Everyone in America has guns – China is the safest country in the world

Yesterday we looked at how China can be rife with small crime, while still seeming safe to foreigners. Today we’ll be exploring a few of the ideas Chinese citizens hold about other countries, and why these views might be promoted by the state.

I’ve honestly lost track of how many times I’ve been told that everyone in America has a gun, and that I come from a very dangerous country. While the US does have the highest gun ownership in the world, that doesn’t actually effect my daily life in the way my students might think. My wife actually takes a little joy in responding to this with her students, her grandfather sells antique guns and in the past had a room full of them. Despite owning hundreds of guns in his life, he hasn’t fired one in at least four decades. She also enjoys watching their heads spin when she informs them that she owns two herself, and that the majority of guns in the US are used for hunting instead of robbing.

However the occasional story of a Chinese student getting mugged in the US at gunpoint sticks out strongly in the minds of young Chinese, but ignores the thousands that don’t write about the fact that they weren’t. This idea is so deeply ingrained that many students rejoice in getting accepted to study in Canada instead of the deadly US.

But America isn’t the only dangerous country according to my Chinese friends, so far I’ve been told that several dozen countries (and the entire continent of Africa) are all places that are best avoided. After the first reports of the London riots one co-worker asked if she should cancel her trip to Sheffield in October (I assured her they would be under control by then). I’ve also heard staff in the foreign affairs office remind travelers to stay in their hotel after work, and don’t go sightseeing without a group. Another friend mentioned that he’d visited Africa, but would never go back because “black people are very violent”. It’s a kind of fear and naivete that keeps people from heading abroad.

These rumors are in fact propagated by the gov’t in state media and textbooks. The negative experiences of the few who do travel spread across weibo quickly, and establish them as a typical experience to have abroad.

During the run up to the Shanghai World Expo, the commentators on CCTV repeated ad nauseam that it was better to explore other cultures at the Expo than traveling abroad because it was safer. It was something I heard again repeated from co-workers, until they actually visited the Expo and realized they could hardly see anything through the crowds.

The gov’t promotes these ideas for a few reasons. One strong reason would be that if every other country is plagued by violent crime, then Chinese people are relatively lucky to only have their pockets picked occasionally (see this comment on yesterday’s post). This is a milder version of the kind of propaganda North Korea uses, which tells citizens that even though they only get one proper meal each day, at least they aren’t as bad off as the Japanese who have to sell their organs just to get by (from Escaping North Korea).

Another reason is that traveling to foreign countries, especially Western ones, often bring up questions about China’s governance and policies. Ideas like: democracy, government oversight, a free press, and that some developing countries aren’t exactly thankful for China’s aid. Away from the guiding hand of state media and Chinese tour guides, these ideas take root in the mind of those who head abroad (You should read Evan Osnos’s incredible report on heading to Europe with a Chinese tour group).

I’ve seen this side-effect in conversations with co-workers and friends who have studied in the US and Australia, when they return they are shocked at how different these countries are from what they had learned. My friend said on returning from the States,

“In short, I have met the nicest people there. This trip showed me how civilized, generous and hospitable Americans are, for which I feel deeply grateful. It also proved most of my presumptions about the US were wrong, though I have learned the language and the culture for many years. Moreover the trip helped me realize how my country really is, with all the contrast against yours.”

Surely this is one reason that travel outside of tour groups makes the Party nervous. As long as they can keep people from wanting to look beyond their own borders, they can maintain control. For decades the average Chinese person was too poor to travel abroad, but as the economy grows, it will become increasingly difficult to keep Chinese citizens from exploring abroad, unless the Party can convince this generation that China is the safest country in the world.

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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40 Responses to Everyone in America has guns – China is the safest country in the world

  1. Legal gun ownership as a percentage of population is higher in Finland than in the USA. Illegal gun ownership is higher in Finland, Denmark, Germany and China than in the USA. The percentage of armed persons is even higher in Sweden and Switzerland than in the USA, considering Swedish and Swiss citizen-soldiers are sometimes required to store ordnance (and even armoured vehicles!) in the home. The difference is that the USA has more violent action shows/movies than everywhere else combined.

    Sitting in Hong Kong right on the doorsteps of mainland China, we know only too well that China itself is awash with guns like the Black Star semiauto handgun and the PRC version of the AK-47 Kalashnikov. As a percentage of population, more people are killed by gunfire on mainland China in one year than all combined in Hong Kong in 50 years.

