How we participated in China’s rampant residential electricity thieving

In China, you should expect shenanigans. They’re such a part of daily life here that I sometimes wonder if the whole country would simply grind to a halt without them. Here’s an example from our previous year.

Our last apartment was rigged to get free electricity, and it turns out that this is apparently really common. One woman’s interesting-in-a-car-crash-sort-of-way first-hand account of attempting to rectify a similar situation in an apartment she’d bought makes a fine example. Sometimes you can’t do the lawful thing even if you want to because no one cares, even the people in charge of enforcing the law. It reminded me a little of our situation.

Like many apartments built in the same era, there’s an electricity box above the door in addition to the regular meter. There’s an electric key, like a USB stick, that you take down to an office and pay to have credits put on. Then you return home and briefly insert it into the slot in the box above the door to recharge the red, digital number showing on the outside. In our first apartment we did all this ourselves, but in this second apartment, the landlady wouldn’t give us the electricity key. When we first moved in we pushed her quite a bit to turn over the key because I wanted to avoid the hassle of having to contact her every time we were out of electricity. But she never produced the card, always making some excuse that didn’t add up.

But the red digital “3” above the door never changed, no matter how much electricity we used. And the electricity never ran out. For two years. When we paid rent (every six months), the landlady would just look at the meter and calculate the cost of the electricity we’d used, and we’d pay her, all of us pretending together like we didn’t think anything was amiss. I seriously considered calling her out on the way she was simply pocketing the money we paid for electricity. I don’t mind paying electric bills, but if our money wasn’t going to go where it should then I didn’t want to throw it away.

We asked our more tactful Chinese friends how we could go about it (ask for a receipt?), but none of them could think of a way to do it that was likely to produce the result we wanted. So in the end, since success was doubtful but 麻烦 wasn’t, we didn’t bother, and that always bugged me. But after reading the translated account linked above and finding out some of the likely details of this kind of electricity theft, I’m glad we let that sleeping dog lie. I guess. Anyway, that other story is kind of funny:

“Who Is the Guilty Party?”
In less than half an hour, a slight man wearing the work robe of Electricity Bureau arrived. Within a minute of opening the electricity meter, he was done. Seeing suspicion in my look, the man said: “Rest assured. Wires corrected and the seal replaced. I’m from the Electricity Bureau myself and have done this job often. There will be no problem.”

I was curious: “You are often asked to change wires?”

He said frankly: “Illegal changes are naturally more than corrections. I do all. 500 yuan for an illegal change, not a penny less. For corrections I can give better prices.”

I saw a big wad of seals in his bag and suddenly understood: When the electricity meter was changed in the first place, the seal must have been removed; why did I see one that was intact? The only answer is: the Electricity Bureau’s staff must be the thief who steal what they are guarding (监守自盗). Who knows, perhaps the one who changed the wires last time was the same man today?

More stuff about living in a Chinese apartment:

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