The knock on the door

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Brian Hennessy. An Australian in China. July, 2019

There are no secrets in China. Shortly before I flew there to reunite with my wife in our new apartment, I received a call from an old Western friend in Chongqing who told me that he had recently been invited to ‘have a cup of coffee’ with the PSB (Public Security Bureau – the Police) in their downtown office. He described the experience as a pleasant three-hour discussion during which he learned that they knew absolutely everything about his life. 

Although this man has been a good friend of China for 25 years, and although he was assured that he was not in any trouble, this little chat was a classic example of soft intimidation. Like me, he is married to a Chinese citizen, and that gives them leverage.

Looks like a policy change to me. Time for an Australian in China to be wary.  


A gated community

The knock on the door


A few weeks after I arrived in China, there was a late-afternoon knock on the door of our apartment. When I opened it, five members of the local PSB were standing there eyeballing me: two policemen in uniform, and three female officers in civvies. One of them taking my photo. Facial recognition.

Uniform Number 1 asking if he can enter. And before I can add a cheeky “How can I help you people?”, all five of them squeeze by me and enter our home. A couple of them checking the rooms. 

My Chinese wife objecting to this intrusion: “What are you doing here, and why did you take a photo of my husband without asking permission?” 

No answer. 

Uniform 1 asking if he can view my passport. I must comply, so I fetch it. Meanwhile my wife produces our marriage certificate, telling this team that we own our apartment – just in case they are looking for an excuse to lean on us. 

Facing him as I hand over my passport. Trying unsuccessfully to look him in the eye. He checks my face against the passport photo, then searches unsuccessfully for my visa. I take my passbook back and find the right page for him, confident that all is in order. He photographs the document with his smartphone. 

My wife addressing the intruders again: asking why so many of them are here. Angry at their unstated suspicions. 

No response.

Uniform 1 handing my passport back to me. A female officer telling my wife that I should have registered my presence with the district PSB as soon as I arrived, and then applied for a foreigner’s residency permit. OK, but I have a family reunion visa rather than a tourist visa and I’m only staying for two months. This is a minor administrative matter, not a security issue requiring investigation by a PSB task force.

Anyway: how did the cops know I was on their patch, and how did they know where I lived? They had identified our gated community (one of many); knew which building we lived in (there are six); used an electronic pass to get inside it (where did they get that personal security device from?); got the lift up to the 6th floor; and then knocked on door number 3 (ours).

My guess is that the security guards – who are employed by the management service, and who are supposed to protect the residents – reported to the Police that a foreigner was living inside, and collaborated with the raid.

Then the paranoia (mine: a survival skill in China). Wondering about the unfriendliness of the folk who ran a small noodle restaurant adjacent to one side of the front gate. Elsewhere in China, they would have been smiling and saying hello as we walked past – hoping to attract our patronage. Not this sour-faced lot, though. Something was up.

My wife reflecting, then recalling that a shop-owner on the other side of the front gate, had asked her twice for the specific location of our apartment. An inappropriate request which was ignored. Perhaps the police had asked him to elicit this information.

Get the picture? 

New faces in town. A foreigner and his Chinese wife. What is he doing here? Gossip spreading like a virus. 

The Police, allerted to the presence of a foreigner in their district – and perhaps frightened of their own superiors – overreacting (see previous example: A thief, me, and the PSB » An Australian in China [])

This should have been a routine matter. Something that could have been dealt with via a note dropped in my letterbox or hand-delivered by a security guard, asking if I could come down to the station to sort something out. That’s the way this kind of thing was handled in the past.

Not anymore. It’s Xi Jinping’s China now. Things have changed.


Analysis: What was going on here?

1. Anger. Our small apartment is part of a huge new development project in semi-rural China. It is possible that the traditional landowners may not have been compensated fairly for the appropriation of their property by local government officials who then re-sold it to developers. If so, then dislocated locals may have been expressing their anger at outsiders who bought apartments in the modern housing complexes built on their old village plots. And you can’t get more ‘outsider’ status than being a foreigner. The Chinese term for foreigner: waiguoren, literally means: ‘outside the country person.’ 

2. Suspicion. Some provincial towns and villages in China can be prejudiced against waiguoren – unlike big cities which are more open-minded and tolerant. For example; a waiguoren is more likely to encounter this type of intollerance in a township like Dujiangyan or Zigong than he is in a metropolis like Chengdu or Chongqing. Further, a Chinese woman who is married to a foreigner can sometimes be regarded as a cultural traitor by uneducated folk who have little knowledge of the outside world.

3. Geopolitics. Trump’s trade war has provoked a Xi Jinping directed increase in anti-Western propaganda. People are being reminded of the century of humiliation when Western powers and Japan carved out their own spheres of influence in China, and forced it to negotiate unequal treaties with her enemies. My guess is that Xi Jinping is ramping up Western bad-guy propaganda in the hope that he will not be held responsible for any economic downturn, tradewar-caused or not. Naturally, this posture filters down the descending layers of bureaucracy until it reaches those functionaries at the bottom who just follow orders. For example: local police.


In my opinion, all three factors (above) may have contributed to the unwelcome knock on our door. The main player however, is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – the unseen hand controlling everything. 




Postscript – January 2021

I am unsure if I will ever be allowed to re-enter China. In fact, given the insecure status of any Westerner in China these days, there is also the risk that if I were allowed to enter, I might not be allowed to leave. Given my travels, contacts, and publications, it would be easy to be labelled a spy.

Further; At this moment, China is punishing Australia for asking for an independent investigation into the source of the Covid 19 virus, and has commenced a trade-war against us. Australian Government Ministers have been unable to contact their Chinese counterparts. 

Classic CCP behaviour.







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