I was so intimidated by the mounting reports of a crackdown on cheese-smugglers at Chinese airports that I decided not to risk it on today's SFO-PEK flight. Even though it will be three or four months before my wife and I next visit a cheese-producing land. No point getting on the officials' radar.
So just now, I collect my bags at Beijing Capital Airport, relieved not to have torrents of smuggler-sweat pouring down my face out of worry that the sniffer-beagles will detect outlaw cheese, and..... there are no damned dogs in sight! And hardly a customs inspector. Come on! If I had known this, think of the kilos of Gruyere and Caerphilly and Ricotta Salata and various blue cheeses and Mozarella and you name it I could be lugging home right now.
My friend Eamonn Fingleton has often emphasized the importance of "selective enforcement" in the Chinese government's management of internal affairs. If you never know when a certain rule will be enforced, you self-protectively act as if it might be enforced, just to be safe. There are countless examples (previous discussion here). Will a certain kind of protest be tolerated this week -- or punished? Since you don't know, you don't take the risk. Are copyright laws being enforced today? What about tax laws -- or visa rules? "Selective" enforcement suggests that the authorities turn the enforcement on and off strategically to regulate behavior. "Sporadic" enforcement suggests random ups and downs, Brownian Motion-style, depending on regional variation and individual mood and sheer chance. My default explanation for most things here is randomness and individual whim, but the result is the same.
Several readers offered hypotheses for the anti-cheese crackdown -- when it's in effect. Here's a strong contender:
Perhaps the ban on cheese is in retaliation against some nations that banned import of Chinese milk products during the melamine scandal. It doesn't hurt anybody much because the Chinese people find cheese revolting (I am told) so they don't miss it, and the cheese exporting nations don't export much to China anyway, so they don't get hurt either. Only the cheese eating, beer quaffing expats get hurt unless they can thwart the beagle.