    (I just happened to remember those “statistics” from way back before – I can’t be bothered to look up facts and figures right now.)

    Personally, I know that a heck of a lot less than 50% of weapons in the USA are used in crimes, but a heck of a lot more than 50% of weapons in China are meant for criminal activities. Having personally lived in an ultra-violent country like Lebanon before, it doesn’t take much for me to see that.

    As a Chinaman myself, the Chinese broadly speaking has a state of mind that tends to accept prognostications from authority figures as truths. The authorities understand this very well, and exploit it so as to imbue the general public with a perspective that everywhere else in the known universe is worse than homeground (much as the average Chinese person would disagree otherwise). This shouldn’t (or ought not) be news to anybody, since every country does this kind of thing to a lesser or greater extent.

    Having said that, it is also true that China, with such a huge population, is indeed quite a crime-free society for the size of population. But having said that too, it is also true that the low(ish) number of Chinese judicial imprisonments as a percentage of population is also a facet of weak law enforcement.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    And what about ownership of knives in China? A young man was recently executed for knifing a young woman in a frenzied attack after he knocked her off her bike. This middle class young man had a knife and used it which leads me to think that many young Chinese men possess knives, not just the criminals. In my small circle of Chinese friends, one young woman’s 21 year old brother was knifed to death by a teenager in a fight over a taxi hire. This was in Xining and much to my friend’s distress, the attacker merely paid a fine and avoided imprisonment.

    • Tom says:

      Knives are the weapon of choice, and interestingly in the run up to major events in China, all knife sales in department stores require an ID card. Although I’m not sure if that is effective in preventing crime in anyway at all.

  3. Hugh Grigg says:

    I am frequently baffled by things I hear Chinese people say about other countries, not just about safety but in general. I was out on a walk at 崂山 the other day and was talking to some other walkers, who came out with “Oh yeah, nobody goes on walks in Britain, do they?” :-\
    I just wonder where this stuff comes from.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      Oh yeah, well I walk my dog three times a day in the British countryside, on my own, nobody around and I am a 66 year old woman. Have done this for over ten years (dog just had his 11th birthday!) and I even walk him every night in the dark (with the aid of a torch – no street lights in the countryside). Completely safe environment. Have lived in this small Scottish town for 25 years and never heard of an adult being attacked (usual small fights among teenage boys and sometimes girls too). Many Brits belong to Rambling Groups and enjoy walking with their fellow members of these walking groups.

      • Oh, god, how I miss the English and Scottish countryside and the undulating hills of Wales! All things being equal, the UK is a safe country. In the city centres and towns, there’s bound to be higher violence, but that’s just like any other city or town in the world.

        Violence (hence, danger) is also a bit relative, isn’t it? It’s also what we get used to. I’ve lived in Beirut before, and that was a flaming dangerous place by anyone’s standard. When I first arrived, I was scared fartless most of the time. West Beirut (controlled by Hezbollah) was much more dangerous than East Beirut (where I was). After a while of settling in, everything just became … well … safe. A person in an unknown place, surrounded by a sea of unknown faces talking in an unfamiliar, unintelligible language is bound to consider the place dangerous.

        I’m pretty sure if I go to the Scottish countryside late at night after so many years away, I’d feel a bit wary too.

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        thenakedlistener: The scariest thing about the Scottish countryside at night is the hooting of owls and the barking of deer!

  4. hooey_ru says:

    That’s one of the most important goals of propaganda – to tell people every day that every other country is suffering and is dangerous to visit, except your dear Motherland ruled by an honest non-corrupt government.

    Even in Hong Kong, despite having less and less freedom of speech, Mainland tourists are shocked to come across posters like “F.L.D.F. is good” or books like “Wen Jiabao” is a liar. I bet the Central Government is really pissed off at this.

  5. Jimmy says:

    Tom, it amazed me when you managed to relate many things to the Party or the government.

    According to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate), US has a internal homicide rate of 4.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, while that number of China is 1.1. It means living in US is at least 4 times more dangerous than in China.

    According to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_incarceration_rate), the incarceration rate of US is 743 prisoners per 100,000, while that number of China is 120.

    If the Party says that US is more dangerous than China (that is a big IF), do they make a point?

    Europe is the safest place in the world.

