For three months in 2011, China’s most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, was
“As a child,” Smithsonian magazine reported, “Ai became aware of the slipperiness of fortune: One day his father was praised as a great poet; another day he was lambasted in party-run newspapers.”
The Ais’ experience elucidates a curious element of Chinese culture: the ever-shifting nature of what is “real,” of what one can and can’t do, of what is praised and what is punished.
Today, this has given rise to a massive culture of counterfeiting, which I stepped right into on my first day in China.
In 2009, I’d lived in San Francisco for eleven years. My brother, Jesse, had lived in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, for two, teaching English at a university. I went to visit him. After landing in Japan, my plane was screened for the avian flu, and after an unlucky family was quarantined, I was on to the next leg: three hours to Shanghai. But that plane took off late because of the airport-wide screenings, so by the time we began our descent into Shanghai Pudong International Airport, I knew I’d miss my next flight.
I explained my situation to a stewardess: Unexpectedly, I’d have to spend a night in Shanghai, with not a single word of Mandarin, no idea how the city was laid out, and no idea how anything worked.
This kind young woman presented me with a piece of paper, on which she’d written the name of an efficiency hotel.
“Show this to the taxi driver,” she said. “This is where the stewardesses stay when we’re in Shanghai.”
She also wrote, in Chinese and English, the name of a neighborhood I might like to visit.
The next morning, a taxi dropped me off in the neighborhood: a tourist area with fake pagoda roofs capping, among other things, a Starbucks. My heart sank; I wanted an authentic experience. But, exhausted and hungry, I started walking. Soon I came upon a tiny storefront with an open service window. I made what I’d read was the international sign for noodles—hands together, hands pulled apart—and the thin, middle-aged man in the window nodded. He and a few younger men in the shop wore white chef’s jackets. He led me to the small, windowless back room.
After a short wait he brought me a bowl of soup, chopped cilantro and bits of pork floating in a hot, oily broth with noodles and a fried egg. I felt proud of myself. I’d taxied around a city of 14 million people, found a noodle shop and delicious food, all on my own.
After I paid for the soup, I stood to leave, but the three young men, all smiling, all nodding, blocked my way. The tallest held out a pink 100 yuan note and waved his other hand back and forth. It was obvious to me he wanted to exchange the bill.
My first thought was, that’s counterfeit. But where had that thought come from? When had I ever encountered counterfeit money? What kind of noir, cloak-and-dagger situation did I think I was in?
Jenny Pritchett. You are standing in the back room of a noodle shop in the middle of Shanghai with your wallet open. Get the fuck out of here.
Slowly, another thought came to me: Maybe he wants change Coffee shops in San Francisco often put signs on their counters asking for small bills. So I nodded, relieved to understand, relieved not to be cheated. I opened my wallet and counted out a handful of small bills. I handed them to the man. He took them, smiling, and gave me the 100 yuan note, which I took.
Then he held out another 100 yuan note.
I smiled and tried to think of what to do. Then I thought, Jenny Pritchett. You are standing in the back room of a noodle shop in the middle of Shanghai with your wallet open. Get the fuck out of here.
In the taxi on the way back to my hotel, I congratulated myself.
Dodged that bullet! I thought. I felt giddy. In my hotel room I repacked my suitcase, and then I took a taxi to the domestic airport, Hongqiao.
At the ticket counter I booked a flight to Nanchang at 2 p.m. At the next counter, I opened my wallet and handed over a 100 yuan note to pay for the ticket. The woman ran it through a desktop machine, then handed it back to me.
“No good,” she said.
“No good?” I repeated.
Dammit! I thought. I’ve been had! But, coolly, I took back the note and handed her another one. I could lose 100 yuan. What did I care? It equaled about fifteen dollars. The woman ran the second note through her machine. Then she shook her head and picked up the phone on her desk.
