Expats concerned about their safety in China will focus less on the dangers travellers are usually worried about, such as pickpocketing, and more on seemingly innocuous areas such as food and driving.
Serious and violent crime in China is rare, and although expats often fall victim to petty theft, especially in tourist hotspots and crowded marketplaces, it still isn’t commonplace. A little extra precaution needs to be taken when it comes to securing housing. Locking the doors, keeping valuables out of sight and, for women living alone, avoiding ground floor apartments are appropriate safety measures.
At face value, there seems to be little that can be done to avoid these unfortunate realities, but adopting certain defensive behaviours is easy and beneficial. New arrivals should take routine precautions in larger cities by paying attention to their surroundings, being mindful of their belongings in public places, and staying away from poorly lit areas at night, especially if travelling alone.
Different areas of China pose varying health risks, and new arrivals should be aware of this. For example, those visiting areas with extreme altitude may experience altitude sickness. During the rainy season, some areas, such as Guandong province, report rises in the mosquito-borne dengue fever.
Expats should also be wary of the high levels of pollution, unregulated additives in food and reckless drivers.
Pollution in China
The smog in China can be overwhelming, especially in urban centres and heavily industrialised areas. Expats living in these areas should make an effort to exercise regularly and use an air purifier at night. Pollution can cause sinus congestion, itchy eyes and a runny nose; those with pre-existing medical conditions as well as children and the elderly may be particularly affected.
Food and water safety in China
As the country’s population continues to grow, so does the number of local food producers attempting to cut costs by using illegal additives and unsafe food practices. 'Food scandals' emerge often, and while this should not discourage new arrivals from trying everything from dim sum to thousand-year eggs, caution should be exercised.
Only approach street vendors that always seem to be busy and, until a trusted local can vouch for its safety, avoid the charming but clearly dirty corner restaurant. It is also important to only purchase raw food that, at the very least, looks fresh and appealing and is in date.
It's best to avoid drinking tap water as it is generally not considered to be safe; rather buy bottled water.
Driving safety in China
When everyone else on the road seems to be openly breaking laws and violating principles of etiquette, driving defensively in China can easily get frustrating. New residents would do well to use Chinese public transport when it's available as it's generally fast, safe and economical, and a good way to get to know one’s surroundings. Expats shouldn't be afraid to walk, either – China can be surprisingly pedestrian friendly, although being aware of the unpredictable surrounding traffic is important.
Expats who want to use a car should consider hiring a driver at first, but those who do get behind the wheel must try to stay calm and allow themselves some time to adapt to the Chinese rhythm of driving.
Terrorism in China
Terrorism is rare and generally doesn't affect expats or the areas they tend to settle in. Minor attacks in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province in the fairly remote northwest of the country, have been blamed on separatist extremists from the region's Uyghur minority. Historically, incidents such as these rarely have effects outside of the province and expats should remain unaffected.
Political situation in China
Expats travelling to China should be aware of the political situation in the country. China is a one-party state and expats should avoid open discussions of politics with new acquaintances. We also recommend avoiding any demonstrations that may take place.
►Culture Shock in China is essential reading for new arrivals
►For more on getting around and transport safety, see Transport and Driving in China
"I feel quite safe most of the time, but I’m quite careful about not walking in abandoned places in the dark. If you use common sense, you can avoid potentially unsafe situations quite easily." Keep reading our interview with Kara, an expat living in Beijing.
"In a city of 15 million government recognized citizens there is always going to be problems with crime. There is a large gap between rich and poor here which usually causes crime problems. I would say expats are pretty safe overall." For more on safety and expat life in China, read this interview with Seth K.
Are you an expat living in China?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to China. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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