  6. NiubiCowboy says:

    I’ve heard that the United States is a dangerous place from nearly every person I encountered when I worked in China. Taxi drivers, students, co-workers, neighbors, waitresses and shopkeepers all relayed to me the same observations about life in the US. What I found strange was the definitiveness with which they expressed their opinions and the fact that all of their opinions were the same, even down to the syntax they would use to describe them.

    1. The United States is a dangerous place.
    2. Everyone has guns.

    Once someone told me they never wanted to go to the United States because they didn’t want to get shot, to which I replied, “I’ve never been fired upon nor have I ever had a gun pointed towards me in my life.” Needless to say, they didn’t believe me.

    • Baobo says:

      “I’ve never been fired upon nor have I ever had a gun pointed towards me in my life.” Needless to say, they didn’t believe me.

      Have you ever worked the late shift at liquor store, gas station, convenience store, or delivered pizza/Chinese food in a non-rural area? Those are the crime settings people are talking about when they say America is dangerous. And they are right.

      • Joe Santos says:

        I delivered pizza for years in some really poor neighborhoods in Troy, NY, and I was never robbed or even threatened. Yes, stuff like that does happen, but it’s quite rare, statistically. Using incidents like that to paint America with a broad brush as “dangerous” is absurdly misleading.

    • NiubiCowboy: Yeah, I get the same bizarre expressions (plus the syntax, etc) from mainlanders in Hong Kong (and not a few Hongkongers themselves).

  7. Mac says:

    Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
    -Martin Luther King Jr.

  8. Mark walker says:

    There are a number of people here in the States who hold this same opinion of all nations not U.S. It can be difficult to break through that initial imobilizing fear.

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  10. Anonymous says:

    我来自中国,中国其实没有你们美国说的那么安全。没有公平,没有民主,只不过是高压下的稳定而已
    Quick translation: I come from China, it is not as safe as America. It is not equal, there is no democracy, it is only stable under high pressure.

  11. Mac says:

    Okay, so China has safer statistics. But I have the feeling that “danger” needs to be defined. I feel the “dangers” I encounter as a United States citizen living in the US are negligible to the serious issues going on over here. We got our own problems back home, but at least we are arrested not assaulted. I believe we have made pretty good choices overall, but maybe less in recent years.

  12. Joe Santos says:

    Just finished that New Yorker article. This might be the most baffling thing I’ve ever read:

    “We had been in Europe for a week and had yet to sit down to a lunch or a dinner that was not Chinese.”

    During our week and a half in China we had a total of two “western” meals, and I felt horribly guilty about those. How does one travel and *not* enjoy the destination’s cuisine?

  13. Chopstik says:

    Unfortunately, such ignorance does not disappear once you live in a foreign country for several years, either. I know more than a few people who still hold to some of these same beliefs even after living in the US for more than twenty years. Of course, they also remind me of Westerners who live in China but only frequent Western-style establishments – they refuse to climb out of their mental and intellectual comfort zones in order to challenge their limited orthodoxy and learn if there are differences to what they have learned previously. For that matter, they only deal with non-Chinese when left with no choices and their social circles are almost entirely other mainland Chinese.

    It does beg the question so hopefully someone in China can answer? Two years ago, a Chinese graduate student was brutally murdered by a fellow student (also Chinese). When people in China talk about violence in the US, I wonder if this case (or others like it) ever make it into the media there and, if so (or not), what is the reaction?

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  15. BILL RICH says:

    Swiss probably have the easiest access to weapons. Government issued weapons. And they are required to keep them ready for use all the time. They are also required to stay proficient in using them as well. Switzerland must be the most dangerous place for Chinese.

  16. Augis says:

    Coming from Israel, where until recently every soldier going back home carried M-16 (myself included), I am not intimidated with the thought of “everyone” having a gun.

    But this is just the way how media news influence us. I guess that many – upon reading the first line “coming from Israel” – thought for a second – “Oh, that’s a dangerous country!”

  17. Carv Wilson says:

    Love the thoughtful content of your article. I have been teaching World Regional Geography to 14-15 year olds in that dangerous country America for 18 years! I am constantly fighting the stereotypes portrayed by American Media and the idea that my way is the only way to do anything. I often talk to my students about seeing past our own misconceptions and finding out the truth for ourselves. We need to be intelligent consumers of knowledge and get a broad perspective on the various cultures of the world. I often tell my students that travel can be the most meaningful learning experience if they will only try to interact in a meaningful way with the “natives”. Eat the food, try to speak their language, travel in groups and not alone, and most of all have a sense of humor about your experiences. Thank Heavens we are all not the same!

