Time Out cannedI just got finished reading that Time Out Beijing, one of the city’s preeminent English-language entertainment guides, has been suspended indefinitely.

Not, as one might guess, because it had been publishing subvert-the-youth articles or anything of the sort – but simply because it wasn’t properly licensed.

Fair enough.

I mean, in pretty much any country you’d need proper business licenses and if you didn’t have them, you could be shut down for any number of legalities. That’s not too bizarre.

But the part that I think is… amusing (?)… is that the magazine was operating just fine for more than three years without complaint, or proper forms filled in.

This is strikingly in line with the visa crackdowns that have made all us laowai as jittery as the pet dog of a Korean restaurant owner (hell, the Australians are even officially fighting it).

And again, there’s nothing wrong with the Chinese government tightening control over what has long been a wishy-washy practice of handing out the “most convenient” visa, rather than the “proper” one.

But therein lies the frustrating part in all this. As foreigners we come to China and know nothing of the local practices. We largely come from countries that follow the rule of law to an obsessive ‘t’, and so are eager to step in line and fill out the forms.

But upon arriving here we are faced with a fuzzy collection of rules and regulations that are not so much seen as just “known”. Rules which force us to rely on locals that have experience navigating this confusing and twisted clusterfuck of undocumented legalities that ebb and flow based largely on who you know, rather than what you know.

And before you know it, you’re just as tangled up in the mess as the rest of the country, jumping from relationship after relationship like fast sinking stones in a futile effort to ford a river you had no idea was so cold, deep and murky.

It all reminds me of a section of Tim Clissold’s excellent memoir, Mr. China, in which he relays the story of his brother’s visit while he was living on-campus at a Beijing university. Clissold hadn’t asked permission for his brother to stay in the room and took an earful from the dorm chief because of it. The following day he dutifully went to the dormitory office to ask about any other regulations he wasn’t aware of and didn’t want to break:

I wanted to avoid any more exhausting scenes like the last, so I called through the little hatch to the dormitory chief and politely asked for a copy of the rules. He said that I couldn’t have them, so I asked, “Why not?”
“Those rules are internal and not to be told to the outside.”
“What does that mean? If I don’t know what the rules are, how can I obey them?”
“Our regulations are very clear.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, but that’s not my point.” I replied. “If I don’t know what rules you have, I can’t follow them.” After a few more rounds, I gave up. I never did get a copy. I discovered years later that this “internal rule” concept was applied across the board in China, even to things like income tax. It’s hardly surprising that China’s tax system is so inefficient when no one knows what they’re meant to be paying.

As an anecdote it’s rather humorous, but when having to deal with it in your day-to-day, it’s enough to make any laowai a little loopy.

So, what’s the point of it? Why have such a diluted and befuddled system?

In my opinion, I think it’s a remnant of times past – whereby knowledge, and the power it brought with it, was something to be carefully guarded and controlled at all levels.

For most of us, the world’s knowledge, past and present, is a Google-search away, and that’s a perfectly acceptable part of modern existence. However, as any that have smacked up against the Great Firewall will tell you, in China things are *different*.

Individual empowerment is a relatively new concept in China, and the leadership seems to have an inherent mistrust of it. If given the choice and ability, it is assumed that the average person will inevitably make the wrong decision. And as such, you have the world’s most populated country essentially being treated as no more than children in the eyes of their parents leaders.

And do parents sit down and list out all the rules for their kids? Nope – generally they just punish them when the rules are broken. Using the act of breaking them and ensuing punishment as a lesson that they should be wary and cautious of all their actions.

Additionally, by keeping the ropes loose the majority of the time, it gives the powers that be something to tighten when needed.

And I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing now. The rules were always there, but are only now being enforced. It has turned regular folks into victims, and victims into criminals. And when you’re a criminal, you deserve the full attention and swift justice of Chinese *law*. Right?


  1. Really don’t know where the Chinese government got this idea that holding back information is good, and empowering people with knowledge is bad.

    Take the US for example, where (most) information flows pretty freely.

    Empowered with that free information, the American people elected George W. Bush as their leader….TWICE!

    Do you think that might be a reason that the Chinese government thinks that democracy is empowering…. for idiots? There just might be something to their fears.

  2. Great article.

    I find it incredibly scary that China is growing to be the dominating world power that it is.

    @Paul, I agree, the states is supposed to be the flag bearer of democracy, the ideal situation. It doesn’t paint a very enticing picture. It basically comes down to choosing between 2 equally corrupt and inept idiots. No wonder we have a hard time selling it to Middle Eastern and African countries.

  3. Pingback: The China Daily Baily Diary » How It’s Done, Part 1

  4. It’s amazing how business ever gets done in China. I could never have a business here because I’d never be able to keep up with the changing laws that the gov’t neglects to inform the people about.

  5. @Paul: The problems that face America that led to GWB being elected (twice) are great, but have little to do with free access to information. If anything, it’s why he had to steal the election(s).

    @Sir Stingley: It’s important to reflect that despite its short-comings and policies that baffle many of us, it doesn’t fit the “Evil Empire” box that the West is so eager to label it as. It’s much more complicated than that. Fear of China’s rise is likely to do much more damage than the rise itself.

    @China-Matt: I agree 100%. Now THAT scares the hell out of me. 😉

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