I remember thinking, I didn’t do anything wrong, and I just want to catch this flight, so I’ll tell them I got all the bills at the currency exchange in San Francisco and they’ll believe me and this will be over shortly. Also, I was curious. I handed my stack of yuan to the woman and indicated I’d like her to run all the bills through her machine.
Earlier this year,a fake bank in Nanching took deposits of more than 200 million yuan (about $31 million) before it was closed.
It turned out I had four counterfeit 100 yuan notes. I thought back—hard—to that morning. I knew I’d exchanged one note. I might have been flustered by the second note and maybe didn’t remember exchanging it in my haste to get out of the shop. But four?
Counterfeiting, as I learned, is big business in China. In addition to currency and brand-name goods (a whopping
To be sure, China is not alone in counterfeiting; the practice of counterfeiting money and of punishing counterfeiters has been around nearly as long as real money has existed, and it’s a major focus of
So what’s going on in China?
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Chinese author Yu Hua put it succinctly: “The ubiquity of counterfeits points to a serious problem in China today: an absence of good faith. … Our government is always trying to give the Chinese people the impression that social problems stem not from its policies, but from people’s behaviors. In fact, the basic issue underlying the lack of moral integrity in society is that the government itself has lost credibility.”
The Chinese government has a history of changing its policies, allegiances, and rules midstream. Said Yu, “When we look back over the developments of the last thirty or so years, we see that government policy constantly shifted course. … The government blindly pursued economic growth. But once environmental pollution got out of hand, the authorities immediately put the blame on industry, keeping tight-lipped about its own responsibility. … What it encouraged yesterday, today it suppresses. What it suppresses today will be encouraged again tomorrow.”
When the government is inconsistent about its rules, and then capitalism comes along—a hotbed for creativity and opportunism—why not ignore or even make up the rules?
This corroborates the experience of Ai Weiwei and Ai’s father. One day you’re a political prisoner, the next you’re free. One day you’re a friend of Mao, the next you and your family are assigned to work in a labor camp (as Ai’s family was). Yu further made the connection between the acts of a capricious government and a culture of fakery that pervades every level of society; the focus of his op-ed was Taobao, China’s version of Amazon, which—at the same time it “
Soon I noticed I was being triangulated by three police officers, two men and one woman in blue uniforms and peaked caps. They stood apart, undoubtedly making a perimeter. They said nothing. They didn’t look at me when I looked at them.
I didn’t understand why I was being detained, but I still had an hour and a half until my flight. Then a few minutes turned into ten minutes. Then fifteen. All in silence. I started scanning the faces of other travelers, wondering if I could find someone who spoke fluent enough English and Chinese to help me explain myself to the police officers and the woman behind the counter. I ran up to one European-looking businessman with a rolling suitcase and asked, “Do you speak Chinese?”
“Sorry,” he said, taking one glance at the police officers and rolling away.
I communicated to the woman behind the counter that I wanted to make a phone call; I wanted to call Jesse. But because he lived in Jiujiang it was a long-distance call, and she couldn’t make it from her phone. So the oldest police officer, who was missing a handful of teeth, escorted me to a payphone on the wall.
I lifted the receiver and pushed buttons to try to get a dial tone. I zipped my credit card through the slot. Nothing. I laughed and gestured at the phone. Maybe the police officer would help me. Stoic, he looked away. Panicked, I led us back to the ticket counter.
Finally, the officers gestured for me to follow them. We crossed to a staircase leading down. I carried my suitcase to the bottom, where I saw a plate-glass window and a door made from floor-to-ceiling bars. Airport jail. The officers gestured for me to go inside. I hesitated. I considered dropping my suitcase, running upstairs, and escaping out the front doors into Shanghai.
This is how it happens, I thought. This is how people disappear.
The stark fact that I had no idea what I would do without my suitcase in Shanghai finally led me to roll into airport jail. Someone closed the door behind me.