    Carv Wilson

  18. l.gay says:

    Good reading, but I don’t think this is necessarily a “Chinese government” promoted idea. Everyone in America has guns? I taught English in Japan for donkey’s years, and yes, I’d almost invariably be asked (after my height and weight, haha) if I owned a gun, or if all Americans owned guns. Maybe it’s the Hollywood movie thing, but that stereotype is alive and well in Japan. Also–Japan totally thinks foreign countries are dangerous. Not just America, but almost everywhere else (you should hear what Japanese think of China! Syndicate thugs and criminals, the lot of them). I feel like I could have read this on a Japanese blog years ago (except the blame would be placed on media hysteria, or Japanese fear of foreigners or racism)

    And admittedly, I’ve (as a woman) walked home at night, even slightly inebriated, in China. I’d never do that in America. Just saying.

  19. XYZ says:

    Nice, how about trying to walk 1 km in south Central L.A. at night?

    This is the reason why Chinese are looking down on white Americans more and more. There’s no respect, only a superiority complex and racial hatred.

    • Tom says:

      “This is the reason why Chinese are looking down on white Americans more and more. There’s no respect, only a superiority complex and racial hatred.” I think that really sums your thoughts up nicely. Clearly only white Americans are capable of racial hatred and superiority complexes.

  20. Jack Daniels says:

    One thing I was surprised by living in Shanghai for about 6 months is how much open violence there is on the street. Men openly beat their wives / girlfriends, people fight on the street and crowds surround them to watch not to break it up. A driver in a taxi I was driving nearly attacked another driver.
    China is safer than the U.S. ? Maybe so, but I saw about as much violence in Shanghai in 6 months as I saw in my entire adult life in the U.S.

  21. N says:

    This post was very interesting.
    I am an overseas born Chinese and have heard many stories from my parents. I have also had some bad experiences with some Chinese people who go abroad. Only last summer, I met a lady who was my dad’s friend, she came to visit from China and casually mentioned how much she disliked black people. She said “I don’t know why, but I really hate them. Everytime I see them I get really angry.” I assume that this is from the negative news reported on tv. She doesn’t know English so she said it in Chinese, but I was really shocked at how rude it was (from my point of view) and the fact that she said it so easily as well.

    On the other hand, I am friends with an international Chinese student and she has told me that before she came to study abroad, she really loved China and thought it was one of the best countries but now almost a year later she has many doubts and can’t believe how different the countries are. She also said that she has met some of the nicest people and some things that happen here, mainly the helpfulness of people she could not expect in China as much.

    Your posts are really interesting, I just found your blog and I am learning a lot about China from them. Thank you. :)

  22. I didn’t know you had a post about gun control. I’m always very interested in this issue. As a Chinese, I don’t think China is the safest country in the world, but I do feel China is safer than America. One of the most important reasons is America allows people to buy guns. Many people told me, in America, owning a gun is for protecting themselves, but almost all the gun shooting news I saw on TV or heard from others are crazy people shooting at normal people. I heard about at least three shootings that happened just around the general area we’re living. My husband doesn’t let me walk alone in certain areas because he worries that something bad will happen to me.
    I’m sure many people know about the shooting at the movie theater. When there is a shooting in a public place, how many people really took out a gun to protect themselves? Of course, a crazy person can also kill people with a knife, but compared to a gun, it will be much more difficult to kill many people. So if someone really wants to kill you, do you really have chance or time to take out your own gun to fight back?
    Recently, shootings seem to be happening more and more; and I’m really happy that more and more people are starting to talk about this issue. Gun control shouldn’t be about which country is safer, it should be about how America can make people living here feel safer and how to decrease suffering the pain from losing family or friends. I will love America more the day guns are banned.

    • Tom says:

      I would agree that gun control is important, and you are making great points. It is very distressing to me too that America’s cities have so many parts that should be avoided. From my experience though, most of my students sounded down right scared of visiting the US, and it really isn’t so dangerous as to avoid the whole country.

      • I agree America is not as dangerous as people thought at all. I think people being affected by a lot of movies and news about the war between America and other countries. I do hope Chinese people can reach out to the outside world more; then the whole country will get a lot of fresh ideas and energy to improve.

  23. Zhang Xiaoxiong says:

    @thenakedlistener: “As a Chinaman myself,” … you should use “Chinese man”, calling yourself a Chinaman is what others call us to denigrade us

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