Are They Banning Photography on the Beijing Subway?

Yours truly has recently heard of a few disturbing cases where some riders (especially young riders) have been harassed for taking pictures at some Beijing Subway stations.

No law in China forbids photography inside trains or at stations, but it is an offence under at least the Beijing Subway regulations “to remain for an extended period of time” (久留) inside stations, especially on the platforms or concourses.

While it has also not been explicitly banned by Chinese laws, flash photography is also a problem. We discourage riders from taking pictures with either flash or with AF lights on, as it can overwhelm train drivers and/or station staff. This applies for both regular rail, high speed rail, and for city metros.

Remaining inside a station for more than approximately the duration of your last shot and that of the next train will likely be a problem. However, there is a workaround: come back later to take subsequent photo shots, or be quick — and snap away as quickly as possible. Also, it is an open secret that on the first day of a new line, photography is nearly unrestricted as long as you do not take pictures of security equipment or in areas not open for riders.

Photography at high speed railway stations is permitted unrestricted as long as you leave the station after the train departs from the station (if you are getting off mid-journey). Also, as long as you don’t cross the white safety line (in the absence of a train stopping on the platform), you are allowed to click to your heart’s content. Some Chinese railway staff members, however, have a problem of you shooting poorly-equipped station equipment or empty carriages (which they fear might cause bad PR). The trick here is to be as covert as possible.

Back onto the Subway: while not banning photography, three concerns that operators have voiced in public about photography include:

  • possible preparation for terrorist attacks (which is now “common currency” everywhere, especially in the London Underground)
  • obstructing the free flow of passengers (especially during peak travel periods)
  • “safety reasons”

The iPhone and other camera phones will cause station staff the least bit of alarm (although you have to make sure that the flash is off!), and ordinary cameras will work as well. However, photography using professional gear (especially if you use a tripod or a microphone with a videocamera while shooting audiovisual content) will be problematic!

As is the case in China, you will need confirmation from metro operators if you are shooting film or professional pictures at stations, so as to avoid misunderstandings. But at the same time, don’t “give in” too much if you are surrounded by (curious) station staff: Chinese law do not allow people who are not police to conduct a search of your equipment. This is not to say that you should create a disturbance! (If you do that, you might be taken into police custody!)

Update: We have some developments into this especially in Beijing: the autumn 2012 Chinese communist party meeting means that they are putting an unprecedented amount of work into ensuring stability for the Chinese capital. It is probably OK if you take a few shots, but if you remain inside stations for extended periods of time (especially if you snap away), you are a candidate for “potential anti-government activity” (or as expressed by other subway staff, “a terrorist”) and hence to be removed! Disobeying orders to cease photography might land you in trouble with subway staff, where you will have to write a letter of apology or “be educated”; if you are adamant and get hostile, you’ll end up, at the very worst, in detention. For expats who are human rightists at their core and still refuse to stop hostilities, remember that Chinese law can authorize expulsion and removal from the country for foreigners guilty of criminal offences!

This item was first posted in a constituent site which was later merged with Tracking China. It was posted before 2012 and may contain outdated content. If a specific date/timestamp was not found, the default used instead is at 12 noon Beijing time.

David Feng

David Feng — founder and publisher, Tracking China, a Street Level China website.

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