Traveling Around China on Trust Alone: Would You Risk It?

Traveling around China, a man from southern China drove through 31 provinces on a 100-day round trip using an IOU system as part of a “sociological experiment,” according to NewsChina Magazine. ( Ingvar Bjork / 123rf)
Traveling around China, a man from southern China drove through 31 provinces on a 100-day round trip using an IOU system as part of a “sociological experiment,” according to NewsChina Magazine. ( Ingvar Bjork / 123rf)

Traveling around China, a man from southern China drove through 31 provinces on a 100-day round trip using an IOU system as part of a “sociological experiment,” according to NewsChina Magazine.

In 2010, 45-year-old Liu Meisong stopped at a tollbooth on his way to work, when he realized he had no money with him. He asked if he could pay on the way back, and was surprised that the attendant allowed him through.

This experience inspired him to undertake an adventure: he wanted to find out whether people in modern China still trust each other.

Liu left Shenzhen in Guangdong Province later that year, taking hundreds of preprinted IOUs with his personal contact details on one side, and a blank space for the amount borrowed on the other.

He drove a total of 17,715 miles, and gave out IOUs worth 48,272 yuan ($7,960) to 222 complete strangers. He told each of the recipients that his wife would pay them electronically within three days, NewsChina reported.

Liu said that people were often suspicious of him, and he had to spend a lot of time talking them into helping him, with negotiations taking about 90 minutes per day on average.

“I sometimes felt like a stray dog. I was struggling to maintain my dignity,” he told the media.

The toughest part of the trip was when Liu was looking for somewhere to stay in Shanhaiguan, Hebei Province. He spent four hours that night trying each of the 11 hotels, but was turned away. Eventually he parked outside a 4-star hotel and went to sleep in his car. He was awakened by a security guard, who said that the manager would allow him to stay there.

“Perhaps because their trust came so late, the good news left me numb,” Liu told NewsChina.

He had a better time in Tibet, when a gas station attendant in the Tanggula Mountains lent him 87 yuan ($14.36) to fill up the car. Although she looked hesitant, Liu said the woman could not bring herself to refuse.

The highest-value IOU Liu wrote was for 5,742 yuan ($947) in Xinjiang, when he had to replace two tires. He had other good experiences along the way, such as being invited to a wedding in Chongqing, after he gave a lift to a couple whose car had broken down.

“IOUs mean borrowing money from others, but actually, it was about something more than money—it was about gaining trust and friendship,” Liu said, according to NewsChina. “Trustworthiness is priceless.”

He has written a book about his journey called IOUs, but told the media that he would not do it again.

Netizens reacted to the news in different ways. Some saw it as positive, for example, one Weibo user said: “This thing started out being about money, but the result has nothing to do with money.”

Another wrote: “Grassroots people are all very kind.” A third blogged: “I admire him, but feel helpless about society.”

However, others were more cynical. A Hebei netizen asked: “But did he pay back all the money owed in the end?”

“If it is a test of honesty, then only Liu passed in this experiment… If Liu lent some money to strangers, that would really be a test,” said an Internet user from Shanxi.

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