Why Is The Beijinger So Callous Toward Sanlitun Drug Dealers?

Foreigners arrested in Beijing Sanlitun drug bust 2

Because it’s politically expedient to do so — proven by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, etc., to work — Beijing conducted a drug investigation that recently culminated in a bust of street-level slingers in Sanlitun. This news doesn’t affect the vast majority of Beijingers, foreign or local, which is to say, there’s little reason any of us should cheer. If anything, we should cringe, knowing these “crackdowns” almost always disproportionately affect those on society’s fringes who are most powerless to defend themselves. It’s not a coincidence that highly publicized drug/prostitution stings never seem to target princelings or the monied owners of hotel brothels.

That’s what makes this blog post from Michael Wester, CEO of the Beijinger’s parent company, True Run Media, so surprising. Near the bottom of what starts as a straightforward news blog post, there’s this (all emphasis his):

The bust comes as welcome news to the vast majority of foreign residents of the city who choose to live within the letter of the law. Foreign drug dealers who seem to operate with abandon in certain areas of Sanlitun have been both an embarrassment and a downright hassle to foreign residents, whom the dealers often strike up friendly conversations with as an intro to offering drugs for sale.

What happens, exactly, after dealers offer their ware? Do they — facing rejection from those poor study-abroad students who don’t have 700 RMB in their pockets, to say nothing of the desire to get high when they can obliterate their minds on 10-kuai shooters and 15-kuai street beverages laced with a poison called alcohol — snarl and physically intimidate? Do the smiles that prefaced those friendly conversations turn into glowers of fury and menace? Need I remind, this is an area that frequently reeks of piss, drunkenness, and buffoonery, an area in which foreigners (law-abiding, surely!) pass out till the next afternoon. And we think our African friends are the problem?

That excerpted paragraph comes directly after this one:

The dealers will face the same penalties as local citizens, the report notes. China’s drug laws are notoriously strict, and dealing over 50 grams of methamphetamines can earn a suspect the death penalty.

No pause via quote or ellipses, no further questions, nothing to help us process the utter insanity that dealing 50-some grams of meth can lead to execution.

The bust comes as welcome news to the vast majority of foreign residents of the city who choose to live within the letter of the law.

Look… we’re reasonably confident Wester’s an upstanding citizen, a nice enough guy, and that we’re reading too much into all this. But he’s also the head of Beijing’s largest expat media empire. Has he risen so above expattery (have you seen the Beijingers forum?) that he can parrot, apparently without self-awareness, an apparatchik’s cliche? Living within “the letter of the law” doesn’t make a person decent: you can still be a judgmental prick.

And since when do we celebrate China’s haphazard application of laws? How many laws do the Beijinger’s readers break, those with fake gas-scooter licenses (which you can buy on the Beijinger’s classifieds!) and visas obtained through questionable qualifications?

Do you use a VPN? Ever gotten into a black cab? Drank in an unregistered bar? We wonder, too, about the Beijinger’s ISBN — does it permit them to run advertisements alongside content?

What if Law didn’t criminalize certain service providers and institutionalize racial profiling? What if it made buyers equally responsible by tying them to the same risk of draconian penalties? What if laws weren’t made by those who insist on “social stability,” as if that weren’t another term for homogeny, conservatism, and control?

Bringing the conversation back home: who’s doing more harm in Sanlitun? The drug dealers who honestly don’t care about pushing their product on those who don’t want it? Or the army of fake-booze distributors, the pickpockets, the black-out-drunkards, the police officers in the station around the corner who will do absolutely nothing about fistfights and stolen property but who’ll strong-arm the hell out of roadside vendors to ensure they receive their cut?

It’s something for all of us to think about the next time we’re tempted to deem someone else’s choices illegitimate and say they should be punished “according to the law.”

40 Responses to “Why Is The Beijinger So Callous Toward Sanlitun Drug Dealers?”

  1. bonnie big greg

    Doesn’t surprise me to learn that this guy is running the Beijinger. What an utterly depressing, meaningless little magazine that has become – in fact, it’s so dumb-headed, and its front covers so god-damn-moronic, that it actually makes me want to leave Beijing.

