7 Expat Freedoms in China

FreedomIs it possible that we, as foreigners, can feel more free in China than in our home countries? I chose to write this article because I feel it many ways, I am.

The real caveat here is that this article is written from my perspective as an American (a country obsessed with personal freedom), and it pertains only to foreigners living in China. I acknowledge that for Chinese citizens, a lot of these freedoms either don’t exist or are heavily restricted.
Let me begin with a short example. I make videos in Chengdu with a good friend, and over the past few months we were working on a video about Ebikes in Chengdu. This involved us riding around Chengdu and filming anytime we found something unique or interesting. We rode bikes around coffee shops, the Poly Center and sex shops among many others.

What was crazy about this, and what shocked my friend (who is experienced at filming in the U.K.) is how easy it was to film without ever hearing “you can’t film here.” For my friend, this was night and day from back home, where any time he went out on the street with a camera he had about 10 minutes before the police would show up to put a stop to his unlicensed filming.

To me, this is a form of freedom. There’s so much that we can get away with as foreigners that we couldn’t back in our home countries. Did I mention that for this film we were riding around bikes without helmets or driving licenses? They are not required in China.

What are some other aspects of “freedom”? Freedom of speech, freedom of expression? As an American I’m constantly inundated on social media (especially during this election time) by declarations of how free America is. I will in no way attempt to argue that freedom of speech in China is anywhere close to America, but have I ever felt like I couldn’t say something I wanted to in China because it was sensitive? No. With that said, do I go about writing articles criticizing the Chinese government? Of course not. But I feel that many foreigners have this opinion that China is akin to North Korea in terms of censoring speech, and if I post something about how I disagree with China’s views on Tibet on my Facebook I’m going to be working in a labor camp for the next 15 years (fingers crossed here!)

While there are definite restrictions in these two areas when it comes to freedom here in China, let’s also look at simple things that cause me to feel more free here than I would in my home country.


SafetyMy God, how safe is China? If I walked down the number of dark alleys at 4 am in NYC that I do in China I don’t think I would’ve lasted two weeks. This safety is, for me, one of the great things about China that doesn’t exist back in the states. And that safety, in turn, leads to a sense of freedom in that I rarely have to worry about where I’m walking or who I’m walking with.

I think that safety in China is something foreigners take for granted, but aside from petty things like scooter theft, there’s very little danger of violent crimes in this country, which is one of its truly great qualities. There are health concerns in China, to be certain. Violent crime is not one of them.

Lack of Police Interference

Chinese policeThis might seem contradictory to my previous point, but while I see police all over China, I rarely see them doing anything. Having grown up in America, I have a healthy sense of apprehension and fear regarding police, which I don’t view as a positive quality. This is due to both personal experiences and news stories which depict over-zealous police officers that either out of boredom or an inflated sense of authority feel the need to interfere in situations where they are probably not needed.

I rarely, if ever, get told by a police officer in China that I can’t go somewhere, can’t walk into a building, can’t drive here, can’t drink here etc. The lawlessness of China isn’t always a good thing, and likely won’t always exist, but it provides me a sense of freedom I rarely experience elsewhere.

I understand that the police can still do obnoxious things like show up randomly at your apartment demanding to see expat’s documentation, but this seems a small and innocuous invasion of privacy compared to some of the things police officers can do back in the USA.

The Freedom to Make Friends

How many times have you been approached by a random Chinese person on the street who just simply wants to “be friends”? In China this completely acceptable social interaction, where as back in the USA this type of behavior is basically reserved to the clinically insane. That is an overstatement, but it’s much easier and more acceptable in China to have social interactions with strangers. In fact, most locals will relish the opportunity to interact with you, I find. As a foreigner, if you want to make friends with Chinese people it simply couldn’t be much easier.

Even when it comes to meeting other foreigners in Chengdu, that fear of approaching a random stranger that is prevalent in many western countries doesn’t exist as much here. Because we, as foreigners, are in the minority, we share a common quality that lends itself to friendship and mutual understanding. I’m personally a fan of the “Laowai nod” when passing a foreigner on the street. That eye contact and subtle raise of the head conveys that unspoken bond that exists between two foreigners in China. You’re foreign, I’m foreign, so we cool.

