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Safety and Emergencies for Expats in China

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2013


China is generally a safe country. There are several natural phenomena that may be dangerous: typhoons, floods and earthquakes. Typhoons, or more properly tropical cyclones, occur in the populous south-eastern coastal regions. July to September is the main typhoon season, with August being the stormiest month. It is important to keep abreast of official warnings issued by the National Marine Environmental Forecasting Centre during these times. Flooding is a danger if you live near a major river; the Yangtze is especially prone to bursting its banks.

Earthquakes occasionally have a devastating effect, and though they are normally minor, usually cause a great amount of damage. The most recent quake, which claimed 190 lives, was on 20 April 2013 in the south-western Sichuan province. Though most earthquakes occur in the less populated western half of the country, they do also happen in northern provinces.

In the major northern cities such as Beijing and nearby Tianjin, air pollution is a considerable health risk, especially to children and those with existing respiratory conditions. Smog is often present, obscuring visibility in these cities. Buying a face mask should help to filter out most of the pollutants, and plenty of locals use them. The State Council has recently taken measures to help clear things up.  In more serious cases, major polluters can now face the death penalty.

Another nationwide problem is food safety. Since 2003, when this author had trouble with some iffy watermelon in Guangzhou, incidents of food poisoning have multiplied thanks to unscrupulous food producers with low hygiene standards or an over-fondness for pesticides. The Government has now taken action to improve the situation, launching a new Five Year Plan in June 2012, which promises to clarify ambiguous legislation and raise food safety standards.

The Chinese people are becoming more active in expressing their discontent (about such things as air pollution and food poisoning.) Still, as most of the discontent is verbal or internet-based, the chances of experiencing actual unrest in China are very low. Similarly, despite the PRC’s occasional sabre-rattling with Japan and Taiwan over border disputes, the chances of war breaking out seem slim.

China’s crime rate is generally low, with violent crimes being particularly rare. Scenes of drunken hooliganism are not frequent in Chinese cities. In most parts of the country you are very unlikely to experience any trouble. Walking the streets is mostly safe day and night. Nevertheless, you may be unlucky enough to become a victim, as petty crime can still be problematic, especially in the busier cities.

You are most likely to be pick-pocketed or fall victim to other forms of theft in crowded areas and on public transport. The southern city of Shenzhen is particularly bad for petty theft. As in any country, theft prevention is about being aware of what is going on around you and keeping your belongings safe at all times. You can help reduce the chances of theft by keeping items such as mobile phones and laptops out of sight as much as possible.

Be aware that a cut-price ‘brand’ product you buy may in fact be an illegal imitation, and buying one could lead to into trouble with the police. There are many other forms of scam that expats may fall victim to, such as students asking you to visit their art exhibition in central Beijing then trying to sell you prints of paintings. (One such student was met on an almost daily basis by your current author, and eventually just ignored.)

China is generally safe for women, as the incidence of sexual assaults is low. You should also be aware that danger of sexual harassment, though very low, is increasing.


The emergency numbers that can be used throughout China are as follows. For the police, dial 110, for a medical emergency, dial 120, and for the fire brigade dial 119. Additionally, if there has been a traffic accident, dial 122. Emergency operators on all these lines may not be able to speak English, so you will need some basic Chinese. In Beijing, if you don’t speak any Chinese, you can dial 6525 5486 for any emergency.

It is important to note that the International Emergency Number, 112, does not connect to any emergency operator in China. Instead you will just hear a recorded message giving you details of the correct emergency numbers.



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