    Reply
  2. Sarah

    Excellent article. One of the best pieces I’ve read on laowais and ethics.

    Kinda wanted to point out though – as a fan of the magazine – that Michael Wester doesn’t actually have that much say about what goes in it. I think. Don’t quote me on that, though.

    Reply
  3. Owain Lloyd-Williams

    The Beijinger is to expattery what Nick Grimshaw (non-UK readers, look him up) is to British pop culture – slow, shameless yet resigned acceptance of a decline in all things that we, as individuals of the 21st century, deem to be decent and interesting whilst preferring to “be that guy” instead.

    Reply
    • jacob ladder

      isn’t it ironic (and a little bit sad), that Beijing’s supposedly independent magazine – the Beijinger – reads (and looks) like a tragically un-hip state media organ, while actual one-time state media organ – That’s Beijing – is now absolutely killing it? What happened?

      Reply
      • zapardo

        The Beijinger is beholden to all of its local restaurant, hotel and bar advertisers. Hence those bloated food and drink award things. That’s Beijing has good articles, big pictures, looks nice. But has no ads and is really hard to find. The Beijinger is in every bar and restaurant in town. Go figure.

        Reply
  4. FOARP

    Do you use a VPN? Ever gotten into a black cab? Drank in an unregistered bar? We wonder, too, about the Beijinger’s ISBN — does it permit them to run advertisements alongside content?

    Basic fact: if you lived in the China of the last decade as an expat, you lived in criminality. You watched pirate DVDs, rode in illegal taxis, drank in unlicensed bars, surfed the internet by circumventing the GFW, came to the country to work on a tourist visa or stayed on on a student visa, avoided taxes and ignored a whole slew of laws and regulations.

    Maybe it’s possible to live (relatively) clean nowadays in Beijing – I’ve been long enough out of the country to not really know any more – but if Michael Wester was ever a young expat just arrived in the China of 1990-2010, undoubtedly did at least one of the above, because everyone did simply as part of living and working in China. Let’s not ask whether The Beijinger ever ran adverts for the “escort services” or “massage services” which are commonly seen in Asian expat papers. Let’s not ask if The Beijinger has always been a properly established business in China, or whether they ever had to go through the kind of issues that That’s did.

    Drug dealing isn’t something I have much sympathy for, but I’m hardly going to celebrate the actions of the police when I remember how the drug-dealers in Nanjing back in ’05 ran their trade basically hand-in-glove with the local police force. I’m hardly going to celebrate what appears to be the outcome of racial profiling.

    Reply
    • jixiang

      I agree with you in general, but using a VPN is not actually against any laws in China as far as I know.

      Of course, the government could still decide to crack down on it if they want to, using some law about things “harmful to social stability” or something. But still, it is not written anywhere that I cannot use it.

      Reply
    • Claus Rasmussen

      >> Basic fact: if you lived in the China of the last decade as an expat, you lived in criminality

      Hyperbolic bullshit. If you have a serious career, a family to take care of, a well paid job, friends and neighbors you care for, you try your best to stay within the limits of the law.

      Why on earth should I use a black cab if I had the choice ? Why should I even put myself in a position where I needed one ? Why should I drink in an unlicensed bar when there is plenty of legal bars to choose from ? Why should I do drugs in China (of all places) where I know the society is paranoid about it ?

      I don’t know why you would answer “yes” to any of that, but I know that if you’re living in another country, you’re a guest and should conduct yourself. If you can’t, you always have the option to leave and f*ck with the law in your own country.

      Reply
      • CT

        “Why on earth should I use a black cab if I had the choice ?”

        Because you urgently need to get somewhere and there are no regular cabs around. You dumb shit.

        Reply
          • RhZ

            No, sorry, you are wrong Claus, sorry.

            You might not have a choice, and you certainly can’t always be sure the taxis you take are all licensed. Its the height of cluelessness to say you never take black taxis.