Freedom of Drinking and Smoking

TsingtaoThis might be the most superficial of all the freedoms here, but it does bear mentioning that any time you want you can grab a beer from a convenience store and drink it on the street. Or smoke a cigarette in almost any building or location you want.

There are some instances where I despise this freedom (e.g. all the men smoking in the locker room of my gym), but it must be mentioned because it is something that back in the US, and many western countries is strictly enforced. There’s a reason for that, to be sure, but it’s nice in China to be able to grab a drink whenever you want and not have to worry about being accosted for drinking it as you walk to a bar or party.

Financial Freedom

Unless you’re eating western food every single night, it’s very easy to live comfortably in China on an incredibly low income or budget. Yes, I know prices are rising in China, but there’s no way I’d be able to rent to apartment I do in any city in the USA for the $300 a month that I do here. Besides living expenses, there’s additional financial freedom in the fact that, as a foreigner, you can easily make enough money to survive here will limited talent or skills. This is not to knock the education profession, but it’s one of the easiest jobs to get and maintain that I’ve ever encountered. And if you want to move beyond teaching English, there are options for that as well.

This lack of financial burden can allow foreigners to pursue other goals in China while not constantly having to worry about where the next meal or month’s rent is coming from.

The Freedom to “Be Different”

It’s easy to get fed up with the stares and shouts of “laowai” after being in China for a year or so, but we shouldn’t forget the opposite side of this “being different” situation.

First, you can really dress however you like, dye your hair or get some tattoos and not be unduly judged for it. Basically, the people that are going to stare at you are going to stare just because you’re foreign, anyways, so having some pink hair or shorts and flip-flops in February is just one of those “cultural differences”.

Secondly, the amount of opportunities we get just for being “foreign”, and how easy it is to “fake” our way into further, greater opportunities. Monkey jobs, where one gets paid simply for being white and smiling, are a good example of this. Not a good job, per se, but an opportunity that would never present itself in most of our home countries.

And while better, jobs probably won’t pay you just for being foreign, it does present a huge amount of opportunity, and a lot of leeway for us to get our foot in the door, creating new opportunity. It’s the freedom to present ourselves as whatever kind of person we want. Almost like a fresh start, since in a sense, we have all left another world behind.

Freedom in Relationships

In China, I rarely feel, or have friends that seem to feel, any pressure to date a certain kind of person. Age, ethnicity, and even sexuality are not that publicly scrutinized when it comes to foreigners dating. I think for a lot of us one of the main draws of China is how it feels like an escape from societal pressures, and the dating sphere here definitely shows that.

Seeing a 35-year-old foreign guy with a 21-year-old Chinese girl is quite common here, and Chinese society doesn’t frown on this. Homosexual relationships are also quite accepted here. Despite old ideas in China being against this, it’s easy to see how fascinated and accepting of these types of relationships the younger Chinese generation is. Also, as most of us are living here without our families from back home, there’s much less pressure to date someone they would find suitable, or even to get married, as we are basically exempt from the pressures of Chinese society.


I am in no way trying to argue that China is more of a “free” country than the USA. But there are more than a few ways in which, as foreigners, we are given a lot more leeway and opportunities that we wouldn’t get back in our home countries. For me personally, that’s one of the reasons I like living in China and why I’ve stayed here so long. To sum it up in a way that is not perfectly correct or eloquent, but gets the point across: “In China, as a foreigner, you can kind of get away with whatever the fuck you want.”

White Monkey

20 thoughts on “7 Expat Freedoms in China”

  1. Yeah, once every few years you’ll see one of those foreigners who is obsessed with Tiananmen Square and thinks the Sekret Police is out to get her. It’s her job to educate the Chinese people about the great wrongs of their government and teach critical thinking or the other latest craze. It’s either that, or the reverse, someone who toadies and tries to obey the Party line, and thinks she’ll be kicked out unless she states Diaoyu Islands are China’s when she’s talking to her friends on the phone.

