Nothing is more ubiquitous in Beijing than the brigades of bao’an—the rent-a-cops in their off-teal floppy uniforms guarding (to use a verb loosely) the entrances and exits to apartment buildings, stores, construction sites, restaurants, offices, tourist sites, parks, markets, public urinals, random trees, and the occasional “lone wolf” bao’an standing at attention somewhere for no particular reason at all. Crouching under umbrellas or hiding in hastily constructed guard posts, they watch vigilantly for…I’m not really sure what. I am told constantly by Chinese friends that Americans must feel so unsafe living in the crime-ridden United States, but it is in Beijing where I see “guards” at each gate and where every apartment door is a steel plated monstrosity with wire mesh and three internal locks. When we were looking at apartments, the fact that our complex had a guard put us on another level (we were assured). Mostly it meant a higher rent. I’m not sure why. Our bao’an force consists mostly of four or five teenagers from Hebei slouching around the gates in uniforms—which are ‘uniform’ only in the sense that they are all uniformly two sizes too big—cadging cigarettes from each other. Unless they’ve trained at some secret bao’an division at the Shaolin Temple, then I have little faith that these guys could stop a pee-wee football team much less some thug hell bent on stealing my DVD player. Nevertheless, there they are, morning and night, watching people’s parking spots and standing (or sleeping) vigilantly at the two gates to our little apartment complex.
And let’s be frank: most laowai barely notice them. We rush by one set of guards on our way out to work in the morning and breeze past another sentry post as we run to our next meeting. There’s little meaningful interaction…if you’re a foreigner.
In fact in all my time in China, I can’t remember a single time that I’ve ever been stopped by a bao’an—whether at offices, universities, apartment complexes, what have you. (Granted I’ve never stormed the Russian embassy with some of my buddies from Pyongyang, but still…). For the most part, I use a secret formula: eyes forward, not a word of Chinese (if they try and speak English, I answer in French), with—and this is key—cell phone to my ear pretending to fire somebody. Works all the time.
But it’s a different set of rules if you’re local. YJ, my fiancée, works in the foreign bureau of a major American newspaper here in Beijing with an office in the Foreign Diplomats Compound. There are two gates, each guarded by a “Premium Bao’an.” No mere rent-a-cops, these guys are some kind of PSB/PLA washouts–but the only real difference between them and your standard issue bao’an is the snazzier uniform. I go to YJ’s office about three times a week and never once have I been stopped at the gate. The first few trips I used my cell phone ruse until I realized that unless I was walking in strapped like Pacino in the final scenes of Scarface, the guards really couldn’t care less. But YJ’s interactions are different. She goes in and out of the gate 3-4 times every day and gets stopped and has to present identification each time.
Needless to say, she’s pissed:
“Whose country is it anyway? Why do they hassle us? Why don’t they stop you people?”
Ah yes, another day in the Concession Area/Treaty Port known as the Beijing CBD.
When YJ—crusading journalist and peeved Chinese patriot—confronted the bao’an about the double standard, the guard simply replied that they were “under orders not to stop foreigners, only Chinese.” Wrong answer. Right now she’s organizing some kind of “bao’an boycott” among the other staffers at the compound. Every day at noon I check CNN Asia to make sure the lead story is not some crazy lady burning her laminated identification badge in front of the foreign diplomats compound.
There is a double standard and for all of the problems foreigners have getting basic service at government bureaus and subway kiosks, laowai are exempt from a whole other set of troubles routinely faced by the local residents. As gruff as the PSB or the local police sub-station can be to laowai, if you’re the average pushcart peddler, any kind of official interaction is a truly terrifying experience. The bao’an—rented polyester uniforms slouching smartly in the sun—try to capture as much of this reflected awe as they can…by hassling anyone they think can’t hassle them back. It’s a playground bully mentality and for whatever reason, most bao’an figure foreigners are too much trouble. Local Chinese however are fair game…especially if the local Chinese look poor, are from out of town, or are walking alone.
A few years ago a friend of mine worked for an English Language School that was trying to skip out on its lease here in Beijing. Sure enough, their boss knew better than to try to have the Chinese staff do the heavy lifting—instead he enlisted the recently laid-off foreign teachers to move out all the computers and other valuables. After five trips up and back, the building security guards mustered the courage to try and stop the teachers. One of the bao’an, a young lad—whose sleeves were so long you could barely see hands—stepped forward with a tentative “Ni hao,” in the process brushing against one of the women teachers holding a box in her hands. Right on cue, she dropped the box and hit the floor like she’d been shot. Screaming. (Seriously, it was a such a blatant flop that even Vlade Divac would have winced.) This poor kid from some village-in-the-sticks freaked out so badly he actually ended up picking up the box she dropped and helped her carry it the rest of the way to the moving van. The Chinese boss of the soon-to-be-defunct school just looked on and smiled.
At YJ’s office, the security guards continue to let foreigners in without even a glance. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve started stashing my basketball at her office so that my friends and I can take advantage of the nice new courts at the compound. YJ and her Chinese colleagues still must produce an ID badge after every coffee break.
Sometimes China isn’t fair. But it’s worth remembering (the next time I’m charged triple price at the local vegetable market) that it breaks both ways.
Originally published May 11, 2007 at Jongo.com