“For we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us”

— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Before I came to China I was asked a series of questions which seemed normal at the time but now seem completely laughable.  They included “Is there a curfew?”, “Are there police everywhere?”, and “You’ll be careful, right?”.  Clearly my friends and family had seen the tanks in Tienanmen, and heard Richard Gere’s thoughts about Tibet.  So I don’t blame them for their concern, it is touching.  But it is also on the complete opposite end of how my experiences in China have been so far.

Yesterday something strange and rather thought provoking happened with me.  I was in class starting a math unit centred around the stock market.  I told my students that on Monday we were going to start an activity where we would invest pretend money into stocks to do a bit of hands on learning.  One of my students, an American, piped in and said “Can we invest money for real?” to which I replied “You aren’t old enough to make those transactions, and I am not doing it on your behalf”.  Then I got a fascinating reply from a few students, all of whom are fellow lao wais.  They said “There is no age in China”.

Allow me to back up a bit.

When I first arrived in China, our school had a large staff meeting and one of the topics brought up was a restaurant/bar in town that had been supposedly serving alcohol to some of our younger students.  This was quite the shock coming from a country with a drinking age of 19, or 18 (depending on your province.  I was quite shocked to be hearing about students as young as 14 being served alcohol.  Apparently someone from my school had called the local authorities and asked them for clarification on the legal drinking age in the country and the police asked “Why would you want to know that?”.

This served as a good warning for the year to come.  I would frequently see some of my older students (16+) have a beer at the same restaurants I would frequent, at the same bars or clubs, and occasionally cracking open a beer walking down the street.  While this makes me feel a tad uncomfortable, I haven’t worried about it too much.  The law is a much higher power than a math teacher, and I am never too out of control to have anything to regret later.

Fast-forward back to “There is no age in China”.

Apparently, for young people there is no magical age that allows you to make the right choices as opposed to wrong ones.  I found this incredibly interesting that a country which has such restrictions does not consider this to be a law that is worth making or enforcing.

Then again, does this freedom on alcohol or tobacco consumption only apply to foreigners and not to Chinese?  I really have no idea, but I am sure someone down in the comments section knows.

Some of my friends and I frequently joke about “The White Passport”.  While we say it as a joke, it really is not all that funny.  Many of us live in separate apartment complexes, all of which have security guards on the outside.  Now for those of us who are Caucasian the guards serve as little more than someone to say “ni hao” too.  However, for any of our friends who are Asian, they can be more difficult.  As they instead get asked a variety of questions about where they are going and who they are visiting.

Interesting, since we would certainly need to enter some sort of code or swipe a card to enter a gated community in the west.

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

So for as much as we like to complain about the lack of freedom we get here, it seems like in some ways there are more liberties granted to us lao wais in the Middle Kingdom than we may have back in the West.  It’s just too bad we can’t tweet about it.


  1. I’m sure I’ll not be the only one to mention this, but as I just fixed a corrupted CSS file that would have screwed others out of commenting earlier, I get to be first…

    I think, largely, drinking ages in the West are puritanical and largely religiously based and biased. Does anyone need more proof of this than looking at the US? You’re responsible enough to drive at 16, choose your leader and kill people in other countries at 18, but you can’t drink until you’re the responsible age of 21?

    It clearly has no basis in reality.

    That is, of course, not to say that I think 10 year olds should be getting hammered down on bar street. I don’t at all disagree with having something on the books as a legal age limit for selling alcohol to minors, but we ALL know that it is barely a speed bump in the process of a teenager’s quest to get pissed.

    As for how it relates to Chinese laws, I’m guessing it’s much like most laws in China — ignored until it can’t be or until it benefits someone with more power and influence than you.

    The liberty debate is an interesting one, as I personally feel we all suffer under the yoke of assumed, but not true, liberty. This has much better marketing in the West, and in a lot of ways those liberties are better protected by a more consistent (if not convoluted) legal system. But in China, if you manage to not wake the tiger, I agree your effective liberties can be a lot greater.

  2. I like the last line, Glen. Well put.

    When I lived in Italy there was a joke that anyone tall enough to see over the bar would be served alcohol. I think there actually is now a drinking age there but enforcement is certainly selective.

    China appears to have a similar system in place.

  3. This is my second year here now and my initial reaction when I arrived was that life here was much more free than Australia, not only for foreigners but it seemed that no one had to adhere to any rules. Even if there were rules in place no one paid any attention to them anyway. My second year I have noticed that whislt this still seems to mostly ring true, I have noticed small things that bug me somewhat, especially within working units. I guess no place is perfect wherever you go in the world!

  4. @Ryan well put re: waking the tiger. I kind of want to edit it into my post now, but I think that would be too obvious at this point 🙂

    @Kellen Parker/Matthew Stinson do you know if either of these laws are followed for Chinese youths? Because they clearly aren’t being followed for young lao wais out there.

  5. no dialogue with evil. the olympics showed the olypics are truly not worth respect and are pathetic by “honoring’ china with the games. harper only one (even in backhandd manner) said we will not accept your lack of concern for human/individual rights. are we so desperate for cheap goods we kissass of evil tyrants? yes. sad sad sad

  6. consciously put chinese goods back on shelf, the citizen can help restrict chinas power by not buying any goods. i dont believe in protectionism but this is not a free country nor a free economy. do not contribute to the military machine- 60th anniversary focused on rolling tanks, marching boots, flying death, etc….this is about the worker or human no it is evil like germanys show of force, it will be used if we dont stop now. yes i know what it take to “stop”, yes i understand the issues. one human squished by state is evil

  7. Freedom is knowing how big your cage is…

    Yes Chinese have a lot of freedoms, but the only reason for that seems to be that the government doesn’t care how the ‘cattle’ behave, as long as they keep the governemnt officials kids in foreign universities and they don’t rock the political boat.

  8. Sometimes I wonder how Chinese people perceive Western liberty.

    When I’m in mixed company –esp. in a taxi–laowai love to point out to Chinese English speakers how people in America are supposed to stop at traffic signals. We have to follow the laws. We have to pay taxes, etc., etc. And all of it is usually enforced quite well. Whereas here it seems (at least from my POV here in a southern Hunan city where, as any good taxi driver will tell you, “There are no laws.”) that Chinese have the freedom to disregard laws when convenient… So do they see Americans as oppressed by a draconian system?

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