‘She told me she had contacted a woman’s dead dog the previous week. I asked what it had said’

Beijing Letter: In a formidable surveillance state, plenty still passes under the radar

We had not seen each other for weeks and my friend and I had a lot to talk about, but for the first 10 minutes of our lunch, I could hardly get a word out of her. Every time she opened her mouth to speak, she would stop, pick up her phone and stare at it before typing a long message.

In China, as in Ireland, confrontation is seldom the best approach so I tried at first to hide my irritation but the fifth time she picked up the phone, I asked her what exactly was going on.

“Oh I’m sorry, it’s just ... sorry,” she said as she typed another message. “Do you remember that friend I told you about? With the wife and the girlfriend?”

This man had a business in one of China’s popular holiday resorts, which was a seven-hour drive from where his wife and son lived. He had a girlfriend at the resort who was not the jealous type, so she didn’t resent my friend coming to stay from time to time, and they had both been planning to spend Chinese New Year at the man’s apartment while he was at home with his family.


My friend said the messages that were distracting her were from the girlfriend, and I asked how they had got along during the holidays without her friend.

“They’ve split up. So she wasn’t staying there, and I didn’t stay there either,” she said.

On the day before New Year’s Eve, the girlfriend had driven the man to the station to get a train home to his family but a few hours later, he sent her a message to say he was in trouble. When he put his bags through the airport-style security scanner, the police found a suspiciously large number of credit cards and a few point-of-sale machines.

They arrested him, but his girlfriend, who knew nothing about how he ran his business, arranged for him to be bailed out and he continued his journey home. Instead of thanking her, he complained that she had taken too long and that the whole process had cost too much. So she dumped him.

By this time, the two people at the next table had stopped talking so they could listen in, as my friend told me that she had no idea what the man had been up to but it had apparently been going on for years. I asked if his wife knew about it.

“His girlfriend thought his wife should know about it, but she couldn’t find a contact for her anywhere on social media. In the end, she found her on Tik Tok and told her,” she said.

The woman asked the girlfriend if she had been having a relationship with her husband and the girlfriend said no. My friend played out the rest of the conversation.

In China, as in Ireland, confrontation is seldom the best approach, so I tried at first to hide my irritation

“I’ve read your WeChat chats,” the wife said.

“Okay then, yes,” the girlfriend said.

“Just stay away from him.”

“Don’t worry, you’re the only one who wants him.”

I looked at the people at the next table, they looked at me and we all looked at my friend, who was looking at her phone. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that in one of the world’s most formidable surveillance states, it’s remarkable how much passes under the radar for so long.

The informal economy is everywhere, and so are people who make a living on the margins, doing odd jobs or buying and selling this and that online without troubling the tax authorities. Private after-school tuition in core subjects is banned, but it doesn’t take long to find teachers offering classes or parents who are paying for them.

In a restaurant one evening where almost everyone was smoking, including the waiters, a woman who worked in the music industry told me that her real passion was for her second job as a medium. The authorities disapprove of contact between the living and the dead so she does not advertise directly, but she has built up a clientele, partly because she communes with dead pets as well as people.

She told me she had contacted a woman’s dead dog the previous week, and I asked what it had said.

“He said a lot of things, and then he showed me an orange. I asked the woman if the orange meant anything to her and she said yes. They had an orange tree in the garden, and the dog used to sit under it. So she knew it was the right dog,” she said.

Her friend offered me a cigarette that had a little bead in the tip that you crushed to release the taste of blueberries. I said no thanks, and told him that flavoured cigarettes were no longer available in Europe since last November.

“You’ve banned these and you’re legalising marijuana? Weird,” he said, looking at the dog medium for confirmation.