    In fact, opportunities for foreigners are sharply limited in China. English teacher and professional, that’s about it. Any other job, you have to create it for yourself. There aren’t any foreign farmers, or foreign babysitters, or foreign crop dusters. Whole sectors of the economy are closed off, inaccessible.

    The 35 year old / 21 year old couple certainly is looked down upon, and rather severely, by foreigners in China. Maybe you need to get up to Beijing with your farmgirl to see what attitudes are really like. Sexpats get savaged all the time.

  2. I completely agree with this article. I’ve lived in China for 3 years now and the amount of freedom we have to do whatever we want is amazing. The most important part that I feel about China is the safety. Like I tell my friends and family back home, “I’d rather have to wear a face make than a bulletproof vest.” I’d never allow my wife and daughter (both Chinese) to walk onto the streets alone like they do here.

    China isn’t perfect, but no country is. However, even though the citizens don’t get to experience the freedoms we do I still feel it’s less regulated than the US regarding daily living. Business on the other hand might be about the same or less, I’m not sure.

  3. Good points made, Deven. Like Brian says, no country is perfect. China does allow a lot of freedom, not only for foreigners, but for Chinese as well. The government knows this. They have to. They simply cannot afford nor manage to lawfully appropriate a population so big (insert your age-old tiananmen square jab here). It feels that the public is almost coming to a boiling point sometimes. The guys in Beijing are well aware of it. They have to release the valves. By comparison, the food truck craze in the states makes me laugh. In China it’s the farmers and poor folk who sell things on the street. In America, you have to have a million bucks just to sell a fucking hot dog from a cart. If you don’t, you’ll be shut down in two seconds. Grannies calling the cops and everything. Pour your beer onto the pavement. Nanny state knows how you should live, yeeha.

    • hahaha don’t even get me STARTED on the food regulations in the USA. I mean, yeah, things aren’t as “clean” here overall when it comes to food, but the amount of nonsense involved with running a restaurant in the US (I’ve dealt with it) is outrageous.

      And yes, I agree that some of these freedoms, or lack of enforcement, does carry over to Chinese, but they still don’t get to 听不懂 their ways out of certain situations like I can 🙂

  4. Fan of the site here, not expat but I grew up in Chengdu now lives in states. disappointed by the lack of acknowledgment that many of these freedoms come with the privilege of being a visible foreigner in China (compounded with being white male). Not trying to be a tone police here, but just understand that you are enjoying a lot of the socioeconomical differentials. Many Chinese don’t get to enjoy these freedoms you listed

    And perhaps it’s the way people sensationalize news, food safety seems a major problem there. I’m actually happy that food is heavily regulated in the states.

    Also, 3 years makes you a veteran huh :p

    Anyways, just my perspective, Enjoy your time there and be mindful of the privileges that you have. If you get to stay long term even better, if that’s what you want.

    • That was acknowledged in the post:

      I acknowledge that for Chinese citizens, a lot of these freedoms either don’t exist or are heavily restricted.

      Many of these freedoms have a lot to do with socioeconomic difference, to be certain. But while most are only aware of the restrictions that come with China, this post highlights some little-known freedoms which most expats experience (even those who are not white males).

      Food safety is definitely a major issue in China, no question about that. Thanks for your comment, Q.

    • Thanks for your comment man. Like Charlie said, I in no way mean that these freedoms exist at all for Chinese citizens here. In fact, quite the opposite. This article was written from a foreign perspective, and targeted at foreigners (yes, white foreigners probably experience these freedoms most of all).

      Food safety is a major issue for sure. It’s unfortunate because it even goes as far as the soil being polluted, so growing organic foods is very difficult.

      Also though I have lived in China for 4 years, and I’d say that makes me a bit of a veteran in terms of foreigners. I wouldn’t think to write articles discussing Chinese opinions or issues because in that regard I have VERY little understanding/perspective.

