Lack of trust in China – suspicion everywhere

The lack of trust in mainland Chinese society isn’t a new issue by any means. A lot of people know China has a huge trust deficit in society, though there’s disagreement over whether the government or society should bear most of the blame.

The most well-known and controversial case concern accident victims. Nowadays nobody really wants to help people, especially seniors, who’ve fallen in the streets. Because in several cases, these victims have turned around and accused or sued the people who’ve helped them and claimed they were the ones who hit them.
In a very tragic case, a man committed suicide after he helped an old man who’d fallen on the street and taken him to a clinic, before being accused by the old man of knocking him down and demanding hundreds of thousands of yuan.
In another instance, a series of striking photos, a guy stands by a woman who’d fallen on the street off of her e-bike, taking her pictures. However, he wasn’t being callous or voyeuristic. He was making a record that she’d fallen in an accident which he had nothing to do with, before helping her up. And who could blame him – there’ve a spate of incidents nationwide where people have fallen in public and then turned around and blamed the very ones who helped them, even extorting them.

So far thankfully I’ve never experienced anything as extreme. Instead I’ve had a few mishaps that are relatively minor. But that’s the point – the sheer banality of my experiences made me realize just how little trust there was in society when everyday events can be clouded in such murky feelings and thoughts.

My first experience was at a hotel I stayed in during my first several weeks in Beijing. One day, I came back and realized I’d forgotten my key inside my room. I went to the receptionist, who lent me the hotel master key. After I opened my room, I went downstairs to the receptionist and returned the hotel key. After returning to my room, I found that it hadn’t been cleaned so I called the front desk.

As soon as I started speaking, the receptionist said I hadn’t returned the key to her. I was stunned, and insisted I had. “I just gave it back to you a few minutes ago,” I said. “No, you didn’t give it back,” she replied bluntly. After several minutes of this back and forth, I went downstairs where we continued to argue. Luckily I spotted the manager, who quickly found the master key behind the counter. Instead of an apology, the receptionist claimed the key had been returned by another staffer who’d gotten it from me upstairs!

My second notable experience was during a messy situation with my previous apartment that involved a very disreputable agency (I wrote several posts about this back in December and January as it unfolded). The affair came to an end when the landlady decided to sell the apartment. I agreed to move out at a certain date, but coincidentally I had to go to Hong Kong the weekend before. I met with the landlady and the new owner right before my trip, and told them I was returning next week and would move out. I thought everything would be ok.

Yet when I returned to Beijing, I got a text from my landlady who said she’d been trying to contact me. She had even visited my place the day I left to discuss something. The next morning, the new owner also called me, saying he heard from the landlady that they couldn’t find me. “That’s because I was in Hong Kong like I told you,” I said.

They were either ignorant about geography or didn’t believe me when I said I was going to be away from China for the weekend.

In return, I’ve also been guilty of being suspicious.

The messy apartment situation above unraveled when I first met my landlady in my hallway (I’d been renting the place from the agency for months already) after coming home from work one night. She’d been waiting for hours and told me how the agency had duped her and had been renting out her apartment without her permission for over two years. She seemed to be telling the truth and even brought her property ownership certificate and ID later. Yet during the whole time, I couldn’t help wondering whether this was all an elaborate ploy. I had all kinds of paranoid scenarios in my mind about the agency hiring this person to pretend to be the landlady, and then, whether the landlady and the agency had planned this whole drama just to get me to move out quickly.

Dishonesty is bad in itself, but what’s worse is its effect. People lose trust and become quick to accuse and be suspicious.

If even born-and-bred locals have trouble coping with the dishonesty here, how can non-natives deal with it? All I can try is not to be consumed by suspicion but always be cautious. And don’t take things personally, because whatever shady misfortune happens to you, it’s probably happened to many locals as well.


2 thoughts on “Lack of trust in China – suspicion everywhere

  1. So many questions bring to mind: is this limited to big cities? Is this behavior reflected in business-to-business dealings? If there’s a debate about why it exists, what are the possible sociological explanations? Great made-me-think post with solid examples to help me understand what you mean by “suspicion”; it may not excuse the taxi driver, but as you say, at least you know it wasn’t personal.


    1. Bobbi, good questions. It’s complex and I think even many mainlanders can’t fully figure why (the first article I linked to in this post goes into this). I’m not sure but I guess there’s more trust in towns and rural areas, mainly because communities are more tight-knit and people know each other better, unlike say, Beijing, where at least one-third of the people are from out of town and locals sometimes discriminate against outsiders.
      The possible explanations are many – the effects of Cultural Revolution and other events that caused serious and violent disruptions, poverty and desperation, lack of strong laws (which sounds ironic given that it has an authoritarian leadership but at ground level, laws are weak and ambiguous), lack of strong communities. Unlike say, the US, Canada or even Taiwan, people do not have the mindset of being kind or considerate to, much less trust, strangers.


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