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Top10 Personal Safety Tips in China

Generally speaking, China is safe for expats and tourists. In a land where saving face is everything, Beijing has sought to abolish negative international news coverage by ensuring overseas nationals are treated well. Now crimes against foreigners are met with harsh consequences. For example, in 2000, a man convicted of robbing two Dutch tourists for 80 USD was sentenced to death! Since then, the average criminal quickly learned not to mess with laowai. Even more reassuring is China's low ranking in a 2010 UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) homicide report. The Middle Kingdom ranked 103 out of 125 countries with 1.12 murders for every 100,000 individuals (about the same as France). But even in the safest of places there's always a small risk of danger and one should always exercise caution in an unfamiliar country. Below is a list of the top ten personal safety tips for the foreigner in China.

1) Watch out for chaotic traffic
With more than 32 million vehicles added to Chinese highways since 2010, many drivers are inexperienced and don't follow traffic laws; thus turning autos into stray bullets. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), more than 100,000 people die in Chinese road traffic accidents each year. That's one fatality every five minutes! When crossing the street, even when pedestrians have the green light, constantly keep a look out for oncoming traffic. In a taxi, remember what mom told you and buckle up. In a bus, sit in the far back since it's safer than the front.

2) Beware of pickpockets
China's population of 1.3 billion can make you feel like a canned sardine at times. Crowded places, especially in tourist areas and public transportation facilities, are a pickpocket's dream. First of all, leave any valuables behind. Second, keep your wallet in your front pants' pocket. Third, place your backpack or purse in front of your body and hold it tightly. Fourth, some thieves work in teams, so watch your personal belongings if a decoy tries distracting you. Fifth, investing in a money belt won't win you any fashion points, but it will prevent someone from stealing your cash.

3) Stay clear of protests
Protests for the most part are illegal in China. However, that's not to say they don't happen. Everything from racial disputes to religious rallies to pro-democracy demonstrations can spring up in seconds and turn hostile. If you find yourself in the middle of one of these disputes, get away fast. Sticking around to take photos will only increase your chance of getting thrown into the mix or, even worse, arrested.

4) Secure your belongings at hotels and hostels
Having worked at a Chinese hostel, it amazed me how many items were reported stolen each month. The common response was, "I left it lying around and when I came back it was gone." Use your head and put your valuables in the lock box or with the reception and never leave them out in public. Remember that foreigners can be thieves as well.

5) Party in peace
All over the world good times can turn ugly when alcohol is involved and China is no exception. When drinking or clubbing, take extra precaution not to offend, bump into or spill a drink on somebody. If an accident does happen, even if you're not at fault, mind that you're in their home country and sincerely apologise. The same goes for all you single men out there. Fights can and will break out if a jealous boyfriend believes you're hitting on his girlfriend.

6) Be careful of scams
Scams cause a major migraine for foreigners. They're found all throughout China but are mainly concentrated in popular tourist areas. For starters, always get into marked taxis and make sure the driver uses the metre. Occasionally locals will bring you on a short tour then demand money afterwards. Others will invite you for tea then have their partners in the tea house charge you an exorbitant amount (a.k.a. the Beijing Tea Scam). Additionally, some bars and restaurants will intentionally overcharge you. Check the price, keep track of everything you order or pay as you go to prevent getting ripped off.

7) To intervene or not to intervene?
Sometimes there's a confrontation and the question whether to arbitrate arises. The Chinese often say never intervene unless it involves you, especially since trying to help can sometimes put you in jeopardy. One time my friend witnessed a couple arguing and saw the man grasp the woman forcefully. He went to diffuse the situation and the woman first slapped him then lovingly hugged her boyfriend as if nothing happened and ran off together. My friend painfully learned to mind his own business in controversial situations in China. In an absolute emergency, perhaps the best thing you can do is keep your distance and dial 110 for the police.

8) Check your luggage
China executes more people than any other nation on the planet and many of the convicted are caught with drugs. It'd be a good idea to check your bags and luggage before crossing borders to see if anyone wants to use you as a mule. Foreigners have been caught and sentenced to death before and the number of foreign traffickers is rising. The most recent incident was a British man sentenced to death in 2009 for possessing 4kg of heroin while entering China. Some of the accused even claimed the drugs didn't belong to them but were found guilty anyway. (Note: your embassy cannot help you if caught with illegal substances abroad). While the chance of this scenario happening is slim, it wouldn't hurt to double check your belongings and keep an eye on them during your travels.

9) Watch what you eat
With all the news about toxic baby formula, noxious milk, recycled cooking oil, chemical laced veggies and glow-in-the-dark pork, there's no reason not to be concerned about food poisoning in China. So what to do in a land full of rich culinary treats? I certainly don't recommend fasting, so keep up with local news to see if any foods or drinks have recently been recalled. When eating out, make sure all meats have been well cooked and prepared in a clean environment. Many locals even prefer to use disposable chopsticks or bring their own set of clean chopsticks to cafes. And last but not least, don't drink from the faucet. Trust me on this one, just don't do it.

10) What to do in a violent attack?
Since the Deng reforms of the late 1970s, violent crime has been steadily increasing. If aggressively confronted, the safest thing to do is run away, period. If the criminal demands valuables or money, give it up without a struggle. Your life is more important than any material possession. If cornered, try screaming to draw attention. And if none of the above proves useful, defending yourself might be your last hope. So make the most out of your stay in the land of martial arts and learn some kungfu to be extra cautious. However, when push comes to shove, by far the most effective way to get out of a bad situation is to avoid it in the first place. Use common sense and stay away from suspect individuals and sketchy scenarios and you should be just fine.