- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.
In modern China, there is precious little that money can’t buy. Shoppers on the massively popular e-commerce site Taobao.com can hire a boyfriend to meet their parents, or pay someone to endure their insults (the cheapest rate is one RMB — about $0.16 — per barb). And now, this latest innovation: Chinese with cash to spare can pay a foreigner to report a crime on their behalf.
On China’s Sina Weibo microblogging platform, a user named Yu Min, who claims to be an advertising company employee, caught the attention of a few thousand netizens on Oct. 17 when he shared photographs of two crudely made advertisements. Based on information available on the photo, the second advertisement was posted on the streets of Hefei, the capital of impoverished Anhui province. (It is not clear where the first advertisement was posted.)
Translated into English, the first advertisement reads: "Foreigner will report crimes for you: Starting at 200 RMB [about $33] per month — Retrieve lost items — 100 percent of cases solved."
The other, a bit more restrained, reads: "Foreigner will report crimes for you: Police take [them] seriously — The rate of solved cases is high."
(The phone numbers were partially obscured, so FP was unable to verify the veracity of the advertisements.)
Do Chinese police actually take foreigners’ complaints more seriously? Often, the answer is yes. It likely depends on the location, how rare foreigners are there, and what a particular officer might think of the presence of outsiders in China’s midst. As with any country, it also helps if the person doing the reporting is polite.
In any case, a perception abounds among Chinese citizens that victims of crime who hold foreign passports are granted special treatment and more attention by the police. Yu pointed out several instances of extraordinary police assistance for foreigners in China, all of which have been reported in Chinese media. In February 2012, Wuhan city police helped Japanese traveler Kawahara Keiichiro track down his stolen bicycle after Keiichiro’s online plea for a return of the bike went viral in Chinese social media. In March 2012, two Beijing police traveled roughly 12 miles on foot to help an American retrieve his escaped horse. And in July 2012, after a hotel room cleaner in Ningbo mistakenly threw a Russian man’s photo album in the trash, several police schlepped to the trash dump, and rifled through five tons of trash before hitting paydirt.
It’s surely unfair to characterize such Herculean displays as the standard for Chinese police. But the striking contrast with the everyday treatment Chinese receive — where a trip to the police station is often intimidating, frustrating, and bewildering — nonetheless rankles. One user tweeted, "Why is it that when foreigners lose a bicycle, it can be found but Chinese people lost so many children [to kidnapping] but few can be found?" The user’s handle means "Looking for My Son," and according to his tweets, the native of Guangdong province has been searching for his son for over seven years with repeated appeals to police. As Yu wrote, it is "enough to make a Chinese person cry."