The capital seems safe enough. Many American cities, for example, have only a fraction of the population of Beijing but exponentially higher rates of violent crime. Break-ins and muggings are rare here, and expat life is largely secure, cozy, and care-free.
At least that’s what Jessica Horsman thought as she browsed H&M in Chaoyang U-Town mall in early 2012. Horsman, who teaches high school in the suburbs of Tongzhou, had treated herself to a weekend stay at a hotel. When she went up to the cash register to pay, she realized her wallet was gone. All that was left was a hole in her tote bag.
“There were two attempts,” she recalls. “The first try, [the thief]did not cut a big enough hole. The second attempt successfully sliced a large hole in the side of my cloth purse. I can only assume that they used a sharp object like a razor blade. I did not feel a thing.”
She immediately notified the store manager, who checked the surveillance cameras – to no avail. Horsman then flagged down a taxi. “I asked to be taken to the police [station]and thought it would be no problem. Instead, they took me to The Place,” she says, adding she can now easily laugh at being mistakenly taken to the shopping center. With limited funds, she walked in a huff from The Place back to her hotel in U-Town. Horsman spent hours calling home to cancel her credit cards, then tracked down the hotel manager to ask if her deposit would cover the fee for her stay.
“At first, I think [the manager]thought that I was holding the hotel liable, saying ‘The shopping mall is not part of the hotel!’ But I explained that I just wanted to make sure that I could still pay him,” says Horsman. The manager was much more helpful after that. “He had H&M call the police, and the store manager took us down into the creepy depths of the mall to review tapes and share my story, the hotel manager translating through it all. Again, they said they saw nothing on the tapes.”
An hour later, the police arrived in what Horsman describes as a “broke-down station wagon,” which took her to a police station just around the corner.
“After snapping a few selfies in the back of the paddy wagon, I was escorted into the station by two officers, neither of which spoke English,” she describes.
“Once inside, I was served before everyone else in the waiting room by the single officer with broken English. He wrote my answers down in Chinese, and that was it! I never heard anything from them again.”
A few days later, one of the secretaries at Horsman’s school received a call from a good Samaritan who’d found her wallet and name card on the other side of town. The cash was gone, but the call vindicated Horsman’s initial impression of Beijing as a relatively safe place – even if the city isn’t immune to pickpockets.
Horsman is now able to laugh about the incident. She says it taught her quite a bit about safety in Beijing, which she wishes every expat would be warned about upon arriving here. “Don’t let your guard down, even after living there for a while,” she advises. “Be aware of your surroundings. If you carry a purse, make sure it is made of a sturdy material and carry it in front of your body. Don’t carry large amounts of cash on you.”
Joel Shuchat says Horsman wasn’t a naive victim by any means; such an incident could’ve happened to any expat. As the owner of the Orchid, a boutique hotel in Gulou, Shuchat sees many Beijing newbies come and go every day, and he does what he can to ensure they don’t find themselves in a predicament similar to Horsman’s.
“We put signs on our hotel’s dinner tables and in our washrooms warning people about various scams that are common around town,” he says. “It’s the safest city in the world. You almost have to go looking for trouble, but there are some scams that any of us can fall for.”
The disclaimers explicitly warn visitors about the city’s most infamous scams carried out by faux art dealers and tea drinkers. These strangers approach foreigners in touristy areas like Wangfujing, asking if they want to buy art at a good price or share a cup of tea. After taking them to a dingy establishment and offering them the services or items described above, the con artists then charge their victims exorbitant amounts of money.
“The art scam happens all the time. People don’t even get mad about it at first; you almost have to convince them that they shouldn’t have paid hundreds of dollars for that shabby-looking calligraphy,” says Shuchat. “Sometimes my guests have gone to the police on their own and told them what happened. If the police go back to these fake tea houses and art shops, the hustlers always hand the money back, no questions asked.”
The real risk is rickshaw drivers, says Shuchat. They often charge unsuspecting guests up to USD 50 for a short ride and can become violent if they don’t get the money. “I’ve had yelling matches with those rickshaw drivers. It’s best to avoid them,” he advises.
Ding Jian, a private eye who helps Beijingers retrieve lost items, says newcomers and seasoned locals alike should always keep their wits about them. He specializes in helping victims who put their valuables at risk out of sheer carelessness – those who simply forget their belongings in taxis. Such a mistake may seem foolish, but Ding says it happens often enough that he has built a lucrative business out of retrieving their forgotten items. He does so by calling taxi companies and consulting security cameras thanks to his contacts in the police department.
“You should always get a receipt from your taxi driver so that you can contact them if you forgot something in the cab,” he says, adding that taxi companies have strict policies that ensure most drivers are surprisingly honest about returning items. Ding says Beijing residents should also make a habit of checking the licence plate of any taxi they take so that it can be easily tracked down in case they forget something in it. He says he doesn’t cast judgement on anyone in such a predicament; Beijing is generally safe enough that even the most seasoned expat will occasionally let their guard down. “It can happen to anyone, so you must try to be careful,” he says.