Since returning to Beijing from the relaxed and friendlier surroundings of Yinchuan I seem to have been the target of any number of Chinese scams. Most I noticed; a few I probably missed.
At the airport, a taxi tout singled me out in the middle of the queue and offered to take me into town for a special rate. I asked why he didn’t offer this to all the Chinese people in front of me, to which he replied that he was the ‘official English speaking driver’. I passed on this exciting privilege, but this brief exchange, during which neither the queue nor I had moved, was long enough for those behind to start trying to push past, which annoyed me more.
A real taxi didn’t take the scenic route and got there for a reasonable 94rmb. She seemed reluctant to give me any change from a 100 (there’s no tipping in China), and on asking for a taxi receipt she casually handed over one valued at 12rmb. On pointing this out, she printed one out from the machine marked at 180rmb.
On a previous occasion a taxi driver back from Wangfujing to Chaoyang offered a ‘reduced’ fixed price of 200rmb on a 60rmb trip, so had to be berated to use the taxi meter. When we arrived he clumsily tried to switch my money and suggested that the 100rmb crumpled note he was now holding was a fake. Having just got the original brand new 100rmb note from an ATM, I picked his license off the dashboard (he’d lost a lot of hair) and pointed towards a convenient policeman standing near my house. This made him rather shouty, but we settled on 60, paid for with the original note he’d slipped in his shirt pocket.
A friend did fall prey to the teahouse scam – two attractive young ladies led him away to a very nice teahouse, where they poured the tea without showing him the menu or prices. The tea was pleasant and they chatted for three hours, during which he learnt a potted history of China and Beijing, got a few language pointers and flirted with his new friends.
Bargaining the price down from 2000 to 600rmb he’s still convinced this was better value than his usual language lessons, and thinks he has a chance with one of the girls if they ever meet again…
The next day I went book shopping in Wangfujing. A friendly young couple approached who wanted to practice their English. After the usual pleasantries, they suggested going for some tea. This is a common scam so I suggested McDonalds, but of course they knew a quiet little teahouse just round the corner. Moving on up the street I was approached twice more, first by a very attractive lady and then by two really quite funny young girls, all with the same offer.
Another time on Wangfujing1 I got stopped for the art student scam. After checking where I was from he explained in detail how he’d previously had an exhibition in Birmingham, England; how I was so lucky to be British and how he was going to emigrate there one day. He then offered to show me round a gallery of works by him and his impoverished student friends, who can apparently afford a gallery on Beijing’s premier shopping street.
With some effort I declined, but not everyone gets away: Here’s the story of Kevin Rose (the founder of Digg.com) with Tim Ferris (the author of ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ and ‘The 4-Hour Body’) realising he’s been scammed:
Other common Chinese scams I’ve not encountered are the super cheap tours with visits to fake attractions. Fraudsters have actually gone to the effort of building a fake Great Wall, lined with fake Chinese traditional medicine clinics and massively overpriced jade shops. Many bars in popular areas will have an inflated bar tab, where a specially priced English menu appears for drunken foreigners.
I think the sad part of all this is that whilst in Beijing and Shanghai I occasionally brush off people who might be genuinely friendly. In more rural areas I’m much more willing to have a conversation with a random stranger.
The one thing I don’t understand is what do the people who approach me in the street get out of doing this as a job? Their language skills are outstanding, they’re presentable and charismatic, and generally demonstrate the ability to think on their feet and lie convincingly. It seems like they could do well if they chose to take a more traditional career and surely earn far more?
1 I can see there’s a theme here with me repeatedly visiting the location of these scams, but the big brand stores in Wangfujing are the only places I’ve found in Beijing that stock decent clothes large enough to fit a tall foreigner. Later note: The Russian markets stock similar sizes, much cheaper