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One Country, Two Prices

From the excellent people over at EastSouthWestNorth comes this little tidbit of two stores located in Beijing’s Forbidden City with the rather cheeky signs: “只接待外宾、禁止国人入内” (“Only Foreign Guests received, Nationals strictly forbidden to enter.”) While there is no historical proof that the gates to the Shanghai parks in the 19th century really did prohibit dogs and Chinese, these new signs are alive and well and hanging in the Palace Museum.

The presence of the provocative placards prompted one pundit to ponder the presumption behind the posting. In a column in the Nanfang Daily, writer Cao Lin reports that the signs were not exclusionary. Prices in the stores were so exorbitant that the signs were needed as warnings for Chinese lest they accidentally spend 1500 RMB for a 150 RMB souvenir or, worse yet, spread the word to the unwitting foreign dupes. Defenders of the prices claim to be exacting retribution for the rampages of 19th century troops, in particular the 八国联军 Allied Force that invaded in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (义和团) in 1900. Cao compares the report of the souvenir sellers to a recent story out of Shenyang where a fruit merchant priced a jin of cherries for a foreign customer at 35 yuan only to be foiled by a couple of local university students whose conscience convinced them to tip off the clueless lao wai that the fix was on. Their reward? They were upbraided by the cherry vendor as 汉奸–traitors to their race. The poor fruit seller couldn’t understand why they would help a foreigner rather than a fellow Chinese.

YJ faced a similar situation when she accompanied my mother to Hongqiao Market in Beijing two years ago. While negotiating for some trinket or another, the salesgirl politely inquired who the laowai lao taitai might be. Shouldn’t YJ be helping her make money off of these foreigners?

Speaking Chinese does help. I have often pretended ignorance of the language at Panjiayuan in order to eavesdrop on the local prices with some success. At one painting stand I ended up paying some ridiculously low price for a pair of cheap scrolls. A dazed-looking foreigner with his Lonely Planet sticking dutifully out of his backpack squeezed through the crowd to admire the other paintings.

“How much?” He asked in English.
“600 RMB a piece,” said the proprieter in kind.
I turned to my foreign friend only to have the proprieter place his hand on my arm and say in Chinese, “If you tell him how much you paid for them, it’s 600 RMB for you too.”

Like most foreigners, this system used to make me absolutely crazy. I know many places have a two-tiered system–Hawaiian vendors have their ‘local-only’ prices and don’t get me started on Paris, but rarely is the two-price game played so brazenly as Beijing. But then I stopped to think about it for a second. Is it really fair that some poor laborer 民工 pays the same prices for his fruit as some rich first-world tourist? I’m a graduate student. I dream of someday acheiving that elusive 5-figure income. But even I have more purchasing power than many Chinese, especially in the countryside. But here’s the thing: Many other Chinese could spend rings around me. When the 大款 in his BWM pulls up, is he still paying less than me? In his essay, Cao asks this question: are these claims of economic fairness and ad hoc reparations really just a smokescreen for those who want to scam a few extra RMB any way they can?

At the heart of this debate is a long-standing dilemma for many Chinese including the government: Is China a developed or developing country? Many Chinese, including the government, are very proud of how modern and developed their cities, industry, and economy has become. But when it comes time for trade negotiations (whether in the global textile market or the local fruit stand) it is too easy to backtrack and say, “Wait a minute, we’re a developing country. We need special treatment.”

If China is a modern nation capable of hosting the Olympics and boasting of its economic achievements then that’s great. There are many ways to show the patriotism and pride of the Chinese people other than chiseling a few kuai out of unwitting tourists. If you want to charge me more than Farmer Wang that’s fine, but be sure to extend the same “courtesy” to Farmer Wang’s big-city second cousin 王经理.

4 Comments on One Country, Two Prices

  1. The Humanaught // August 27, 2006 at 11:19 pm //

    Excellent post and one any foreigner in China can relate to. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out with my fiancee and had merchants try to cut her in on scamming me out of some cash.

    What I think most Chinese vendors fail to realize that there’s a number of foreigners in town now that don’t make a crapload of money. Sure if we had the income we had back home and were free to live in the cost of living of China, we could pay more. But as an ESL teacher, though I’m certainly making more than a farmer or factory worker – there are no shortage of Chinese people making more than I.

    Oh, this post was Hao Hao’d.

  2. Hee! Well, I could talk about back when if you were a foreigner you had to use foreign exchange certificates (though luckily for me, my first stint in China I got paid in renmin bi regardless), but the one thing you left out here is the b.s. routine when you speak some Chinese about how, oh, you’re a foreign friend, of course I’m giving you the best price!

    Yeah, right.

  3. I see it all coming down to definitions. My high school was often written up in the local papers for having “race riots” after fights would break out between groups of blacks and groups of whites. In reality, these were just one group of friends fighting another group of friends after a person in each group had come to blows with the other. Race wasn’t the issue.

    I think the same thing is true here. The vendor just wants to make as much as he or she can and he or she is making assumptions that are probably pretty valid, but not 100% so. Similar assumptions are made in the U.S. every day. Go to a Saks Fifth Avenue wearing a suit and then go back there wearing shorts, tennis shoes and a t-shirt and see you are treated differently.

    The bottom line is that if we foreigners fight hard we can often get the Chinese price. But, the problem is that I just don’t think we are that committed to it. I know I’m not and I would just as soon split the baby than stand there and argue for another five minutes over a few bucks. My bad, I know, but this is why the prices for us will be different.

    PS — I’m new to this blog and I really like it. I would love to see you do a post on how Chinese nationalism is affecting foreign businesses and whether we should expect things to worsen in the future.

  4. 花崗齋之愚公 // September 5, 2006 at 3:31 am //

    Thanks for the comments.

    @Humanaught, thanks for the props. Hope you keep writing even back in Canada.

    @Other Lisa, I have heard the stories of the FEC days. Crazy times. Makes today’s system seem positively futuristic by comparison.

    @CLB, I do think narrowing it to simple ‘race’ may be oversimplifying. Nevertheless, I do think that ‘race,’ however defined, is becoming an increasingly important component of Chinese nationalism. Several topics circulating around the blogosphere the last few weeks I think highlight this connection.

    Also, I enjoy your blog as well and have passed the link on to Chinese friends of mine who are currently studying law. Keep up the good work.

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