China increasing surveillance of hotels?

Posted: April 9, 2012 in Politics
Tags: , ,

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.

  1. justrecently says:

    I think it is realistic to think of this as part of a – political – trend in China, but it is also a global trend, beyond totalitarian countries. For a few years now, every citizen applying for a new ID card in Germany has had to provide a fingerprint – it’s a strange feeling to have one taken at the municipal office in charge. It’s like treating every citizen as “a suspect of something” (because the opposite can’t be proven). Not to mention the biometric features.

    The notion seems to be that a state can’t be bad, or turn bad – but if the Third Reich had had the same tools at its disposal as the state has now, there would have been only very few survivors among those persecuted. Organized crime, on the other hand, will always find ways to remain hidden.

  2. justrecently says:

    P.S.: the measures the police people took to have you register during those twenty minutes are cute.

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  4. Jeff says:

    More likely a manufacturer of this mandatory equipment provided local authorities with an incentive to step up their game. I’ve seen many types of rules suddenly being enforced only to be completely forgotten a few months later. Even if the motivations are legitimate the Chinese tend to do these things in a temporary “crack-down” style simply because they don’t have the manpower.

    Hotels all over the world check ID, the only difference is whether they plug into government systems directly rather then indirectly. It doesn’t accomplish much with regards to tracking Chinese as millions stay in houses of friends/family, company dorms/apartments or at best rent something without registering because the owner doesn’t want to pay taxes.

    Foreigners tend to be inclined to follow the rules because “it’s the right thing to do” but that doesn’t mean they are hard to avoid without breaking them. I recommend you bring a small tent next time you go biking or check out to make some local friends where you can crash.

    • sinostand says:

      Yeah, I bring a tent with me as a last resort and have used it in the past, but it sounds better in theory than in practice. It can be just as big a pain between finding a place, sleeping in the cold (I can only fit small sleeping bags on my bike) and staying awake all night worrying about someone stopping us. And there are no foreigners that might be using couch-surfing sites in these places. Locals have offered to house me for the night though.

      Anyways, the law also says that no matter where a foreigner stays, they’re supposed to register with the local police station. If I stayed with a friend, technically I’m supposed to fill my standard info, give their address and let the police copy their ID card. However it’s not illegal to sleep during the day somewhere and stay up walking around all night, or camp, or go on an overnight train. The rules really make no sense.

      And I’m pretty sure the registration goes straight to the police/gov. The program the police used to register me was exactly the same as the one in the hotels.

  5. […] China increasing surveillance? “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.” [Sinostand] […]

  6. […] China increasing surveillance? “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.” [Sinostand] […]

  7. Marian Rosenberg - Haikou #1 Translation Agency says:

    Hotels absolutely are NOT required to have a special license to accept foreigners. Please do not spread rumors. It’s difficult enough dealing with hotels and police officers who don’t know this.

    Get yourself into some rural backwater where they’ve never seen a foreigner before and the nicest place costs 10rmb a night. The police will either be smart enough to go online and figure things out themselves (河浴乡 in 山西 is _awesome_) or they will call the provincial foreign affairs bureau for advice (大王店镇 in 河北 is reasonably intelligent) or they will stonewall you until you throw a temper tantrum after which point they will take you back to your hotel (don’t bother going to 赞皇县 in 河北) and let you spend the night the way you intended.

    Any hotel which can accept Chinese people can accept foreigners. There is NO rule that says otherwise and there has been no rule for almost 10 years.
    I *remember* when it changed.

    Even if I hadn’t been vaguely cognizant of it in the news, my employer made a point of telling me I was now allowed to stay in hotels that weren’t star rated and private residences.

    As far back as 2003, I had a danwei call the police and the consumer report hotline and make a report against a hotel that wouldn’t check me in because they hadn’t noticed that one of the people on the reservation was a laowai and “we don’t have the license to accept foreigners”.

    The computerized system _is_ able to accept foreigners and has been able to accept foreigners since as far back as 2008 when I found myself with nowhere else to stay except a place that cost 2rmb per bed (I paid 8 and took the whole 4-bed room). It simple requires a computer savvy hotel owner OR a foreigner who already knows how to put their own information into the computer (something I do most places that have the computer.)

    I’ve never asked how much the computerized system costs but, considering the wide variety of computers and scanners I’ve seen, I assumed that if a hotel already had a computer they got to use that one. It’s just a piece of software and a “secure” internet connection dongle that looks like the one the tax bureau wanted me to pay a few hundred renminbi for.

    About three or four nights ago, when the computer kept choking on scanning my passport, the lady just pulled out a very official looking name of the town book (issued by the PSB) and wrote my info in by hand. The book was about as nosy as any I’ve ever seen with everything from “purpose of visit” to “home address” and “phone number.”

    When a hotel does not have the computer (still very likely if you get as rural as I’ve been getting, the night before last the town didn’t even have a 网吧) you can be directly registered at the police station using a standard “Temporary Registration for Foreigners” form which the police may or may not be smart enough to figure out how to get on their own. Required fields on the form are first name, last name, gender, passport number, passport expiration date, date of birth, port of entry, visa number, visa expiration date, date(s) of stay, address of residence.

    Note that I didn’t say “address of hotel”. The same form is used if you are staying in a private residence and are willing to go to the hassle of legally registering your presence (something you are supposed to do whenever you stay more than 24 hours in the city or 72 hours in the countryside).

