We arrived in China all paranoid about being spied on, arrested, interrogated, deported or even worse.

In Beijing we had to report to the police within the first 24 hours. When we we made our way on bikes towards south, people didn’t want to take us in in guest houses because we were foreigners, and hotel staff would call the police to check on us before allowing us to sleep there.

One evening, we danced with some local people on the street, then they added us on their small town’s WeChat group, where we told them a little something about our journey. That is  until a few of them started texting ”Call the police! Call the police!”. At which point I got scared and turned off my phone.

But people didn’t want to turn us in, I realized after some time, but to give us a helping hand. The Chinese police are bound by law to help citizens, no matter what problem the latter have. When you arrive in a new town, it’s not unusual to go to the officers and ask them to take you to a hotel.

Actually, the cops are unarmed and look completely harmless. Rumour has it that, more often than not, they’re the ones who get beaten up by citizens, not the other way around. They patrol around town in some mini-carts, or mini-vans with drawings of uniformed emoticons on them, that tell you to help the elderly and not cross on a red light. In the villages, the police are basically invisible.

When I think about a repressive communist system the thing that comes to mind is an ever-present secret service, like we and the Russians had. But the Chinese have a more efficient system, that’s been working for thousands of years.  

The locals are self-organized — each family sends a representative in a street or building council; each street has a representative in the community council, and so on, until county level.

These councils are not just ritualistic, but they also maintain the public order, mediate conflicts and have a real influence on local administration, as long as they don’t interfere with the larger governmental policies.

If anyone misbehaves, they are immediately calmed down by family and community, otherwise everybody gets in trouble. A brutal state intervention is very rarely necessary.

Their system can be viewed as either a participatory democracy run by technocrats or as a dystopian totalitarism, internalized by the citizens. But the living standard is continually growing, the crime rate is very low, and the social solidarity strong. People mind their own business.

So, this is why we met here, in this police state, far fewer police officers than in Romania.

It’s only in this country that I realized how surveilled we are in Bucharest, at every step we take. We need uniforms at every corner of the street, at the supermarket and the pharmacy, to remind us to be good, to not steal and to respect the authority of others.

Just here I realized how surveilled we are in Bucharest, at every step. We need uniforms at each street corner, at the supermarket and at the pharmacy, to remind us to be nice, to not steal and to respect the authority of others.

Not because we trust or respect them, but to make sure we won’t get smacked in the head.