Free Power?

I moved into my current apartment in Shanghai on December 10, 2004. That means I have been living here for over half a year. In all that time, not a single electricity bill has showed up.

At first my roommates and I didn’t mind; we figured it came every few months. As the months started to add up, however, we got nervous. The three of us used the heat a fair amount during the winter, which, with three people, could easily amount to 500 rmb or more per month. We didn’t want to get slammed with that all at once.

I told my landlord about the problem, and she told me to check with the apartment administration. They said they didn’t handle that. I relayed this to my landlord, and she said she’d handle it. More time passed.

Recently my roommate Carl has landed a new job that will necessitate his relocation to another part of Shanghai. Carl has never been one to waive any power consumption rights, so we definitely wanted to settle the matter of the electricity bill before he moved (and before the sum got too huge). So recently I asked my landlord about it again, stressing the urgency. This time she got answers.

What she told me is that the power meter has been broken all this time, and she’d have it fixed soon. Furthermore, we wouldn’t have to pay for the power we have used in the past six months!

I find it a little hard to believe. Could the power company make such a mistake? Power just doesn’t get given away for free. Could it have been my landlord’s mistake, and somehow she won’t be able to determine how much we’ve used, so she’ll have to pay the sum herself? That doesn’t seem likely, because the power company should be able to tell her the amounts.

If we really don’t have to pay those six months of power bills and the power meter has still not been fixed yet, then I think it’s time to get busy using some more free power. Somehow, though, I think this bill will find its way to us down the road. In the meantime, it’s nice to think we got six months of free power.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Hey, it’s China. Electricity is stolen everywhere. People simply use some wires to shunt their power meters. The reason for this kind of conduct is that China doesn’t have a credit system, which means most people would not easily get punished by their cheating. Also there are lot of corrupted officials taking these as their privileges. Even though it’s true that your apartment’s power meter gets broken, nobody would like to report this to the power company. It’s kind of “none of my bussiness” thing. It’s the responsibility of the power company. They fail to notice, then it’s their fault. Your landlord just doesn’t wanna bother herself by a simple problem like this.

  2. This is oh so representative of China.

    Find another flat, and run, run away from this flat as soon as possible, at least before you receive that unwanted 10 000 rmb bill you don’t expect anymore…

  3. Had exactly the same problem/luxury, the whole building was running on broken meters, so I got no bill. I was told that there was no way to measure what I had used, so they can’t charge me. They have fixed all the other meters in the building except mine now. And no bill after more than a year!

    Knew I should have got that third AC unit!

  4. You probably won’t have to pay. It would be really hard for the power company to isolate the use of a single unrecorded apartment among all the other power going to your building.

    I knew I should have turned the AC on full-blast the whole time I was there!

  5. The state of power companies is really in chaos here. Here in Shenzhen, there was a recent crackdown on illegal power plants operating in and around the city. Now, in what other country would there be homebrew power plants? China never ceases to amaze.

  6. The exact same thing happened to me when I was in Xi’an. After the electricity company updated all the power meters in my community, my bill is always 0.45CNY. In several months, the electricity company people didn’t even bother sending me the bills anymore. Fortunately or unfortunately I moved away from that apartment.

  7. John, it doesn’t surprise me AT ALL that you got power for free 😉

  8. Agree with Grace, doesn’t surprise me at all! I heard people cheat by putting a magnet over the meter; it stops the meter from running. Too bad I won’t be able to try as the hydro company has recently changed my meter to a digital meter 🙁

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