Embarking on a three-month car journey around China without handing over a single cent of currency, one solitary traveler chose to question China’s so-called “trust crisis”
On August 25, 2010, as businessman and poet Liu Meisong prepared to set off on a 100-day car journey across China, he chose to leave his wallet at home.
Liu told NewsChina his journey was a sociological experiment, aimed at finding out whether or not mutual trust still existed between strangers in today’s China. He said that every failed attempt to refuel his car, find lodgings or negotiate his way out of a highway toll felt like torture – many people simply refused to believe his story.
This August, three years after his journey began, Liu released a book chronicling his experiences, titled IOUs.
Starting out from his current home of Shenzhen, in southern China’s Guangdong Province, Liu travelled clockwise around the country, visiting 31 of China’s 34 provincial capitals and accruing a total of 48,272 yuan (US$7,921) in debt to 222 strangers along the 28,510-kilometer trip.
“I sometimes felt like a stray dog. I was struggling to maintain my dignity,” he said.
45-year-old Liu, originally from Shaanxi Province in northern China, has lived in Shenzhen for many years. One day in early 2010, upon arriving at a tollbooth on his daily commute, Liu found that he had no cash on him, and asked the attendant whether he could pay on his way back. To his surprise, he was allowed through.
The experience caused Liu to wonder – in today’s China, generally thought to be a fiercely competitive, materialistic society, just how far could he get on trust alone? Keen to find out, Liu, a self-described “man of ideas and action,” threw himself into preparations for the journey.
On August 25, 2010, Liu set off in his Subaru SUV, stocked with several boxes of instant noodles, a few personal belongings, and hundreds of pre-printed personalized IOUs. On one side was his contact information, including his name, national ID card number, home address and telephone number, and on the other was a blank space where the value of the IOU was to be written. He promised his creditors that the money would be re-paid electronically in three days by his wife back in Shenzhen.
His first stop at a tollbooth in Fokai, Guangdong Province, nearly led him to abandon the journey. Beg as he might, the attendants refused to let him pass unless he paid up. Finally, the gate’s security guard, a fellow Shaanxi native who recognized Liu’s accent, helped Liu out by lending him 115 yuan (US$18.90). It had taken Liu precisely 46 minutes to negotiate his first IOU.
Liu said he spent quite a lot of time talking people into helping him, and was often met with suspicion – some accused Liu of being a conman or a “freak.”
A tollbooth attendant in Inner Mongolia told Liu that all he was doing was increasing carbon emissions, and a supervisor at the same booth told Liu that he had been deceived so often that he felt he could no longer afford to trust a stranger, an explanation Liu had heard many times along the way.
“This was because few people cherish honesty and loyalty nowadays, which has a very negative impact on the trust system in our society,” Liu said.
Liu’s most distressing memory was trying to find overnight accommodation in Shanhaiguan, a resort city in the northern province of Hebei. Between 8pm and midnight, he tried his luck at each of the city’s 11 hotels, but was repeatedly told there was no room at the inn for freeloaders. Finally, at the end of his rope, Liu parked his car in front of a four-star hotel and got into his sleeping bag. Shortly after he fell asleep, a hotel security guard knocked on the car window, and told Liu that the hotel manager had agreed to let him in.
“Perhaps because their trust came so late, the good news left me numb,” Liu said.
Liu passed a total of 163 tollbooths, refueled at 156 gas stations and was put up in 53 hotels – and in 30 percent of cases, he succeeded in getting by with an IOU. He spent a total of 577 hours on the road, and 153 hours in negotiations – an average of 90 minutes of deal brokering per day – whenever he fished out an IOU, he would get nervous and sweaty. He lost 10 kilograms in weight over the course of the journey.
However, it wasn’t all suspicion and disappointment – Liu was often moved by kind offers from strangers he met on the way. In Dunhuang, in far-flung northwestern Gansu Province, the locals gave Liu something of an easy ride – from hotels to carwashes, to tollbooths, to tourist sites – Liu didn’t hand over a single cent of currency in the city.
Later, in the Tanggula mountains in Tibet, a gas station attendant loaned Liu 87 yuan (US$14.30) of her own money to fill up his gas tank. Liu said the woman looked hesitant, but could not bring herself to turn him down.
Later, on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, Liu gave a ride to a pair of newlyweds-to-be whose car had broken down. When the couple got married in Chongqing days later, Liu happened to be in town, and was invited to the wedding ceremony.
The highest value IOU that Liu wrote was 5,742 yuan (US$942), in Hami, Xinjiang, where he had to replace two flat tires – the owner of the auto repair shop was more than happy to extend him credit after hearing his story.
Keen to remain focused on his own thoughts, Liu drove without distractions like music or the radio, and kept a record of his experiences on his blog.
“IOUs mean borrowing money from others, but actually, it was about something more than money – it was about gaining trust and friendship. Trustworthiness is priceless,” Liu said.
However, he added that he would not try it again.
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