Over the past week I’ve been biking through the Shandong countryside. As is always the case on these trips, the biggest challenge was finding a place to sleep. A hotel has to have special approval to accept foreigners – which most have in major urban centers. But once you get to smaller cities, few, if any are allowed to house someone without a Chinese ID.
Many think that this is to “save face” by preventing foreigners from staying in dingy dives or from going to underdeveloped areas altogether. That may be a secondary concern, but this trip made pretty clear what the primary objective is: surveillance. And it also became clear that it’s becoming more intense.
Hotels are required to have a computerized system that scans IDs. Legally, everyone staying there – foreign and Chinese alike – must be registered. In the past I just tried to avoid cities of around 100,000 or more people. The smaller towns didn’t bother with the system and hotel owners usually had never seen a foreigner, much-less realized they weren’t allowed to rent rooms to them. This was the case just six months ago when I took a similar trip through Shandong. Things seem to have changed since then.
One night I went to a little mom and pop guesthouse on the side of the road and, to my surprise, they had the system in place. The owners told me that they’d recently been obligated by police to install and pay for the system, which costs over 7,000 yuan ($1,100). To put that in perspective, I paid 20 yuan ($3.17) for the room that night. Thankfully, the owners preferred to take the money rather than follow the rule and turn me away. Not every hotel was so lax though.
I pulled into one town shivering in the rain with the temperature hovering around freezing as the sun went down. I got turned away from the first place being told I’d have to go 12 miles further up the road to find the nearest certified foreigner hotel. I tried another place around the corner and was given a room. I settled in, relieved that I’d once again skirted the rule. Later that night though, three police officers knocked on my door.
The hotel owner had called them, unsure of what she was supposed to do. Fortunately, they understood my situation and said I could stay, provided I register with them. They spent the next 20 minutes taking down every imaginable piece of information about me – my home address, my school, what airport I’d entered China though – and finally they took my picture. The police were very nice and admitted that they thought it was all a silly hassle, but it was what they were required to do from above.
This rule is nothing new, but enforcement to this degree seems to be. In all but one of my six nights on the road, I stayed in the kinds of towns I’d never seen the computerized registration system in before. And every time, no matter how small the town or hotel was, the system was in place. This is very anecdotal and it’s possible I’ve just been lucky in the past, but I got the distinct impression from talking to hotel owners that hotel surveillance has increased for both foreigners and Chinese since my last bike trip in October.
Last summer Beijing instituted a somewhat similar rule that requires any business providing Wi-Fi internet to buy a $3,100 system to register users’ identities. Expanding the reach of government surveillance, often at the cost of small business owners, certainly seems to be the trend of the times.