Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s Practical A–Z

A guide, like a fat yellow spider, lies in wait for visitors. He will show us everything and tell us everything for a dollar. We assure him we do not want his information, as we have been here a dozen times. He insists we shall lose our way and lowers his price to sixty cents. We tell him we know the place better than he does. He promises to come for fifty cents. We tell him to get our of our sight. Finally he offers, with a wave of garlic and an operatic gesture, to accompany us all the afternoon for twenty cents. We hurl in his teeth a Chinese expression more forcible than polite. Then at last he leaves us in peace, turning his attention to a party of tourists that his keen eye spies in the distance.

Juliet Bredon, Peking, Běijīng 1919

Many who visit China assume before they arrive that the cultural and linguistic barriers are too great, and even if they prefer entirely independent travel, resign themselves to joining a tour or hiring a private guide. But this is entirely unnecessary. Navigating around Běijīng without Mandarin is little different from navigating around Paris without French, and many of the benefits usually expected from taking a guide are simply not available from taking guides in China.

In theory guides in Běijīng must be licensed by Běijīng Tourism Authority and they carry an ID card which you should ask to see if anyone approaches you presenting themselves as an official guide, although documentation is routinely faked in China. Unfortunately the majority of guides are themselves in some sense fakes, and in general they should be avoided for more reliable and less costly sources of information.

As far back as 2007 it was said in the Chinese press that out of 800 agencies running day tours in Beijing, only 40 were actually legal. Regulations introduced that year forbade the then 18,185 properly registered guides from accepting kick-backs from shops or restaurants. In short even legally registered guides do not protect you from your ignorance of local scams, but typically lead you straight to them. And as with all other government announcements the situation is almost certainly worse than admitted, and the announcement is merely intended to create a belief — nothing has actually changed as a result.

Probably the way best to guarantee that you get fleeced is to hire a ‘private’ guide with an English-language website targeting foreign visitors, or one frequently recommended on travel websites with user contributions. Most one-time visitors to China have no idea whatsoever what is practised upon them, but take comfort in the recommendations of other site users, and amplify those recommendations with their own. Following such recommendations is practically a guarantee that too much will be paid, for guide, for driver, for car, for meals, for shopping, and for any other service at that the guide plays a part in obtaining or at which he or she is simply present as it takes place.

This equally applies in most cases to guides supplied by otherwise respectable foreign tour companies. Ground handling (the arrangements within China) is typically sub-contracted to local operators and local guides with all the same problems as those contracted directly.

A guide may be paid ¥50 per tour by his company, or he may even have to bid against other guides to pay for the right to take the tour. But he may reasonably expect his Chinese clients on one-day tours to spend around ¥2000 in shops. The shops will give him half as a kick-back, and he in turn might give ¥500 to the bus driver (although in some cases the shopping stop or restaurant pays the driver a cash sum) and to pass on 10% to the tour company, giving him typically ¥450, and an annual income that’s very comfortable indeed in Beijing terms. According to one foreign professor at a tour guide training college in Běijīng some guides are earning around ¥200,000 per annum mostly in kick-backs and inappropriate tips from foreign tourists — an immense income in a city where the average is less than ¥85,000 (and even that double the national urban average, and more than ten times the rural one) and many multiples of even a university professor. The kick-backs from foreign visitors, who at so-called shopping opportunities are often charged 20 to 30 times what they might pay elsewhere, combined with tips (which no Chinese tourist would ever pay or even be asked for), are astronomical.

Nor, unfortunately, can guides by relied upon to provide accurate historical or cultural information. The tourism industry is part of the same project as the education system and the media, and all have the purpose of delivering propaganda. This means wildly inaccurate and politically charged historical information which suits the Party’s narrative of China’s greatness and its own role as the sole originator of success. Truthfulness is not to the point. But even untrained guides are victims of an education system which requires uncritical acceptance of the same narrative, provides no alternative points of view, and suppresses all debate.

At the same time, it sometimes seems that everyone who was in Tiān’ān Mén Square on 4 June 1989 subsequently went into the tour guide business. Such claims do wonders for creating trust and inflating tips that shouldn’t be offered in the first place.

In short, to have any chance of paying a fair price stay away from guides, and if you want accurate information bring it from home. See Further Reading.

It’s rarer now, but in Běijīng you may occasionally be approached by students or young professionals wishing to improve their English, and who offer to show you around. This is a quid pro quo, not a paid arrangement, although you should offer to cover entrance fees and transport costs, and it’s an excellent opportunity to get a first-hand account of daily life in China. But don’t expect accurate historical or cultural information from your ‘guide’.

Be aware that in some cases these pleasant young people intend to attract you into some scam or other. See Crime, Scams, and Nuisances.

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