So read one of the first sentences of the laws and regulations sheet in my information packet as a new student at the Singapore American School. In simple English the document explained and delineated some of the more common offenses that Singapore takes very seriously. As this was the late 1990s, yes, chewing gum was illegal to purchase. But no, people did not care (including the police) if you were chewing gum or brought it into the country. The list of laws included reminders that Singapore law and punishments applied equally to us as foreigners as they did to Singaporeans. Hence we should not expect some kind of special treatment or exemption should we break the laws.
Of course much of this emphasis could probably be traced back to the famous 1994 Michael Fay vandalism and caning case. The fact that the issue went all the way up to President Clinton who appealed for leniency on Fay’s behalf was impressive – if excessive. To be honest, my view on the issue was and is: their country, their laws. You don’t like it, leave – or better yet, stay and learn a thing or two but DON’T BREAK THE LAW.
China has its share of strong laws and punishments. With a history of organized laws and strictly regulated punishments going back to the Warring States period, China’s legal tradition is much older than that of British Common Law on which the US system is based. Last year, a British citizen was executed for drug trafficking in China. The law is clear – drug trafficking carries the death penalty. This may be tragic but this is the law and with China’s historic experience of the drug trade (see my entry on the China Traders and the Opium War – https://go4china.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/home-for-the-barbarians/), it only makes sense the laws would be strong and strongly enforced.
China, for all its massive population and its startling and increasing differences in wealth, is remarkably safe and stable. In may ways, I have always felt safer in China walking through cities at night than I do in the United States. Perhaps this is the result of the US Media’s obsession with reporting about crime but either way, in China, I feel safe.
Singapore’s government had a public service announcement campaign when I lived there. One of the signboards showed a thief’s hand reaching out for a purse. It read: “Low crime doesn’t mean no crime.” The same should be remembered in China – or anywhere for that matter. To be safe:
1. Keep your wits about you when you travel. Be aware of your surroundings. If you feel nervous or insecure, leave the area.
2. Keep your documents and wallet in inside pockets. Don’t take them out unless you really need them.
3. Keep petty cash you need to pay for water, bus tickets, cigarettes and that sort of thing in an outer pocket so you don’t need to fish for your wallet and show off fat stacks of cash.
4. Keep an eye on your bags on the bus or train.
5. Only take registered taxis and do not take rides from touts at train or bus stations. They may not be criminals but they will probably try to rip you off.
6. Don’t buy, sell, import, export or USE drugs. It’s just not worth the risk. Roundups of foreigners have taken place in bar districts like Beijing’s Sanlitun in recent years. Just don’t do anything stupid. You want to see China, come to China; you want to smoke pot, go to Amsterdam.
7. Respect the country you are in.
China has a long and rich history – one that is different from ours. We should appreciate and respect this. Failing that, just remember that the days of “extraterritoriality” are over. Unless you have a diplomatic passport, the law is the law. But, as Chris Rock once advised in his stand-up on “How not to get your ass kicked by the police” – Obey the law! China is safe and enjoyable – live it up but don’t be stupid!