    If you get an actively stupid and obstructionist police officer (as previously noted, avoid 赞皇县) no matter how hard they try to tell you “our town doesn’t have any hotels with the license to accept foreigners” they won’t actually be able to provide you with any rules or regulations. The same police station flat out refused to call the provincial foreign affairs bureau, refused to accept my computer’s copy of the Temporary Residence Registration Form, and attempted to send me by car to the next province so they could get rid of me.

    I’ve yet to find myself for the night in an actually closed area but the officials in the actually closed areas are willing and able to show me rules and regulations around the time they are nicely showing me on the map where I can and cannot go.

    If you get a police station that is “pretty sure we can do it” but which doesn’t think about such things as calling the provincial foreign affairs bureau or going online to look things up you will get the whole nine yards of photocopying and photographing every conceivable piece of information. I wasn’t much bothered when that happened to me in 2008. I didn’t know the procedure. They didn’t know the procedure. They knew they didn’t know the procedure. And they didn’t want to get it wrong. I applaud them for trying.

    I’ve been cycling through rural China for the past three weeks now (

    So far, I’ve had one town this trip where the hotels gave me the ‘we don’t have a license’ shit so I went to the police, got a ‘what license?’ a hand drawn map listing hotels in the area (down to the really cheap), and instructions to come back if none of those places will take me “and I’ll take you the check-in myself”.

    I also had a town where none of the hotels I could find (all two of them) met my (very low) standards and I went to the police asking if there was anywhere else available. The police didn’t really want me to stay in town but, after calling the provincial foreign affairs bureau for help, registered me and took me to the place next door that I hadn’t noticed (what with it being behind an abandoned construction site).

    There have been two towns where the owner didn’t register me at all, three towns where I’ve gone in an official looking hand written book, and one where the police came to my hotel with the form already printed off. Also one town where I stayed free at a hotel owned by a friend’s classmate and (because I wasn’t paying money) fell under the rules for a private residence wherein it was determined that since registration is only required within the first 72 hours and you are leaving in less than 72 hours we don’t need to bother going to the trouble of doing all that paperwork.


    • Stu says:

      Marian- that’s spectacularly informative, thank you. I don’t know if you’ll see this reply, but just in case…

      I’ve been vaguely aware that hotels haven’t required a special permit to allow foreigners to stay for years. The problem is that so few of them seem aware of this. I don’t suppose you know of any authoritative source (ideally an actual law, but a Chinese-language media report or something might do) which explicitly states this? I haven’t found any, but it might be useful to have a printed copy to show people.

      Also, when I was refused in Beijing of all places, I had a suspicion about the real reason. I wonder if it’s not that they don’t know, but that they don’t want the hassle. I imagine a cheap, small hotel doesn’t necessarily pay its taxes etc- but if they have to register a foreigner with the local police, they’re putting themselves on the radar for that kind of thing. They’d get 20 kuai or so for the room, but they might lose a lot more in taxes and/or fees. Do you think that might be the case?

  8. Stu says:

    Just to follow up… some googling gives me this:
    Which is a 2006 report saying restrictions have been lifted on where foreigners can stay in Beijing- apparently previously it had to be a ‘starred’ hotel or other designated place. It applies to Beijing only though, which implies that regulations are different elsewhere… I’d love an equally (or more) official report saying the same for the whole country.

    • sinostand says:

      When I was at one of the little satellite cities around Beijing, there was only one hotel in town allowed to take foreigners, and it cost almost 800 yuan (compared to the 70 or so for the ones I tried first). This was a town where foreigners are fairly common, but not in any significant numbers so I suspect they use that hotel rule to extort them into paying a bunch or there’s some kind of shady agreement between police and the owners of the expensive hotel.

      As for the national rule, I’ve looked (not especially hard) but found nothing. If we’re now allowed to stay anywhere, that’s sure news to the multiple police stations and hotel owners I’ve encountered.

  9. Stu says:

    And while I’m here, seeing as I’ve googled all this stuff I’d better put it somewhere… is a discussion among Taiwanese backpackers. One says the above-mentioned restrictions have been lifted, but on a piecemeal basis by local governments- so in some areas they might still apply (he gives Yinchuan as an example)
    is a question and answer session with the Jilin police. The relevant section (beginning ‘是不是外国人只能入住挂“涉外宾馆”牌子的宾馆?’) mentions again that restrictions have been lifted by each local government, ‘in accordance with the unifying demand of the [central] Ministry of Public Security’- so there might be a central directive out there somewhere. It says that now anywhere that ‘doesn’t threaten national security and interests’ can have foreigners stay (I guess that’s a reference to military bases?), but it’s unclear if that refers to the whole country or just Jilin.

    Finally, the Hebei police over at say ‘2001年,我国取消了定点涉外宾馆的限制’- in 2001 the country cancelled the restrictions. What I can’t find, though, is an explicit national directive on this from 2001. And among the local ones that appear in a search, I’ve seen Beijing, Yunnan, Shanghai, Chongqing… but not Hebei. So the conclusion is… there is no conclusion so far. But I like Marian’s method of asking to see the laws because they’re clear as mud.

  10. […] neuen Identitätskarte primär darum geht, eine verstärkte Kontrolle auszuüben. Eric Fish weist auf seinem Blog bereits darauf hin, dass die Regelung, ausländische Gäste nur in «bessere» Hotels zuzulassen, […]

  11. […] are suppose to have a special permit before they can admit foreign guests. To get this permit they first must have the proper surveillance equipment installed — meaning a computerized registration system — and, or so it is my impression, be up to […]

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