Chinese Guerilla Advertising

In China a lot of business is done below the radar in the informal sector but while these businesses may be faceless their advertising is not. Littering the pavements and walls of almost anywhere you go you’ll find gazillions of stickers and stencilled signs bearing mobile phone numbers with a short description of the services offered. Most are borderline if not downright illegal. The government employ people full time just to try and clean them off but its an impossible and endless task.

A quick perusal of some in my local vicinity with someone to help translate turned up the following services:

  • Locksmith
  • Fake certificates
  • Resident permit
  • Plumber
  • Fake ID card
  • Loans
  • Exam papers
  • Backstreet clinics
  • …and other unmentionable things

Many of these activities seem to be a direct consequence of the incredible bureaucracy of the government who require people to follow horrendously complex processes with copious volumes of even more complex forms to do even the simplest things (whilst at each step earning a tidy profit to administer it all). Added to this is a large and relatively poor migrant population and the conditions are fertile for this kind of activity. If my experiences with getting a residence / work permit were any indicator of the norm I’d almost be tempted to call them myself!


China has a household registration system called “Hukou” which is required for a person to work legally in a given city. It’s basically used by the government to try and ensure structural stability of the population and keep tabs on people the Party classes as politically dubious. Transferring your Hukou to another city or province is a major headache and is generally considered unfair and responsible in part for creating the poor underclass which further explains why a black market has grown up around it.


You’ll also notice people standing on the streets squawking “Fa piao, fa piao, fa piao!” to everyone who passes. This literally means “invoice” (of the fake variety) which they will be happy to sell you for a fraction of their real value (typically about 3% apparently). In China, invoices are usually given as pre-paid tax receipts which businesses require to claim back on their expenses. By buying fake ones you can effectively claim back on money you never spent in the first place. Highly illegal but evidently commonplace.

The many layers in China’s society are quite fascinating and no doubt the above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of dodgy goings-on. If I wake up one day in a bathtub full of ice and my kidneys missing then I’ll probably have scratched too far 😉

David avatar

10 responses

  1. Shuo avatar

    First of all,the title is genius–you probably haven’t seen those sneaky people who pasted those ads.I found them funny but also pathetic.When I was young,say 10 years ago,those ads were handed out by some old women(as those “fa piao” women).People like me never seriously read those ads but I guess there must a huge (black)market out there.

    The Shenzhen government tried to figure out different ways to avoid those street ads but failed.They tried to develop some kind of detergent and,a few years ago,encouraged by the official,people collected the ads and sold them to recycle bin for 6~10 RMB/half a kilogramme(I can’t quite remember tho).

    Maybe I should call those phone number and find out how they work as a tight group,it should be fun.^^

    1. You’re right, I’ve never seen anybody placing the ads but somehow they’re everywhere! They do make the streets a bit unsightly but somehow seems to be a part of Chinese city life. Thanks for your insight but please don’t get yourself killed on my behalf 😉

  2. Incredible! If they can advertise so openly, it means that the black market is HUGE and that its claws most likely run rather deep in the local authorities as well…

  3. yaoyao avatar

    En,David,this is really a wonderful article which is based on close observation of China.

    Do you know New Oriental School(China’s biggest English-training institute).Its CEO(Yu Min Hong) had ever advertised like this by himself when New Oriental School is just established.

    1. Interesting that even a school would go to such lengths to advertise! I guess we could see this as a certainly form of “creativity” at one level. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I wrote Chinese in my last reply and I thought it can be read.Seems no and forgot what did I wrote.

    1. Sorry about that Joy, I have fixed the unicode problem which was stopping you writing Chinese in the comments (test 测试)

  5. florance avatar

    i used to live in the old apartment where is advertising anywhere in the stair

  6. Tom F avatar
    Tom F

    I like your latest articles and the sharper focus you now have from living there, and delving deeper into the culture. Keep it up 🙂

    1. Thanks Tom, glad you approve!


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