    • So living in America, you should see that no farmer can just show up on a street corner with a cart full of vegetables. This is a Chinese liberty. Not in the USA.

      You will also notice in the USA that the police can stop you and question you for any reason whatsoever. Drivers and pedestrians in the USA loathe the police. In China, you can drive/behave like a total idiot and nothing will happen. This is another liberty. Not just for white people.

      I don’t need to go on. But try living in the USA without a credit card. Try a cash economy – as China so often is. See how far that gets you.

      By the way, your contentment with American food safety is in vain. Look up Monsanto.

      • Charlie/Deven: I understand, I appreciate the disclaimer and just want to make sure the proper perspectives are taken.

        I know about Monsanto and the various problem with heavy corporation influence on public policy making and economy in states. Although it would be naive to think China is better in these respects. Again, many differences exist, I’m not here to bash any one of them. If we are a lover of either culture and people we would do well to try to understand the history and status differentials.

        Here’s a short story, yesterday I was in Chengdu talking to an old family friend, who’s in her 50s. She speaks quite fondly of the summer in 89′ when the she was a fresh college youth. This is the year when thousands rushing to Chengdu streets to protest against the central government. I was a toddler and saw this on streets with my parents. She speaks with a latent passion about days-long protests and locals who bring food and water and music. It’s a time of hope and strife. In the end, she was one of the last to leave the street before the army came last morning in Chengdu and cleared things out.

        Hearing of this 20+ years later, you start to understand how her disillusionment with politics lead her to focus more on her family to provide and protect. and how the next generation (post 80s) is often shielded by their ignorance or apathy, often how their parents want it. Even with the appearance of economic boom the underlying financial and political instability is always being felt, real or not.

        Does this sound like regressive society? Sure. Does china often feel like a free-for-all compare to the regulatory/political gridlock in US? yes. IT’s a complex place.

  5. Deven,

    You forgot to mention the freedom to carry a man purse and use a folding fan in public.

    On a more serious note, I think Q seems to take some offense at the glee with which you’re reporting your cherished expat freedoms. Those freedoms are indeed beyond the reach of most of China’s population, but I can that tell your heart is in the right place and that you are genuinely grateful for the liberties we get to enjoy.

    Personally, I can’t agree with you that the phenomenon of older white men dating young Chinese women is condoned by this society, or even OK. Never have I seen social disapproval more apparent on the faces of Chinese people than when some gnarly white dude is caressing his young Chinese arm candy in public. Unless a foreigner is truly, truly fluent in both Chinese language and culture, dating young Chinese women exploits a power imbalance that is rooted in all sorts of troubling issues. From social and economic differences, to gender and culture disparities, there are many reasons why I feel it’s not fair or appropriate for foreigners to come here with the expectation of picking up hot Chinese girls.

    Thanks for spurring debate, Deven. You write well, and I look forward to your next article.


  6. I have a neighbor, an older Chinese woman, and when she sees me with my Chinese wife she has an overt scowl. I’ll say to my wife: “That woman HATES you! She wishes death upon you”. That’s how intense the scowl is. Most people are cool tho….

  7. I had an idea to write a similar post as the one above, but now I’ve found one that not only has someone else done it, they’ve done a better job than I would have. Great post.

    The Financial Freedom part is something I tout to all of my friends. I love finally being able to live below my means, and that food is not so exorbitant as to consumer a third of my paycheck. The only part I wish there were more restrictions on is the smoking. I can’t stand sitting in rooms full of smoke and going home with the stink on my clothes. Other than that, I love my life in China. 🙂

    • Right? A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck where I’m from in the states. Even if you’re teaching English 20 hours a week here (a very easy life), I don’t feel that there’s the same amount of pressure here at all. Here it seems a lot more likely that you’ll have time to build a side business or develop other skills outside of your day job.

    • Thank you, one of the wonderful things about Chengdu compared to a lot of other large cities in China is that the people are so friendly here. It is a real asset.


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