Legality is fuzzily defined in China. It’s how I imagine things were here in the States in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, when instead of having clear divisive cans and cannots, whether or not something could be done depended on how much money one was willing to spend. I never complained. I took advantage of the system when I was there, working semi-legally, paying taxi drivers to take me places I wasn’t supposed to be, handing off sums for after-hours head CTs. Conveniences.
Most of the time, nothing happens, not even when the police are in vicinity watching with amused eyes. They themselves are likely on the beneficiary end of this long chain of conveniences. Yet, once in a while, probably due to Party pressure, or some local leader acting to show his power, the authorities like to make a demonstration, an example, out of some unlucky fool who had pushed the boundaries too many times to escape a bad draw.
Street food vending is for the large part, unregulated. I mean, who in their right mind complains about the availability of delicious food at all hours of the day, and night, around every neighborhood and street corner? Although I’ve never seen an on-duty officer eating at one of these spots, I’m sure every last one has slurped and sweated away long nights under those same steamy canopies. Since there’s no discussion on whether these stands are beneficial, the question becomes whether they are legal. Probably not, at least not the meals-on-wheels or fully-lined-bed-sheet-ready-to-swing-over-the-shoulders-as-soon-as-the-smell-of-law-enforcement-hits variety. Once in a while though, a quick getaway is impossible, and the entire herd watches as a dozen or so officers (where do they all appear from?) sloppily break down the whole affair. It’s a medium-paced destruction of salvaged construction material, plywood, aluminum siding, maybe a glossy signage or two, and the purveyor(s), usually a sad-looking middle-aged couple with ruddy cheeks and rough hands. They are never confrontational; the risk comes with the territory, and there’s an unspoken knowledge that they will be back to it again in no time.
Bystanders pass by with a lingering gaze or two. This is commonplace. When I was in Beijing last month, I witnessed such an event, yet another familiar sight to add to my brimming case of nostalgia. But it was when I pulled out my phone (blasted smart phones with camera capabilities) to take a picture when I realized that maybe this wasn’t just some ordinary event, deemed perfectly acceptable for the masses to see. The advent of pocket-sized film and photo technology in recent years has led to unpopular and potentially damaging social critique headlines the likes of “Two-year old Girl Ran Over By Van and Ignored By 18 Bystanders,” “Chinese Politician’s Son Dies in Ferrari Sex Orgy Crash,” and so forth. No official wants to become the next Li Gang, or whoever has taken the place of that meme in recent years (I haven’t kept up). Maybe it was reactionary then, as I whipped out my phone and snapped a few fuzzy stills, that the officer in charge who had been standing to the side would notice, trudge up to me, and ask me what I thought I was doing. There was an honest burst of fear as I quickly lowered and dropped my phone back in my pocket. Anxieties followed in waves. Would he take my phone? Would he require that I remove all evidence or smash it if I refused or even hesitated? Would he take my name, ask for my identification only to learn that I was not a Chinese citizen? Would I be black-listed from the country? A bit extreme, that last one, but as he stood there and told me not to forget who I am, who my heart belongs to (China.), I could feel myself getting cold. “Don’t forget,” he said before turning away from me.