Adventures of Life in Beijing

Up. Down. All around. I counted 96 security cameras on my morning walk to the park which is just over a mile away. That was on my side of the street. It could have been 95 or 97. I started to lose count after awhile.

Cameras line the streets to monitor traffic.

Cameras record license plates as only certain vehicles are allowed into the city on given days to reduce traffic.

 

Crosswalks are monitored to discourage jaywalking. Sometimes names and ID numbers pop up next photos of the offending pedestrians.

 

Smile, you’re on candid camera.

 

Cameras in restaurant kitchens send a live feed to the dining area. Find a stray hair in your food? Now you’ll know whose it is.

 

I’m not sure I want to know what goes on back there.

 

Cameras are in every school classroom (keep those masks on!), and adorn entrances to hotels, apartment compounds and shops.

 

Entrance to a local store.

 

Mini-cameras hang from rearview mirrors or sit on the dash in taxis and ride share vehicles.

If there’s a place to gather, chances are there’s a camera nearby.

 

A peaceful spot at the park under watchful eye.

 

Since Beijing is the capital, it’s surveillance heavy, with around 1 million cameras watching 20 million people. The city boasts 100 % coverage. Combined with the ever-increasing technology of facial recognition, the use of cameras is a way to keep people in line.

In China, whether you sip, stroll, work or play, someone is always watching.

 

Stone sculptures stand watch

 

Thankfully, I haven’t seen any cameras patrolling the public restrooms yet. Using a sometimes less-than-clean squat toilet is stressful enough. I don’t need an audience.

 

Can I have some privacy please?

 

I’m so used to it I don’t even notice them much anymore. I guess I should put on lipstick or at least comb my hair when I go out for my morning walk.

 

Cameras at the park.

 

I did get a little nervous this morning taking pictures of them taking pictures of me (there should be a word for that).

I’ve been scolded for taking pictures at sensitive places before, like Tiananmen Square.

On one hand, I do feel  safer. I don’t have to worry about anyone spitting in my food when I go out to eat, and if my taxi driver decides to go on a joyride, the whole thing’s on tape. I haven’t seen any graffiti, looting or damaged property. I think there was one murder reported last year in Beijing that I heard about. My biggest fear is someone stealing my bicycle.

Most Chinese people who are interviewed on the subject for local news outlets don’t mind the scrutiny. It’s the government’s job to keep people safe, and the cameras are one tool. Personal privacy is foreign concept in this country anyway.

On the other hand, it’s a little creepy to think Big Brother knows everything about my day, from what time I went to the gym in the morning to what I bought at the grocery store for dinner. If I partake in any suspect behavior, I’m quite sure someone will come knocking.

And I’ve only told you about the cameras. Maybe another time I’ll explain the tracking apps, bank monitoring and media censoring that’s part of everyday life.

How would you feel living under such tight surveillance? Do you think life in your hometown would change if people knew they were being watched? Drop a comment. I’d love to hear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (7):

  1. Jeannie

    October 12, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    I would imagine all of this leads to censoring what people think and say – at least in public. The problems of a society that lives under communism. You aren’t truly free. Sometimes that may be good but to Americans that seems hard to swallow.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 12, 2020 at 10:24 pm

      There are some positive aspects to it which I never would have thought.

      Reply
  2. Paula Kasnitz

    October 12, 2020 at 2:22 pm

    Quite disconcerting!
    Continue the adventure and remember to vote!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 12, 2020 at 10:22 pm

      Already done but no sticker!

      Reply
  3. Janet K Arkills

    October 12, 2020 at 7:40 pm

    You expand my world, and make me know there are real people like you out there, writing about what is happening elsewhere. Keep safe keep writing.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 12, 2020 at 10:22 pm

      Thanks Janet! It’s great to have an outlet to share my experiences.

      Reply
  4. Ainslie

    October 14, 2020 at 3:50 am

    When I know people are watching me, I think twice about my behavior. If I approach an intersection with red light cameras, I’m much more careful to stop in time, rather then trying to time the light and make it through just in time. I’m guessing people learn what they can and can’t get away with and where. It’s certainly not my preference to live while being watched. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us! I love to see your adventures. The country is beautiful!

    Reply

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Stranger Things

If you read my post Strange but True you know that life in Beijing can be downright quirky at times.

Are dogs in other cities this well dressed and I just haven’t noticed?

 

Ready for the rain.

 

I wonder how dogs really feel about wearing shoes.

 

This mutt was rocking his ride; his owner had a radio blaring as they wove through traffic.

I thought it might be fun to share a few more aspects of life in China that sometimes leave us wondering.

Why stand when you can squat?

 

I’m afraid if I go that low I’d need a crane to haul me back up.

 

I thought squatting was something I did at the gym to buff my thighs. It turns out that squatting can be used as a convenient position to rest, grab a smoke, slurp some noodles or do some work. It’s preferred to sitting on the curb or the ground, which of course is where those doggies in their cute little outfits do their business.

 

Masks aren’t just for the virus.