            Additionally, you don’t know whether that bar is licensed or not. Just because its there doesn’t mean its licensed. Business licensing in China is a huge racket, and quite arbitrary. Most people in China are doing something illegal, you as well.

            Frankly, that’s some sanctimonious crap from you. Oh, you never do anything illegal, perish the thought! I guess your shit don’t stink.

          • Jonathan Alpart

            “If you have a serious career, a family to take care of, a well paid job, friends and neighbors you care for, you try your best to stay within the limits of the law.”

            It seems that Claus simply doesn’t live in the same world as most of us expats. Sounds like he had the Expat Package from day one. For the rest of us, living on the edge of criminality is pretty much status quo, especially just a few years ago. Visas, residence registration, etc.

            It’s not so much that people WANT to break the law, but rather the “laws” are so arbitrarily coded and enforced, and flagrantly ignored, that to the bewildered newcomer it seems almost as if you have to break the law on a regular basis to eke out a life here.

            Of course, Claus is also the guy who frequently asks to have Laowai Comic punchlines explained to him, so I wouldn’t definitely wouldn’t expect him to understand this.

            From a drug dealer’s standpoint, selling drugs in Sanlitun was a breeze. I’ve never seen people so brazenly offer drugs to strangers anywhere in the world. You’d think it would be different in China – a country that is so infamous for its hardline stance on drugs. So are we to blame the dealers for this toutishness, or the police who have obviously been letting it happen, probably because they were getting a cut? Because it’s impossible to imagine even for a second that the police just now found out about it.

          • Claus Rasmussen

            My rules for using taxies are simple: Only use cars that are marked as taxis, step out of the car again if the chauffeur wont turn the meter on, or if it is “not working”. I have walked kilometers through pouring rain because of that, and I didn’t mind.

            Likewise with bars. There is always a risk that a bar is unlicensed, but if it is at a main business street and have been there for years you can be pretty sure that you’re not getting in to trouble.

            It is clear that you can’t completely avoid breaking some rules in China. But to describe that as “be living in crime” or “on the edge of criminality” is pure hyperbole.

            Also, I notice that ad hominem attacks feature prominently in this discussion. I can’t help wondering what kind of people I am discussing with ?

  5. asdfg

    Feel really quite sorry indeed for those guys getting busted, and having to face Chinese courts and jails. And yeah, in my view on these sorts of things the punishment is going to be far to much for what they’ve done. Then again, you could have seen it coming. There’s really plenty of countries where you can get away with small time dealing with light punishments, but if you’re China, you are taking quite a risk, isn’t it? Perhaps that was the underlying thought of his article, although he does seem almost happy it. And racial profiling? Well, I did plenty of that when I ever did want a bit of weed on sanlitun or wudaokou. Worked for me.

    Reply
  6. akjdslakj

    Is this writer a drug user? Why is the writer so hurt that the people caught perpetuating drug use were slammed in a report? No, sorry, but humans do not have some universal right to use drugs. And if you knew a lick of Chinese history you would know why China is so strict on drug prevention.
    If you are a user or seller, please leave this country, you are NOT welcome here, not by the government nor by non-drug using (healthy) citizens.

    Reply
    • Opium Bore

      Yes, the writer is a drug user! It’s clear because he said something, and you pointed it out, so you can go back to sleep now

      Reply
    • jixiang

      If you knew anything about REAL Chinese history, you wouldn’t repeat this line about the Opium Wars.

      Opium was commonly taken in China for centuries before the Opium Wars, and it was about as destructive as alcohol in Britain. Many working men took it with their friends on their days off, and happily went back to work the next day. Just before the Opium Wars, one faction in the Qing court actually favoured legalization of opium as a solution (at the time there had been a ban on opium for a few centuries, but it wasn’t strictly enforced). Unfortunately the other faction won out.

      In any case, to justify modern policies because of the Opium Wars is silly.

      Reply
  7. joshd

    Great piece Anthony. I always marveled at how the dealers would hang out right beside the police station in SLT, and did so for my entire 3 years in the city.

    Reply
  8. laowai88

    Sorry Anthony, you are way off on this one.

