Personal Security: Would You Be Safe in China?

TAIPEI (TheStreet) -- Knife attacks earlier this month on a Chinese railway station killed 33 people, and the attackers didn't care who they were. Victims of the rampage could have been a local vagrant or the managing director of a foreign-invested company.

China blamed the March 1 attack on Muslim "separatists" from the country's northwest corner. Speaking of terrorist attacks, was someone out to get the missing Malaysian Airlines plane bound for Beijing when it disappeared on March 8? Probably not, but Malaysia vowed to investigate.

These incidents raise questions about personal safety for visitors to Asia. Knife attacks and potential terrorism scare people. But the consensus is that crime poses no major business obstacle as long as you and your homeland avoid confronting Chinese nationalism.

The country's two largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, get high ratings from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The bureau notes strong police presence in both cities and a 98% criminal conviction rate in Shanghai. Impoverished thieves target foreigners in shopping districts, the State Department says, looking for cash, cameras, credit cards and mobile phones. Beware of credit card fraud, the bureau adds, and fights at expat bars.

Anecdotally, I lived in Beijing for seven years with few problems. I was pickpocketed once but found the thief by turning around. He gave my wallet back on request. He should have also warned me against the idiocy of keeping the thing in my back pocket.

This from an expat of 20 years:

"I have rarely felt threatened," says Scott Kronick, head of a public relations firm and author of the 2014 book The Lighter Side of China. "Certainly people should take precautions like they would anywhere in the world, and they should know that they are a guest in this country, but by and large I would say China is safe for most foreigners."

Attacks on foreigners occur but are isolated. Two Americans, one male and one female, were beat up together in Beijing's premier nightlife district in 2012. The same year a Chinese man, mentally ill by some accounts, stabbed an American man to death in the same city. Both incidents got media coverage, a sign of their shock value.

China is also nervous about is population of ethnic Uighurs. Beijing considers them separatists who want autonomy from China after years of living as second-class citizens and usually in poverty. Violence naturally targets the Chinese rather than foreigners. That was the point of sporadic riots and other violence in the Uighurs' homeland of Xinjiang from 2009 to 2011. If another riot or protest occurred, a foreign national or company property would get hurt if in the way. But those odds are incalculably slim.

The only real threat lies in Kronick's point about being a guest in the country. Hard stares, vandalism and thrown objects may follow when foreign elements offend Chinese people's keen Communist Party-sharpened national pride.

Some Chinese people take a tribal view, associating individuals and companies with their governments during times of political crisis.

That could result in some minor conflict. One American I knew in Beijing was pressured by his Chinese office colleagues into a personal apology in 2001 when China forced a U.S. spy plane to land after it flew too near the Chinese coastline. Several years later, a drunken man in a restaurant started throwing glass bottles at me after he saw that I was with a Chinese woman -- not a popular setup in the eyes of some Chinese traditionalists.

China's rocky relationship with Japan has also led to street disturbances. In 2005 and 2012, waves of Chinese street protesters vandalized Japanese businesses, prompting shutdowns and drops in their share prices. In the first wave of protests, demonstrators were angry about Japan's stubbornness on unresolved World War II issues. The next time, the protests were focused on Japan's purchase of eight East China Sea islets that Beijing also claims.

The demonstrations in 2012 temporarily closed the China operations of Japanese giants such as Panasonic (PCRFY:OTC), Canon (CAJ) and Toyota  (TM). Still, the whole incident was an oddity in the scheme of Chinese public security.

Business resumed as the political crisis subsided.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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