And just like that, the officers dropped their act. They hung their arms around each other’s necks and laughed and talked. A young woman in a dark purple pantsuit approached me.”I am Christine,” she said. “Why do you have counterfeit money?”
“You speak English!” I cried. “I got it in a noodle shop this morning!” I pointed to my piece of paper. “I was here! Do you want me to describe them to you?”
Christine looked at the piece of paper and shook her head.”You must be more careful,” she said ruefully.
She led me into a conference room, looking back at her coworkers. “They’re laughing because that man is the chief, but they had to wait for me because he doesn’t speak English,” she said.
I used her cell phone to call Jesse. While it rang, Christine explained that no one had taken the notes from me because they belonged to me. Now I handed them over, and Christine laid them side by side on a photocopier—four serene faces of Mao Zedong gazed back—and asked me to sign the photocopy. By the time Jesse picked up I barely had time to say, “I’m in airport jail in Shanghai. I might be late,” before Christine rushed me out the door.
“You’re where?” Jesse said.
The chief and Christine walked me outside to a police car, a beat-up Santana with incongruous seat covers of laughing cartoon penguins. Our destination was a nearby China Construction Bank. Inside, Christine led me to the counter, where she instructed me to hand over the bills. She explained that the teller would need to fill out a form for each counterfeit bill, identifying me as the owner and copying my name from my passport onto each form. My full legal name is JENNY ELIZABETH CAMASTRO PRITCHETT. I checked the clock on the wall.
At 2:30 p.m., after all four forms had been painstakingly filled out and presented to me the chief drove us back to the airport. He and Christine led me downstairs for my suitcase, and then, back upstairs, he strode to the ticket counter and yelled at the woman there.”What’s he saying?” I asked Christine.
She listened and then said, “He is telling her next time not to call them. Just give the money back. If she calls they have to do something, and now you will miss your flight. You will get a bad impression of China.”
When the chief returned, he handed me a ticket for the next flight to Nanchang.
“He paid for your ticket,” Christine said, looking pleased.
“He did?” I said, startled. I thanked the chief profusely. He smiled at me toothlessly and walked away.
London’s Telegraph recently reported that
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that artists, from Peng to Ai Weiwei, protest and lampoon a government that, from the top down, can’t seem to decide on its morals. Art is representation; counterfeiting is representation. And, in some ways, China’s government may seem like representation: It lays down the law … sometimes … when it decides what the law is.
But why would either artist take the risk? Counterfeiting is inarguably illegal, and Ai’s artwork is explicitly critical of a government that routinely punishes free speech. Both must have been aware that punishment could be severe. Both may have been willing to take that risk anyway—enormous monetary gain and the fight for civil liberties are strong motivators—but perhaps they also were unsure about how exactly the government would respond. For one thing, the agents who arrested them are part of a government hierarchy whose allegiances fade the further one strays from the top.
For example, on New Year’s Eve in 2014, a group of local officials in charge of Shanghai’s Bund neighborhood sat in a restaurant there
Things play fast and loose here but it all kind of works out. You just have to let go of your expectations.
Under different leadership, or under different circumstances, would the agents who arrested Peng or Ai have arrested them? If government officials may or may not fulfill their duties to maintain order—and may or may not be corruptible, or even may or may not be the government officials they say they are—why not take the risk?
In the end, I got off easy. The police believed my story, and although I was made to go through a bit of bureaucracy, I wasn’t charged with a crime. China
At 4 a.m. Jesse and I pulled into Jiujiang. We lay in homemade hammocks on his balcony drinking beers until the sun came up and then walked across campus to be first in line for dumplings.”Counterfeiting is huge here,” Jesse said. “But usually a shopkeeper just won’t take the money.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I cried. “And why didn’t you tell me the airports in Shanghai are an hour apart? I could have avoided this whole thing.”
My serene younger brother took a drag on his cigarette.”It’s not a big deal,” he said, shrugging. “Things play fast and loose here but it all kind of works out. You just have to let go of your expectations.”