    Nobody should condone drug-dealing. Period. Especially by people who have come to China and are knowingly breaking a pretty serious law. Just read up on the Opium wars if you wonder why the Chinese government takes drug dealing very seriously.

    And lets not forget that the presence of these drug dealers causes problems for other people (non-drug users) through increased police surveillance and ancillary petty crime.

    You buying drugs from a dealer for your own personal use is not a victimless activity. It impacts other people in many small negative ways.

    Reply
  9. asdfg

    opium wars? As in, these small time dealers out on slt are the device of some foreign government trying to numb china’s population into a submissive state? You may have read your history books well but this has absolutely no relevance here.

    Reply
    • CT

      “You may have read your history books well but this has absolutely no relevance here.”

      It does have relevance because the sensitivity of the issue informs China’s current public and institutional attitude towards drug policy.

      The same reason China is so touchy about FLG, Tibet, etc.

      Reply
  10. Gar

    Absolutely great article. I don’t think that it’s condoning drug-dealing, but more so
    1. The erratic enforcement of whatever rule is popular that week in the local police station
    2. The (perceived) duplicity of the CEO of an organ that is a) bland b) awful. Moreso, the magazine could be asked: do you have advertisements for potentially law-circumventing products or services?
    3. As someone smarter than me pointed out, to live in Beijing is to exist in a law-breaking entity. Especially as an expat. Has this man the gall to condemn one brand of criminality yet, as has been alleged, has probably broken the law himself and is in charge of a fatuous, vacuous organ that possibly comes close to illegality (whilst not straying into illegality) with it’s advertising content

    Tao, you fucking nailed this. This is your opus

    Reply
  11. Mike

    With enough time the 派出所 will eventually throw every 洋鬼子 out of China. Enjoy the 蛋炒饭 it while it lasts guys.

    “Do you use a VPN? Ever gotten into a black cab? Drank in an unregistered bar? We wonder, too, about the Beijinger’s ISBN — does it permit them to run advertisements alongside content?”

    So true! :) What makes China so fun (in the early going) is the lack of a real legal system. We’re being absolute hypocrites if we exploit it and deride it simultaneously.

    Reply
  12. Brido

    I’m struggling to see the “utter insanity” in executing a drug dealer. It should happen more often, in my view, regardless of the quantities involved.

    Reply
  13. Gar

    Just came back from Silk Market, definitely some law-abiding citizens buying and selling legitimate goods 真的吗?真的!

    Reply
  14. Claus Rasmussen

    >> these “crackdowns” almost always disproportionately affect those on society’s fringes who are most powerless to defend themselves

    If you want to see what drug dealers that are able to defend themselves do to a society, then go visit Mexico or Columbia.

    Law abiding citizens prefer weak criminals over strong criminals any day.

    Reply
    • Ugh

      Honestly, how aggressive have you been solicited really? Is it really so bothersome that you find satisfaction in another man’s ruined life. They aren’t forcing you to take drugs. McDonalds isn’t forcing you to eat their sugar burgers. They’re legitimate, and heart disease is the leading killer in the US. Drug related deaths don’t even come close. How these touts are making money is no more criminal than your magazine covers.

      Applauding arbitrary enforcement of excessive litigation makes you and True Media look heartless and ignorant. I’m sure your advertisers are just as pleased as your are, though.

      Reply
  15. Brendan

    Great read, understand both sides. You could easily go buy all the drugs they sell and say we are safe for 5mins but it will be a lot worse. I haven’t been harassed and if anything if lost they are polite with helping you find your way. I think the vast majority of foreigners here are not on expat packages so this will not come as a welcome relief only to the commentator who shakes his fist whilst flying in and out of the city.

    Reply
  16. Wenxing

    Nothing new about those expats who think they ‘represent’ the best of the rest of the world. They forgot most of us have to passed through a nightmare of situations crossing a simple street and looking all directions to not be hit by a car, while buying something ten times the original price, harrased in silk markets, etc. What the Beijinger director will say about? 

    Reply

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