How China's crime crackdown has spooked expats used to wilder living

Sophia Yan
Police booths are now a common sight on the streets of Xuzhou, once a more lawless place for foreigners - Sophia Yan

Amid flashing lights and pounding music, foreigners had their pick of drugs – marijuana, cocaine, ketamine, meth, fentanyl. Nightlife ran wild here for years in Xuzhou, a lush pocket of eastern China dotted with lakes and ringed by mountains.

“Back then we would go into clubs and just go table to table, drinking for free,” said one expat, declining to give a full name. 

As few foreigners were willing to come for study or employment in this small city – accessible only by rail or road – expats said they were able to get away with this kind of freewheeling behaviour.

But a broad crackdown in China against corruption and crime has finally stretched from big cities like Shanghai to smaller locales like Xuzhou. And the authorities are emboldened to nab foreigners at a time of rising tensions between China and Western nations, including the US, UK and Canada.

“The ability and desire to catch foreign companies and foreigners operating illegally in China is higher now than it has ever been,” said Dan Harris, founder of Harris Bricken, a US-based law firm that specialises in China.

Last week, a group of 16 foreigners - thought to include four Britons - were arrested after a drug bust based on what Xuzhou police said was a tip. One is under criminal detention, which is typically followed by formal arrest and conviction – China’s murky courts, controlled by the ruling Communist Party, have a 99.9 per cent conviction rate.

The remaining foreigners are in administrative detention, and could spend up to 15 days in jail before being deported, though they aren’t blocked from future criminal charges.

Foreigners in Xuzhou drinking in bars like this one did not want to talk to journalists Credit: Sophia Yan

Government officials have clamped down on foreigners working on improper visas, and are conducting raids in office buildings and bars, mandating everyone to submit hair and urine samples.

Even if a substance, such as marijuana, was legally consumed outside of China, anyone failing a drug test inside the country could face extreme trouble. Drug offences carry hefty penalties in China, including the death sentence for trafficking.

The crackdown in Xuzhou has shaken the small expat community, mostly English teachers and students studying subjects including Mandarin, medicine, and mechanical engineering. Local bars popular with foreigners were empty over the weekend, while social media groups fell silent.

Everyone was extremely tight-lipped; almost none were willing to exchange even basic pleasantries with the Telegraph.

Two teachers from EF Education First, whose colleagues were among those arrested, dashed for the basement of a bar when the Telegraph approached. Another said he had been instructed not to speak with anyone, including media.

An Education First school in Xuzhou Credit: Sophia Yan

On Saturday, angry parents poured out of a meeting with management at one EF Xuzhou branch, demanding tuition fees be refunded, and blaming the institute for hiring teachers of poor integrity.

Swiss-based EF, which runs a global chain of institutes including 300 branches in China, is the largest English education chain in Xuzhou, and has said it is cooperating with the local authorities. Brunswick, the global public relations firm representing EF, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story at the time of publication.  

Government propaganda has seized on the incident to promote nationalism and anti-Western sentiment. A state media editorial on Friday headlined “Keep toxic foreign teachers away from kids” blasted institutes like EF for failing to have higher employment standards “instead of blindly seeking profits.”

While it remains to be seen how the Xuzhou arrests pan out, recent cases in China involving foreigners have been widely seen as politically motivated. Canada was targeted after Beijing made clear it was upset with Ottawa for arresting a Chinese tech executive on a US extradition request.

In January, a Canadian arrested in 2014 who had been given a 15-year sentence for alleged drug trafficking was put on a rushed one-day retrial and slapped with the death penalty.

The month before, China arbitrarily detained Canadians Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a business consultant, on suspicion of endangering national security.

China has also more recently used exit bans to prevent foreigners, including Americans who aren’t facing formal charges, from leaving the country.

And Beijing has become more vocal against the UK in recent weeks as British officials, including prime minister candidate and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, have blasted China for eroding freedoms in Hong Kong.

More than 40 British nationals were detained in China in the first four months of this year, triple the number over the same period in previous years.

“China is using these arrests to send a message to unfriendly countries. They are essentially saying, we operate by our own rules so you had better not mess with us,” said Mr Harris. They’re “killing the chickens to scare the monkeys.”

One of the anti-crime banners in Xuzhou which reads: “Fight crime and eradicate vice; Stay clear of porn, gambling and drugs" Credit: Sophia Yan

For the Xuzhou authorities, the broader crackdown has been touted as a political success. Authorities boasted in May that they had arrested 4,286 suspects, recovered assets worth 3 billion yuan (£347 million), and awarded 16 informants for reporting illegal activity.

Community police stations dot street corners and park entrances, and taxis are equipped with cameras – the same ones used in the far western Xinjiang region on lockdown where the United Nations estimates more than one million Muslims are detained in internment camps.

And lest anyone venture out for a bit of fun, reminders that the authorities are looking for even the slightest hint of suspicious activity are never far.

Signs advertise hotlines encouraging residents to report on each other, and public toilet entrances are equipped with facial recognition cameras. One nightclub, E11, is flanked with giant red anti-crime propaganda banners: “Fight crime and eradicate vice; Stay clear of porn, gambling and drugs.”

Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong