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.

  1. David Wolf says:

    Reblogged this on Silicon Hutong and commented:
    There are a lot of things that can push living in China to the edge of bearability, but in-your-face nationalism and xenophobia is not one of them. If there is one thing that has made living in China these past 17 years so wonderful, it has been the people I meet.
    It never seems to get lost in a conversation that there is a difference between an individual and a government. Even at the height of anger over the Belgrade Embassy bombing, the vitriol was never personal: it was about a government’s mistake, not the mistake of a nation.
    At the same time, it’s incumbent on every one of us living as a guest on this soil to behave as a guest should, and not as an entitled drunken teenager on Grad Night at Disneyland.
    By the way, if you don’t read Sinostand regularly, you should. Great stuff.

  2. Laobaixing says:

    I definitely agree – Coincidentally, I was also in Shandong and Sichuan during the past couple of weeks and got a lot more (for me mildly embarrassing) “I’m so glad to meet a foreigner, will be my foreign friend” than anything resembling hostility. The closest to hostility came when I wound up at a dinner with a government official from Linyi (in a 5 star hotel the scale of which you only see in Vegas, which was a little surreal given the otherwise impoverished surroundings). But even he was very clear to say, “I know this has nothing to do with average Americans (你们美国老百姓), but why do your politicians hate China so much?”

    That said, I have heard of more expats being attacked out of the blue – presumably for being foreigners. I don’t know if that represents an actual increase in violence against foreigners (Beijing is a big city, and while its relatively safe, drunken assaults are frequent enough) or that people are talking about it more given the political atmosphere.

  3. Matt says:

    This post really makes a lot of sense in regards to the way people are in general around the world. It’s so easy to flip the switch and think of how sometimes I feel being an expat in China. There are days I walk down the street and think “what the hell am I doing here? these people so uncivilized and corrupted.” But then, 5 minutes later I see a Chinese friend or even a young language learner eager to speak with me, regardless of doing the same things that were making my blood boil 5 minutes ago (spitting, pushing etc.) you see this person at face value and all the issues fade away.

  4. Bart says:

    It sounds like someone’s “in denial”. If one reads about the relations between the Sunni and Shia in Iraq before the civil war, or relations between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda, it’s clear that current relations between Chinese and foreigners in China are much worse than the ethnic tensions in Iraq and Rwanda.

    • Alex says:

      That’s a pretty strong statement there. Care to back it up with some sources (books, magazines, etc)?

  5. […] first is Sinostand’s, “Foreigners in China: Weibo vs. Reality,” and it essentially says that despite a few extra anti-foreign diatribes in the last month […]

  6. Bart says:

    Actually, there’s no dearth of reseach literature on the topic of ethnic cleansing. The situation in China between Chinese and foreigners is as bad or worse than in Iraq (Sunni – Shia) or Rwanda ( Hutu – Tutsi) since there’s a very obvious racial difference which didn’t exist amongst the Sunni/Sunni, or Hutu/Tutsi.

  7. Bart says:

    In China, because of the obvious racial difference, there’s no need to make foreigners wear yellow stars of David on their clothes.

    • Alex says:

      Bitter much? Anyway, as a Canadian expat living in China for the past 8 years, I see the occasional hostile stares, but they are lost in a sea of either indifference (large cities) or curiosity (elsewhere). Hostility against foreigners is by no means limited to China, Rwanda, or Iraq. Every backyard has its snakes, including ours.

  8. gregorylent says:

    imagine judging america based on youtube comments 🙂

  9. James Song says:

    Sorry. All the cultural differences are not what I hate. It’s the prejudice. I am an ABC, and I tried to live and work in China. But after 10 years of experience working for a Fortune 5 company (5 not 500), running divisions, speaking Chinese, going to school to learn to write Chinese, doing freelance consulting work for major multinational and Chinese state owned companies for pittance, I am dismissed for permanent positions because I am an “ABC”. They’d rather have a Caucasian because then their company would be “more international” or they’d rather have a native Chinese who worked/studied abroad because at least “they are more fluent in the language and understand the culture, have guangxi”…. Hey all valid points, but when you want to just work and feed your family, racism/elitism just frustrates the living heck out of you.”

    And it’s just not the Chinese who do this… I was walking in People’s Park (Ren Min Gong Yuan) in Shanghai, and 2 “men” in very nice suits carrying “pricewaterhouse coopers” bags purposely cross the path, and bumped into me, flanking me on both sides. The words out of one “chap’s” mouth was “You Chinese need to learn to yield” (in an Afrikaner tinted accent). The other laughed … I said in American English “Excuse me? You bumped into me.” The response? “Oh, the monkey speaks English does he?” I told them, “I am American. You’ve heard of George Bush?” Puzzled he said “yeah, the idiot can’t find his ass with 2 hands” I said yes, but that is my point, I may be an idiot, but I always do what I say and finish what I start, so remember this… “you are a guest in this country as am I, and if I ever catch you trying to bully another Chinese, I will take your heart out of your chest and shove it down your throat, and shit down it just for good measure”… “and that is an American’s promise”. The two wimps ran faster than I have ever seen in their armani suits and magli capped toes. Argh. And they wonder why the Russian “teacher/artist” and molesting Brit in Beijing are being made such a big deal of? Spend one night on the Bund in Shanghai, and the treatment/objectification of Chinese women by the ugliest, gnarliest, unfit group of Laowai I have ever seen …. When my friends from China came to visit me in California, they said, wow, there are so many good looking people here …. we will never think those ugly men in Shanghai are good looking again. and it goes on and on … sorry to digress.. but…..

    back to the point… all the cultural differences aside, I was sick of China because I never stood a chance against the racism …

  10. jayshaw says:

    While i agree that foreigners are as safe here in China as anywhere in the world…i would point out that the foreigners probably felt pretty safe in 1900, right up until the point that they weren’t, and were fleeing to the foreign embassies in Beijing as the Boxers burned everything down to the ground.
    It is true that in general all of our Chinese neighbors and friends are able to seperate between governments and citizens, but it’s also possible that trends change, and dangers can slowly arise. It is also interesting that you are discussing individuals, who i don’t fear so much. it’s the mobs, and large groups where bad things can happen (anywhere in the world, it should be noted).
    I have never felt comfortable walking near groups of laborers in Beijing for example, for its not hard to imagine myself inadvertently touching off a powder keg that i have actually nothing to do with. A large group of under-employed men with no women, away from their vilages, marginalized, is a potentially dangerous mix anywhere. But this recent upswing in vitriol from people like Yang Rui is certainly not aimed at nations. it is aimed at individuals. So while we don’t need to be fearful…i think it behooves us to be cautious. Most foreigners have a false sense of security here anyway. maybe should just be a normal correction in their perception.

    • sinostand says:

      That’s a good point. I remember in “River Town” Peter Hessler talked about working a crowd in Sichuan who was happy to see him – until one man started ranting that Hessler was a spy or something. It turned the whole crowd against Hessler at the drop of a hat and he had to run off. Mob mentality can happen in any country, but I think Chinese are especially susceptible to it. Blindly going with the crowd is how you stayed alive during the Cultural Revolution.

      But even when the US bombed China’s Belgrade embassy, individual Americans rarely got targeted. For a mass anti-foreign movement to develop, there would have to be serious government and media instigation. Given how important foreign investment is, I doubt we’re likely to ever see that.

    • jayshaw says:

      Well, investment can be a double edged sword…If the economy got worse, and suddenly you have everyone feeling like the crazy growth of years past has become more scarce, then resentment can pop up, both at the individual level (why does that foreigner get that job when i’m jobless) and at the government level (why should i pay back that loan if i can just kick out that company).
      Re: Belgrade…i was definitely told to stay home, and stay out of sight for a few days (lived in Fuzhou at the time, so…tier two or three) so that tells me that the locals feared for my safety…even if i didn’t!

    • Green Tea says:

      To be honest, I feel that China is the kind of place where literally anything can happen—melamine in milk, rubber eggs, people selling their kidneys to buy a new phone, etc. No frame of reference. In other words, a very scary place. It wouldn’t take much to target the peoples’ anger at foreigners. Based upon research done of various countries that experienced ethnic cleansing, studies show that from the time that the government radio/tv starts to refer to the targeted minority group as “vermin, cockroaches”, etc. you’ve probably only got a few hours to get away safely. If you’re in China, and hear such terms being used in reference to foreigners, quickly throw your clothes in a suitcase and run to the airport. Don’t go into denial. Flee!

  11. […] Read: Foreigners in China: Weibo vs. Reality, One (Very Tiny) Reason to be Thankful for China’s Censorship, and Foxconn: A Very Quiet […]

  12. snowleopard says:

    There has been a distinct change in the wind here in Beijing. The Chinese no longer stare at foreigners, we are no longer unusual, Beijing has 250,000 (before the purge). I am leaving after 4 years for personal reasons, but I just heard my former school has dropped foreign teacher salaries by 30%, increased their hours, eliminated sick leave, cut vacation days. The message is: “You are not worth what we paid you before, take it or leave it.”

    Last year they pulled a similar stunt and lost 25% of their teachers. After this new contract came out 50% of the remaining are now leaving, and many are leaving China, not switching schools because all across Beijing schools have lowered their salaries by 30%, so you can see this is a collective effort, probably initiated by the government to discourage foreigners coming to China to work.

    What will happen is teachers from the Philippines and Russia, non-native speakers of English are willing to work for less, and the schools no longer feel they need native speakers to teach English here any more.

    The party’s over. Time to go home. And I have seen comments on Chinese blogs,

    “This is how the boxer rebellion started”

    • laobaixing says:

      They’re cutting your salaries because they now have to contribute to the social security tax.

    • I was in Shanghai for 5 years and spent the last 2 months of my stay in Beijing. I got stared at everywhere I went, and even the waiters in restaurants that appeared ‘laowai-friendly’ at first glance would stand 5 feet away from me, talking about me, and snickering as I at lunch. Sorry, if you think Chinese aren’t cracking jokes at every laowai on the street (there’s nothing special about me), then you need to brush up on your 普通话.

      I could endure the crappy air quality if Beijing was more enjoyable/warm to foreigners, but what I experienced was bloody miserable.

      Shanghai is obviously more modern (Beijing’s subway system is a colossal joke), but you still have the occasional A-hole get in your face on the street, “滚回去你自己的国家!”, or the daily, cold stares you get from bitter resentful locals.

      Other than that, China is an awesome place and I can’t imagine why every single foreigner of note is moving out (especially after the birth of their children).


  13. […] Eric Fish continues to have interesting encounters. “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.’” [Sinostand] […]

  14. YannSZ says:

    Very nice article ! I totally agree with that. I’m french and I’ve been living in China for 12 years.

  15. […] Fish: Foreigners in China: Weibo vs. Reality – om xenofobi, på Weibo (kinesisk Twitter) sammenliknet med tilstandene offline. Ble skrevet […]

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