A melodramatic Wall Street Journal article about a young Beijing expatriate’s month-long stint in a Beijing jail serves as a reminder to all of us to never forget that just because you are a foreigner doesn’t mean the local justice system can’t ensnare you.
In the article, Noak Jonsson, an 18-year-old Swedish student who was studying Mandarin at Peking University, appears to have been trying to stop a bar fight.
The incident outside an unnamed Haidian District club allegedly occurred a year ago last November after another expat Jonsson was partying with accused the club’s coat check crew of stealing her purse. According to the WSJ, the purse was returned the next morning.
"Outside the club, the argument continued. It came briefly to blows; a bystander who had jumped into the fray was bleeding and complained his nose was broken.
"Noak, who says he didn’t hit anyone, found himself in a police car," WSJ reported, which noted earlier in the story that all involved (except perhaps the coat check staff) had been drinking prior to the incident.
Jonsson spent a month in a jail, and then almost a year without his passport in Beijing before the charges were finally dismissed and he was allowed to return to Sweden, having already missed the enrollment deadline to study at prestigious Uppsala University.
Make no mistake, this particular expat was not singled out for poor treatment in the Chinese justice system – it’s more like par for the course, with the kid being treated much in the same way as a Chinese citizen would have been.
We don’t presume innocence or guilt in this case, but we can recommend the following common-sense guidelines for those who party in Beijing bars and clubs:
1. Drink in moderation when visiting local bars. Being sober is a great way to stay out of trouble.
2. Being a foreigner is not a "get out of jail free" card. A lot of expats tend to act as if the police will find it inconvenient to deal with a foreigner and just send them on their way if they are involved in something like a fight. This is not the case.
3. Don’t be a vigilante. Getting involved to mediate a fight is not in your personal best interest, as oftentimes all parties are rounded up regardless of who is at fault. We like to point out how sad it is that people here tend to look the other way and not lend a hand when public disturbances occur, but there seems to be a reason why this is the local custom.
4. Guanxi is a real thing in China, and as a foreigner, you are a lot less likely to have it than someone born and raised here.
5. Use caution when checking coats or other personal items, and don’t check purses, phones, or other expensive items. It’s too easy for things to disappear in there, be it by intention or by accident.
This post first appeared on thebeijinger.com on March 7, 2015