Violent crime is relatively low
Beijing is probably one of the safer capital cities in the world with regard to violent crime.
My personal experience reflects this. I walk alone in the evening and have taken taxis late in the evening alone as a woman and never had any problems, weird situations or felt unsafe in any way.
But I do need to point out that walking around late at night alone in the bar areas is not safe. Violent crimes against (and also by) foreigners have been reported in the Sanlitun bar area and probably also in other areas.
My experience may not be representative but I feel pretty safe here. As always, use common sense, use official taxis and not black cabs, don’t show off expensive items, know where you are going, …
Beware of petty crime
Minor crime happens, as anywhere in the world. Some scams are specifically targeted at tourists and happen mostly around the typical tourist sights.
Other things to watch out for is pick-pocketing in crowded places. While I have not had any issues myself, friends had things stolen. One friend had her iPod snatched while exiting a busy subway station – suddenly her music stopped and the headphone cord dangled…
Traffic is crazy
Although there are traffic rules, as people who took the driver’s license test assured me, no one seems to follow them much. The one rule I could make out is that the bigger or more determined one wins.
Unlike many western cultures, where the most vulnerable has extra protection and usually the right of way, in China, the pedestrian is the lowest on the totem pole.
Just because the pedestrian light is green does not mean you can cross the street without watching out for cars that a turning or mopeds running the light. The driver usually expects the pedestrian to wait. Honking is a common way to communicate “I’m coming, get out of the way.”
So my best advice is to always keep your head on swivel mode (I have to admit, I read that phrase somewhere but can’t remember where, otherwise I would gladly attribute it as it describes it quite well. Look in all directions all times when crossing the street.)
Another potential threat is electric scooters that whiz by without making a sound. At night they often drive without lights to conserve battery life.
How about politics?
This is a tough one. Just recently, there was very heated rhetoric between the Chinese and Japanese over disputed islands and some Japanese were attacked or shunned. Some Japanese cars were smashed. A Japanese friend almost got stranded while traveling because he was denied a room at multiple hotels.
Americans are admired and disliked at the same time. Germans and other Europeans tend to be regarded more fondly. Many Chinese are very proud of their nation and dislike perceived enemies.
My advice is to register with the State Department for their STEP Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. (I would expect other countries to have similar programs.) This way, you will receive email updates about any situations or concerns for your safety, including health warnings.
Just last week, for example, the embassy sent out an update and general recommendations with regard to the H7N9 flu virus that is currently circulating in China.
Environmental hazards are everywhere
Beijing air, water and food have been in the news for unsafe conditions. Check out this post on air pollution in Beijing. Don’t drink the tap water without boiling and/or filtering and wash all fruit and veggies really well or peel them.
So overall, I think Beijing is a pretty safe place. Just watch out for the uncovered manholes…