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China: Congenial police state | Ken Hill

Thursday, January 21, 2021 @ 10:53 AM | By Ken Hill

Ken Hill %>
Ken Hill
My astute editor, who noticed that my adjacent photo was taken in China, suggested I might have some stories about the law in the Middle Kingdom. I did not practise law there but I did live in Shanghai for six months, accompanying my wife who had a contract in what is by some measures the largest city in the world. This was right at the start of my retirement and I heartily recommend to anyone contemplating retirement to consider starting it off with an extended stay in someplace far far away.

Making a clean break from old habits and haunts lets you find out what you really miss or, conversely don’t value about the life you had at home. I initially dismissed my editor’s suggestion but once I gave it a bit of thought, I realized that I had been able to gain a few insights into how the law works over there.

One thing I had grown up knowing about what we called Red China, is that it is an authoritarian “police state,” so I definitely wanted to stay on their government’s good side.

My introduction came early. One of the first things a visitor to the People’s Republic must do (if you are not going to stay in a hotel for the duration of your visit) is to register at a local police station — forthwith. Fully prepared to be intimidated, my wife and I walked apprehensively into the police office. No armed, uniformed bully confronted us, but a nice young man in civilian clothes took my documents and entered my information into his computer.

Noticing a sign on the bulletin board, I whispered to my wife, “Hey, Fran, look they are having a Halloween party?” The officer heard me and piped up: “Oh yes. You should come!”

It turns out that the police stations where visitors register hold monthly events to which all visitors are welcome. During her stay my wife took in a flower arranging course and one where she was taught to make lipstick. We both attended their Earth Day event, where we, along with ex-pats from around the globe picked up litter and were shown how to make a reusable shopping bag out of an old T-shirt. This lesson took place upstairs at a Starbucks, of all places, and for our very minimal environmental efforts we were treated to iced-coffees, cookies and some pretty nice swag.

Sure, there were probably some ulterior motives to all of this, but they put a very pleasant face on their totalitarian law enforcement!

Nevertheless, the consequences of getting caught offside can be swift and inexorable, as illustrated by what happened to an acquaintance we met in a local English pub/restaurant. He was a tall red-headed Canadian who was teaching kindergarten, a job that worked well for him because it enabled him to get to the Red Lion early in the afternoon, so he was often a few beers deep by the time we would arrive for dinner.

His brother was also an elementary school teacher in Shanghai. When we hadn’t seen the brother for a while and asked after him, we were told he had been arrested and kicked out of China. It seems he made the mistake of enjoying some illicit drugs at an after-hours club and was swept up in a raid. He was held in custody for a few days then banished from the country. Apparently his stay in jail was more boring than frightening and he landed on his feet — with a new teaching position in Vietnam.

Our other brush with authority also reflects the “iron hand, velvet glove” approach of the Chinese. We were about to board a flight from Shanghai for a tour of the exotic sights of Southeast Asia when my wife was taken aside and told that her papers were not in order. Her visa allowed her to stay in China for a maximum of 60 days at a time, but she could re-enter immediately after leaving the country. For the holders of such a visa it is necessary to leave the country every 60 days (for as little as a few minutes).

Fran’s last exit had been to Hong Kong, which, although part of China, is strangely treated as a foreign country for this visa requirement. Anyway, due to a miscommunication on the part of her employer, my wife was offside of the 60-day rule and we were told we could not leave China until a fine of several thousand dollars was paid. We had the choice of missing our flight and staying in Shanghai while trying to sort this out or pleading guilty and paying the fine on the spot.

The odds of winning an argument over the interpretation of the immigration rules seemed a bit beyond my forensic abilities, so we opted for the guilty plea. Fran signed papers written entirely in Chinese, abjectly agreeing to whatever it said, while I ran around the airport withdrawing the maximum funds available at a few ATMs in order to pay the fine.

One of the officials we dealt with was very nice and seemed genuinely sympathetic but made it clear that the local officials had no discretion and had to follow the rules to the letter. She cheerfully informed us, however, that the good news was that the amount we had to pay was the maximum, so if it happened again, there would be no penalty! You will not be surprised to know that we did not take advantage of that opportunity.

Although the people who enforce the law in China were, at least in our experience, surprisingly pleasant, as the ongoing case of the two Michaels illustrates, when it comes to access to justice in China, all of the power is in the hands of the state.

Ken Hill is happily retired from just about 40 years of litigation practice in Newmarket, Ont.

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