 

Every hotel room I’ve been in in China has some variation of this mask. At first I thought they were gas masks to be used in case China and North Korea decide not to be buddies anymore, but it turns out they are to be used in case of a hotel fire. Whew. I feel better. I think.

Selfie-focused 

Chinese are a snap-happy bunch. From selfie sessions to pass the boredom on the bus to hour-long photo shoots in traditional dress, there’s no end to the opportunities to click and post. On a recent vacation I was so captivated by people posing for the camera I left without a single shot of my family. We might, however, end up in someone else’s holiday album.

 

Taking pictures of people taking pictures.

 

Make it work

Everyone in China has a job to do. If not, the government will make one for you. I’ve seen people cleaning the guardrails on freeway overpasses, wiping down trash cans on street corners and sweeping water off the street with bamboo brooms after a heavy rain.

Local villagers make a little extra money by planting flowers to beautify the roadside. The government gives them seeds and a small stipend.

 

Colorful fields in Gansu province provide beauty and jobs.

 

A large, flexible workforce is part of what has helped control the virus. Within hours, cities can mobilize testing crews, set up barricades and conduct contact tracing. In a recent outbreak in Qingdao, the government tested 10 million people in four days. Workers are simply temporarily shifted from other jobs to where they are needed.

Curious?

What are you curious about when it comes to life in China? Feel free to post questions in the comments. I might just use one for a future post.

 

36 Hours in Luoyang

Recently, I made a quick weekend trip to Luoyang in Henan province. I joined a tour group called Foreigners in China Network, designed for “laowai” like me to travel around without the hassle of booking train tickets, reserving hotels and navigating the changing landscape of post-pandemic tourism in China. There are still many places that foreigners are not welcome, and traveling with a Chinese guide just smooths out the lumps.

We met at the train station at 5:30 a.m. for the 4-hour high speed train to Luoyang,  the jumping off point for the trip. Our group consisted in part of another American family, an Iraqi embassy cultural representative,  a London IT guy, a couple from India, my Indonesian friend, and a guy who thinks Beijing winters are tropical compared to his hometown of Philly.

We packed a lot into 36 hours. I could tell you all about the Longmen Grottoes, with their 1,500 hundred year history and 100,000 buddhas carved into caves and niches along the river side.

 

 

 

 

 

This cave has over 15,000 Buddhas carved along the walls. See the tiny rows on the right ?

We strolled the streets of Lijing Ancient City, passing vendors selling fresh pomegranate juice, traditional snacks and handicrafts.

 

Lijing Gate dates from around 600 A.D.

 

 

We visited the Kung Fu training school in the Songshan mountains, made famous by the actor Bruce Lee in his 1970s martial arts films where he played a Shaolin monk. It’s currently home to hundreds of young martial arts practitioners who master their school work along with their leaps, kicks and splits.

 

 

 

And of course there is the Shaolin Temple itself, set in a tranquil forest with a view of the mountains. It’s history dates from around 500 A.D.

 

 

 

and the Stone Pagoda Forest, with over 250 stone stupas which serve as monuments for deceased monks.

 

 

As  I worked my way through China’s greatest hits and checked off a few more UNESCO World Heritage sites, (China has 55), I realized my favorite part of the trip wasn’t something you could put on a magnet or T-shirt.

It was the people.

Like these ladies. We can’t always communicate, but a smile and thumbs up sign are universal, and I had a few encounters like that.

 

 

And then there’s this man practicing calligraphy on the street corner, who smiled when I pointed to a few characters I knew and then penned a poem for me.

 

And these dancers in their colorful costumes, who were happy to pose for a photo.

 

And this dude on the Segway who kept us company while we were waiting in line for tickets. He struck up a conversation in excellent English with the American family in our group, then quickly ran off to buy presents for their family before we all parted ways.

 

Outside of our group, we didn’t see any Western tourists. I felt like a rock star, with giggling teenage girls following me into the bathroom, and people asking for photos with me. Some parents pushed their kids to practice their English on me, which usually resulted in tears, since the kids were afraid of the “da bizi.” (Literally, “big nose” which is slang for foreigners, used in places where Westerners are rarely seen).

Other times, they were curious about us and wanted to know what we thought about China, like this man.

 

He told us he had seen some really bad things on social media about how Westerns hated Chinese people, and so he was surprised to see us.  He wanted to know what we thought about his country. I could hear the earnestness in his voice. He wanted us to love China as much as he did.

I explained that I think China is a beautiful place, but right now it’s a little difficult to be here because there are places I can’t go, or I get questioned by the police. Finding a hotel is often problematic.

“Oh, it’s for your safety,” he told me. I think sometimes Chinese use the word “safety” when they really mean “security.”

“But no matter what the governments say or the politics are, I want to very much welcome you to my country. My family welcomes you too,” he said before reaching out to give me a big hug. Showing this kind of affection in public to a stranger ?  A foreigner? It’s unheard of. I was moved, almost to tears.

This was the China I was hoping to see.