Very few foreigners living in China travel anywhere as much as I do. My job is long periods of nothing punctuated by short periods of extremely profitable panic. It also allows me to work remotely. Since 2008, I have averaged 50 different Chinese hotels a year. Not 50 room nights. 50 hotels.
Because my travel habit dates back to when I was younger and poorer and because I often go places where the nicest option isn’t exactly what you’d call “nice”, if I’m not traveling for work, I rarely spend more than 100 yuan per night on a hotel. In rural Guizhou or the mountains of Guangxi, you can actually get something acceptable for around 50. Up in the gravel deserts of Ningxia where the sky has more stars than the human eye can count, the 30 I’m paying is less for the “hotel” room and more so I have a place with a roof to put my air mattress and sleeping bag while I charge my phone and camera battery.
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In 2012, the computerized registration system for all hotel guests had just started to become common. Prior to that everyone just wrote information down in a paper logbook. In 2020, the logbook is still seen sometimes but it’s increasingly rare. With computerized registration came a greater capability on the part of the police to more easily check hotel registrations and, as a perhaps unintended consequence, meant that more of the kind of hotels who had “never seen a foreigner before” were unwilling to get in trouble by registering me wrong.
So, I learned how to register myself.
I learned to ask the uncertain people if they wanted me to help them with registering me. Cause passports are complicated and foreigner names are hard.
By now, I’ve done it so many times that even when I go to someplace nicer of the kind where Management wants to get foreign tourists, it’s still a coin flip as to whether or not I’m going to end up behind the Front Desk registering myself. Cause I’m way more practiced at registering a foreigner than they are. Also, I don’t need to double check the spelling of my name against my passport fifteen times.
The city where this incident took place is a county-level city. Forget first tier, second tier, third tier; it’s not even on the tier system. Including all the towns and rural areas underneath the city’s 3000 square kilometer jurisdiction, it doesn’t even have half a million residents. It’s small.
I arrived. I found a hotel. They said “no”.
I went to another hotel. They said “no”.
I picked a third hotel, carefully aiming for something obviously family owned, and I sweet talked the owner into letting me behind the Front Desk. “Surely the provincial PSB wouldn’t have provided you with the option to register foreigners if you weren’t allowed to register foreigners?”
While I was on the computer however, she decided to call the local police station – who said “no”.
So I went to the local police station. I confirmed that they thought I ought to be going to a foreigner hotel. That despite what I thought I knew about foreigner hotels no longer existing that they even had a specific hotel in mind for me where I was “allowed” to stay. So I asked if I could see this rule.
In later years—knowing that there is no rule, no law, no regulation—I have used “asking to see the rules” as a tactic. On this occasion, I honestly thought that they were telling me the truth. I honestly thought I might be wrong. I actually wanted to see the rule. My way of thinking was that if I knew the places I could and couldn’t go, I could do a better job at planning my travel to make sure that I wouldn’t inconvenience anyone (including myself).
The officer I was talking to couldn’t show me the rule.
Then the shift captain whose office I was taken up to also couldn’t show me the rule.
And the “English speaking” (not really) police officer who was sent for (and who took 40 minutes to arrive) also couldn’t show me the rule.
Eventually, after far too much time spent waiting and waiting and waiting, the police decided to follow me back to the hotel I’d chosen. They walked around, pointed out the reasons they thought I ought to want to stay somewhere else, and eventually settled down to watching me sit down at the computer and register myself.
Although it’s become increasingly uncommon in recent years, I don’t even know how many times I’ve had the police watch me register myself, I’ve even canceled my finished registration so that I can watch them practice “how to register a foreigner”. You wouldn’t know it to hear my highlights reel of stories involving the police, but most of the Chinese police I deal with are super friendly fellows who have never so much as seen a foreigner in person.
So there I am, sitting at the computer, registering myself, and I hear one of the officers talking to the hotel owner and he’s saying “don’t think this means you can have foreigners stay at your hotel in the future. These are special circumstances.” And I lose it. I’ve had a long day. I still haven’t had dinner. And the guy that just refused to give me anything in writing, the guy who has decided to let me do what I want instead of giving me anything in writing is saying “these are special circumstances”. Hell to the fuck no.
I turn around and start barking questions at him. “Are there any rules? Are there any regulations? Any laws? Any way in which this province is different from other ones?”
“No. No. No. No.”
And then my mouth gets ahead of my brain and says the words I want to say but which I know better than to actually be saying. “You are a police officer in the People’s Republic of China. Your responsibility is to Serve the People. Help me!”
At which point everything goes crystal clear and so quiet you hear a pin drop and I’m sure that I am in so much trouble right now … only I’m not. He shuts up. He glares at me with a red hot fury but he shuts up. He shuts up, he finishes watching me register myself, and he leaves.
Eight years later, I happened to come back to the same city. It’s hardly the first time I’ve been back to someplace I’ve been before. It’s not even the first time I’ve been back to a place where the police somehow got involved with my lodging situation. It is, however, the first time that they are still saying “foreigners have to go to the foreigner hotel”. And, to make matters worse, instead of saying things like “it’s a special circumstance, you can have a foreigner this time” to the hotel owner, the officer who I overhear—the officer who is at this hotel because the hotel owner called the police when I refused to cancel my booking—is actually threatening her that if she “allows” the foreigner to stay tonight, he can arrest her.
There’s a bunch of other stuff that happens as well before I am checked in (because I simply don’t accept any solution other than being checked in at the hotel I have chosen to stay at) but the long and short of it is that I really don’t like their attitude. I also don’t think they are particularly well trained when it comes to things like community interaction. And being as I’m older and wiser than I was in 2012, rather than say anything to them directly, I send the timestamped photos and video to my assistant along with other pertinent information.
Two days later, we file a formal complaint.
This leads to the police calling my assistant. Calling my assistant, refusing to answer her direct questions, talking down to her, and just generally continuing with the bad attitude. So, we collect supporting information (including contacting the “foreigner hotel” and trying to get them to show us a copy of the nonexistent Foreigner License that they swear they have), add the kind of phrasing that comes from most of my clients being the Chinese government, and file another complaint, one level higher than the county where this took place.
The PSB called me back.
They spent 27 minutes on the phone with me.
And promising to fix the underlying issues.
You may have noticed that I didn’t name the city where this took place. That’s because, as of now, I don’t know any foreigners who have been there since I got my apology. I am choosing, at least for now, to believe that they were being sincere and that the problem will be fixed. After all, should any of my friends visit and have a problem, there are a lot more levels of government we can still complain to.
Did this take more time and effort than it would have taken to just go to the damn “foreigner” hotel? Substantially more so. But, it’s not just about my time and effort. It’s about the “30 or 40 foreigners” that the hotel I picked had turned away over the past “5 or 6 years” because she wasn’t allowed to take foreigners. It’s about however many more foreigners there were who were rejected by who knows how many other hotels. It’s about the friends of mine who have gone to 8 or 9 hotels in a row before finding one that can take them, or the people I know who have spent all afternoon calling hotels on the phone.
It’s about not putting up with this shit.