Counterfeiting in China
18 Jul 2003
It was the year 2000, and I had just arrived in China. I had very few Chinese friends at that point, but I was desperate to practice my horrible Chinese. I had ideas.
I sought out people that couldn’t speak English and couldn’t escape. My first such friends were the guards at the apartment where I lived for my first month. They just sat around in the guardhouse all day handing out newspapers, occasionally demanding toughly where cars thought they were going immediately before meekly opening the gate for them. So they were happy to talk to a walking oddity like me.
I also met a pair who worked at the 1-2-3 Taiwanese burger chain. They were cool to hang out with and talk to at night. I seemed to always come as a welcome relief, since they were bored out of their minds in the shop.
Anyway, it was in the 1-2-3 shop that I got my first good look at a counterfeit bill detector. It looked like a large plastic glasses case or something, stuck half open. You run the bills through it, and the appropriate lights tell you if the bill is real or fake. Employees are supposed to check the money when they’ve got nothing else to do. They showed me fake 100’s, 50’s, 20’s, 10’s, and yes, even 5’s (that’s just over $0.50 US). Until that time I hadn’t realized how rampant counterfeiting is in China.
Last semester I was buying snacks at the on-campus grocery store. I handed the cashier a 50. She looked at it for a second and told me it was fake. I didn’t get it for a sec. You never really expect it to happen to you. She didn’t accept the money, but she let me keep it. (Some places are required to hold on to all counterfeit money that comes into their possession.)
I showed it to my friend who works at the Bank of China. She identified it easily and pointed out to me all the little telltale signs. She also told me a few stories about some of the ways people try to scam the bank. I asked her what I should do with the fake 50. “Well, if it was me,” she said, “I’d just spend it.”
I still have that 50. I’ve kept it as a little souvenir. It’s stuck to my fridge with a magnet.
Wednesday night I was at a coffee shop (OK, I’ll admit it — yes, it was Starbucks) with some friends. Wayne, one of my co-workers here at ZUCC, was late. When he SMSed that he would be arriving late he also mentioned that he had tried to use a 100 and been told it was fake. He was sure it came to him as a part of the pay for summer work teaching at Zhejiang University. When he arrived, we talked about it a little more and decided he should take it back to the people who paid him and exchange it. They also need to know their money source isn’t completely reliable.
We later ended up eating at a dim sum place. When the bill came around, Wayne suddenly asked, “should I try to use the fake 100?” Knowing that Wayne is not always the most decisive guy in the world, I seized the moment for a little nugget of excitement. “Yeah, do it, Wayne!” I encouraged him. (It is, after all, what any ordinary Chinese person does when he gets counterfeit money.)
Feeling a little nervous, Wayne did it. We were soon on our way out, Wayne leading the way. It wasn’t until our group was just out the restaurant doors that I noticed Wayne was a little bit ahead of everyone else. He was already clear across the parking lot, rounding the corner to the street. “What is Wayne doing?” we all wondered.
When we made it to the street, we saw that the gap had widened further, as Wayne had made rapid progress down Yan’an Road in the time that it took us to get across the parking lot.
“Hey Wayne!” I yelled to him. “What’s the rush? Wait up!” He did, although clearly not without a little anxiety.
Wayne was indeed doing his best to flee the scene of the crime. He kept expecting the restaurant staff to come flying around the corner at any second. The funny thing was that I had been on a long walk down that very road the day before, and Wayne had refused to exceed a “leisurely” pace. What’s more, when Wayne was already halfway down the restaurant stairs, I watched the cashier put the hundred away without a second glance. But here was Wayne, trying his best for a compromise between a mad dash and an unconcerned stroll.
We kept joking with him about hearing the search dogs catching up, but he wasn’t fully relaxed until we walked down the block, turned the corner, and got in a cab. Even then, were we really safe…?
I guess there are still those that get excited about it, but counterfeit money is really common here. So is spending it.