilets (where everyone goes to ‘secretly’ smoke). At least these days, they only sell as many tickets as there are seats.
At our hostel, after the fun of Chinese train ticket booking, we had to book our onward Russian train. But another Chinese surprise! – the internet wouldn’t work for foreigners. Hours of troubleshooting later, there was no explaining the bizarre behaviour of our multiple attempts, with multiple devices, on multiple WiFi networks, except to conclude that Chinese hardware companies / ISPs have instituted ways of detecting foreign devices, and either de-prioritising or throttling them tremendously. Only when a lovely Korean girl let us tether to her local Chinese mobile phone could we use the internet reliably. And even then, I had to set up my VPN to do basically anything (besides searching Baidu). It turns out the Great Firewall of China is even bigger now than in 2008: Gmail. iCloud services. Wikipedia. Google search. Facebook. All blocked.
So the fact is, after a decade it’s not even the slightest bit easier to travel around China. To be honest this realisation both annoyed and kind of delighted me at once. As much as I complain about the challenges, they are all at least Type-2 fun (ie fun in memory only), and some even Type-1. (ie at the time of experience).
Example: There are still many hospitality staff who assume you speak zero Mandarin, and dismiss you before you can ask something. At a beer garden, while I was ordering two beers in passable Mandarin, the vendor interrupted me mid-sentence to say he didn’t understand – but he had not even been listening. I repeated my order in Mandarin, followed by “You don’t understand, really!?”. This caused the patron beside me to actually laugh audibly with delight, and the vendor himself to go red, before sheepishly serving me the beers. Yes, I enjoy the small victories.
Another obvious change is the amount of cars, especially luxury cars, which have exploded in numbers. But the city planning and lack of traffic enforcement creates a city actively hostile to pedestrians. Many sidewalks are basically side-un-walks (because they’re essentially parking lots), and cars blast through crosswalks, only braking at the very last second to avoid hitting you. This psychopathic driving behaviour, instead of encouraging me to walk faster, makes me want to walk slower – which I do while preparing myself to jump on the hood of any car that doesn’t stop in time.
Concepts of self-expression have also noticeably changed. A decade ago, whenever someone’s phone was pointed at me it was to take a secret photo of the laowei (foreigner). And many still asked to take photos with us. But now, every time I suspected someone was taking a secret photo of me, they were always actually taking a selfie. And tattoos, then rare to non-existent, are now very common. The style is usually very intricate animal art (dragons are popular) – never Chinese characters. It seems only white people tattoo themselves with Chinese characters.
This post may seem a bit negative on China and our brief visit, but it’s only because writing about delicious meals and scenic boat rides is boring. The internet is already full of happy fluff – just open Instagram. Still, I’ll end by saying that China has noticeably improved in many ways: The public bathrooms are now free, and in general muuuuch cleaner – some even have soap! And in other ways it’s blown right past the West, and not just in airport facilities, but in digital technology.
The Chinese app WeChat is a behemoth of functionality, seamlessly combining: Mapping, shopping, messaging, translation, ride sharing, food ordering, paying utility bills, booking doctor’s appointments, splitting restaurant bills with friends, and making payments. The digital payment aspect of WeChat might even be smoother than Apple Pay (just point your smartphone at the vendor’s QR code) and is basically the only way anyone pays for anything anymore. Even ice-cream carts have QR codes.
These ultra-convenient digital payments have the added bonus (or is it a feature?) of creating an enormous digital footprint about your movements and spending habits – something which a person, or perhaps a party of people, could knit together along with your car movements, train ticket purchases, and CCTV sightings into a very intimate, detailed, and accurate individual profile. Of course this profile can then be used for reasons virtuous or nefarious; I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. I prefer to stop here.
They might be watching.
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The Streets of Harbin
Some of you prefer my photos to my Blah Blah. So I’ve put together a gallery of my favourite 20 street photos from Harbin. Click them to display them full-screen, and use your arrow keys to change photos. Enjoy!