Foreigners in China: Weibo vs. Reality

Posted: June 3, 2012 in Politics
Tags: , ,

Two weeks ago I had one of those occasional periods where I just didn’t want to be in China anymore. The nationalistic outcry against foreigners online stemming from the rapist, the rude cellist and the Beijing crackdown was palpable. Then CCTV’s Yang Rui added a “dose of poison” to it all with some insensitive comments, followed by a number of Chinese netizens telling Charlie Custer to shut up and get out of their country for his criticism of Yang. I half expected to meet a lynch mob with torches and pitchforks sniffing out foreigners when I walked out my Beijing door.

But then I did the best thing I could have done: I turned off my computer and actually walked outside. For the last two weeks I’ve barely looked at a computer screen, and it’s made a big difference.

I traveled to Sichuan and Shandong, meeting nothing but kindness and curiosity from locals. Nobody seemed the least bit influenced by the supposed anti-foreign atmosphere. (This blogger illustrates a similar experience with nice pictures).

On one bus ride I did encounter a middle-aged Chinese man who, as soon as I told him I was American, proceeded to rattle off every Chinese grievance with the United States from the past 60 years. Touching on everything from the Belgrade embassy bombing to interference in Libya, he said things like “America tries to rule the world. It’s really evil!” After several minutes, he got louder and inadvertently started replacing “America” with “you all” in his rant. When the rest of the bus started laughing at him though, he became self-aware, laughed along, grabbed my hand, and said, “…But you and I are just normal people. It has nothing to do with us. We’re friends.”

I’ve had dozens of similar conversations in China. Some expats get annoyed by them, but I find them quite endearing. Fiercely opinionated nationalists eagerly shotgun blast me with their political beliefs because I’m their first relevant audience. In the end though, they almost always delineate the difference between me and my government.

After that bus ride, I tried to think of the times I’ve actually met real life incarnations of the xenophobic vitriol I see on Weibo. There have probably been around ten instances where my foreignness entered the equation AFTER a dispute had already begun with a Chinese person. But I could only come up with two incidents where I encountered completely unprovoked hostility simply because I was foreign…and they were pretty mild. Not too bad for five years in China.

Several days ago I returned back home to Beijing– the epicenter of the recent xenophobia – and made the rounds with my father all over town. I still didn’t notice so much as a dirty look from locals, let alone open hostility.

Of course, this is anecdotal and I am a white foreigner – pretty different from being black or Asian. I have heard some secondhand chatter of expats in the capitol being accosted verbally or physically, but I’ve still never felt the need to keep my head down and avoid the outdoors for fear of being spit on – that is, after I lowered my intake of Chinese microblogs and media coverage of them.

This has illustrated that, for better or worse, Weibo is a pretty shotty gauge of Chinese public opinion. Roughly 250 million Chinese are microbloggers, which means over a billion are not. And that gets whittled down much further when you consider how few have an interest in politics (Yang Rui, a prolific political commentator, has only 800,000 followers), and many fewer still have enough passion to post comments or their own original content  (there were 1,600 comments on Yang’s infamous post). And then you have to consider what motivates those comments. Tea Leaf Nation recently did a great piece on how xenophobic Weibo tweets often perpetuate themselves in an echo chamber where dissenters flee, the foreign “punching bag” is mute and commenters engage in one-upsmanship to get noticed.

To be sure, diatribic Weibo commenters are an important demographic to pay attention to – no matter how relatively few their numbers are. They’re presumably the most likely people to take their grievances to the streets and push for change (whereas public opinion polls of voters are a better way to predict the political future of democracies).

But anecdotal evidence suggests that even that minority of nationalists screaming online is far more benign than their commentary would suggest. In 2008, an intensely nationalistic (and pretty scary) video was released as retaliation for a number of grievances with the West at the time. The New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos arranged an interview with the maker of the video expecting to meet a bully. Instead, he met a gracious young man who even offered to pay Osnos’ cab fare.

I personally knew a girl around the same time who railed against the “French bastards” online because of disruptions to the Paris torch relay. Several months later though, she had a French boyfriend. For xenophobic nationalists in China, I often get the feeling there’s some double-think stemming from conflicting ideas they’ve been brought up with.

Plural “foreigners” can be hated and scapegoated when they remain as disconnected abstract bogeymen.  But when Chinese nationalist meets singular foreigner face-to-face, the reality that this is a flesh and blood person kicks in and basic human decency takes over. After being exposed to several real foreigners, some will abandon the bogeyman outlook altogether, and some will just keeping flipping the switch between abstract enemy and individual foreign friend.

Like with any country, China has plenty of unmitigated racists. But at least for me, they’ve never amounted to anything more than a very rare nuisance in my day-to-day life. So if you’re not in China, don’t get the impression from recent events that the country is a cesspool of xenophobia and hatred. And if you are in China, try not to let the recent coverage of online opinion skew the way you see things. The status quo for Chinese opinion about foreigners has been and will be for a long time more or less the same: Somewhat ignorant, but good-natured and curious.

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