With security checks on the rise, expats discuss their opinions on the validity, usefulness and implementation of these measures

By Chen Fangjun Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/31 20:18:39

A foreigner goes through a security check in Beijing South Railway Station. Photo: CFP


Josh Bernstein was on a juice diet and carrying a heavy bag full of juice bottles that would last him 10 days, as he was passing through a security check in the Wangjingxi Station on Subway Line 13.

"Sir, you need to take a sip," said one of the security staff.

"OK," Bernstein obeyed. Being familiar with this type of situation, he cannot even count how many sips he has taken at security checks over the years. He opened one bottle and took a sip.

"No, I mean you need to take a sip of every bottle," the security staff said firmly.

"What? You can see that they are all juice from the packaging. And they are clearly sealed, how could they be suspicious?" explained Bernstein in Chinese. He had no choice, so he opened each bottle and took a sip.

Even though Bernstein had been through bottle checks many times, this one was the most frustrating.

"Since I opened every bottle, I had to drink them all the same day, which ruined my diet."

Bernstein, 31, is a teaching consultant from the US who lives in Chaoyang district with his family. He has lived here for more than 12 years and has witnessed a change in security checks in China. "When I first arrived, there were not many security checks. Things have been getting more strict over the past three years," he said.

Security checks have become a hot topic in Chinese social media because of the heightened restrictions due to the G20 summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, which will be held on September 4 and 5. There is a topic on zhihu.com, a Chinese version of Quora, which discusses the weird stuff found during security checks. By August 31, it gained more than 11,000 subscribers within a month.

The focus of the discussion is the conflict between security and convenience, with foreigners also chiming in. Many expats said that they have concerns about the inconvenience but think it is necessary for safety.

A security checkpoint located in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, during the G20 summit. Photo: IC


A new city during G20

Heightened security checks are commonplace in China during big events, and Hangzhou is the epitome of this trend because of the G20 summit.

When referring to security checks, most people will think of the procedures at the airport, which are universal and extremely strict. Security checks in China are unique because their security methods at subway and railway stations are similar to the methods used at airports. Security staff is placed at the entrances of subways and train stations with equipment like X-ray scanners and metal detectors. Hangzhou took it a step further by incorporating home checks.

"Security in Hangzhou has increased each day ahead of this week's G20 summit," said Collins Mashinge, 24, who is a sales analyst based in Hangzhou. "As a result, there are longer lines in the subway, which is troublesome because it takes more time than ever."

Mashinge works near the West Lake, which is one of the strictest security zones. "I would meet police on the road once or twice a day and they usually ask expats like me to show our passports and ask random questions about residence and occupation."

Home checks have become more frequent during G20. Besides routine questions, they also ask about what our plans are for the day, said Mashinge.

Mashinge has been in Hangzhou for almost three years, but he felt like he has transported to a new city during the G20 summit. "The city suddenly turned tranquil, with amazing weather, fewer cars on the road and smiling volunteers who are always ready to help," said Mashinge.

However, Mashinge hopes this unique period will end soon. "Even if it is a novel experience, I hope it will not last long because the inspections are too intense and they are causing people in the city a lot of hassle in their daily life. A lot of people can't wait for this event to be finished."

Safe but inconvenient

In Bernstein's opinion, China has the tightest security based on how strict they are about expats.

"Foreigners are required to register with the local police department when staying in hotels or a residence, in addition to random police checks and security checks in public transportation stations," he said, adding that he thinks strict security checks are reasonable based on the way things are happening in the world right now.

"In light of the growing threat of terrorism and recent global terrorist attacks, I think China has done a great job keeping residents safe and protecting the country, due in part to its strong security measures."

Over the past eight years, he has traveled to many places in the world including Canada, France and England. "In Europe and other regions where there have been terrorist attacks, there is less security in place than in China," he said.

However, his complaints about security checks in China are mainly due to the inconvenience, especially on the subway. "During peak traffic times you may have to wait in line a long time to go through security checks," he said.

Aside from the subway, his main grievance is the random passport check.

"I am okay with metal detectors and X-ray scanning but I cannot get used to ID and passport checks," he said. "I am usually picked because I am a foreigner. I feel like they are profiling me and think that I am suspicious; it is discrimination."

Bernstein does not believe that randomly checking passports always has effect on safety. When he and his wife drive to Hebei Province and pass through checkpoints, he is asked to show his passport almost every time. "It is ridiculous. They don't have the proper machinery to check the validity of the passport," he said.

Being an experienced resident in Beijing, the advice he would give to new comers is, somewhat sarcastically, that they should always carry their passports in case of a random check.

Micah Sockwell, 30, an English teacher from the US, based in Changping district, thinks that Chinese security, especially subway security, is inconsistent at best.

In his experience, some stations are hardcore; they check water bottles and give full body scans, while other stations have people just randomly waving security wands for no reason.

"I always wonder whether it is useful or whether they are just doing it because of regulations," he said.

"Security is a pretty generous word for what they do."

As far as security goes, in countries like the US, individuals are allowed to legally carry guns in public. He said that this type of security shows that people in the US are more concerned with individual, rather than group safety, while China attaches more importance to group safety.

Deterrent effect

Zhu Wei is a research fellow at the Beijing Research Center of Urban System Engineering, whose studies center on urban public security, including security checks. "Many people know that security checks are strict in China, especially in Hangzhou during G20, but it is necessary during this social climate where there is an increase in the severity and amount of terrorist attacks in the world," he said. "And it is no different in China. Hangzhou is following the international conventions, using the highest level of security measures."

Western countries have also been intensifying security measures after a series of terrorist attacks in Europe. According to xinhuanet.com on July 25, the French government decided to update security measures in every area after the attack in Nice on July 14. Because of this, there were heightened border security checks for vehicles from the English Channel, causing a major traffic jam on July 23.

Regular security checks in subway and train stations are also important, according to Wei. During the first half of 2016, there were 50,000 prohibited items found through security checks on Beijing's subways, including a female passenger who possessed two guns and ammunition in Gongzhufen Station on Subway Line 1 on July 13.

"Since the perception of risk to an individual is unreliable, many people think that security checks are useless," he said. "People are seldom aware of its effect when checks operate successfully; they only notice when it fails and then become agitated."

Wei admits that there are lapses in the operation of security machinery and staff. His team is working on a project to update the regulations to prevent lapses.

However, Wei thinks the conflict between security and convenience is difficult to avoid and it involves a conflict between the individual and the public.

"In terms of security, individuals should try to focus more on the collective interests of society."

Newspaper headline: Securing society

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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