Posts Tagged ‘foreigners’

For those expats in China distressed by the recent anti-foreign atmosphere online and in the media, you now something to be thankful for: You don’t live in South Korea.

Recently Korea’s MBC ran a program called “The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners” (Link has the full 5-minute segment with subtitles). The piece presents itself as an exposé on how foreign expats easily seduce Korean women, only to taint, abuse, rob them and leave them with AIDS. It completely forgoes any sense of journalistic integrity by using hidden cameras and adding wholly unsubstantiated commentary. At one point, a Korean girl is cold-called by the producer and asked if she was “a victim of a foreigner.” When the girl replies that she doesn’t know what the producer is talking about, the narrator jumps in to say, “Most victims avoid telling the truth.”

For all the times the Chinese media has hyped the non-newsworthy transgressions of foreigners in China, I’ve never heard of any newscast being this despicably ignorant and unprofessional. As much as it pains me to say it, we probably have China’s censorship apparatus to thank for that.

The Chinese government (and ergo the state media) needs a healthy dose of nationalism, but the key is moderation. In 2010, when anti-Japanese sentiment flared up over a Chinese fisherman being detained in disputed waters, I saw a first-hand manifestation of how the government tries to channel nationalism. At the Japanese embassy in Beijing, protestors were allowed to congregate – but only at a distance from the entrance. Periodically, police would let a handful of the most vocal protestors go right up to the gate and media were allowed to film it. But when the crowd gained a certain mass, it was broken up and told to leave – only to re-form again slowly with tacit police approval.

This push and pull-back of nationalism has become the rule after some past debacles. Some 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations were gleefully allowed by the government…until they turned violent and Japanese businesses (many of which were Chinese owned) were destroyed. Back further in 1988, anti-Africans protests  broke out in Nanjing, which unexpectedly shifted to calls for the Chinese government to reform. The incident was one of the preludes to the Tiananmen uprising. Today, nationalism is still crucial and encouraged, but only to the point that it doesn’t affect stability and support for the authoritarian government.

Korea and China have similar histories of being subjugated by foreigners, and Korean leaders have likewise relied on nationalism in the past to achieve political goals. The difference now is that Korea has some lingering xenophobia combined with a free media wholly dependent on ratings for revenue. The result is this highly sensational and populist program targeting foreigners. If China’s (state subsidized) media wasn’t on its current leash, we’d probably see much more of the same here.

This is far far FAR from an endorsement of China’s media restrictions. The harm is much more compelling than any redeeming factors. But for this very narrow issue, expats can probably begrudgingly thank China’s censors.

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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.

The 100-day crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing is now well underway and it seems the police aren’t messing around this time. Some have suggested this is a knee-jerk reaction to the alleged attempted rape of a Chinese girl by a British man. But both things may be part of a bigger trend we’re likely to see continue for the rest of the year.

Another story has made waves recently on the Chinese internet about a Russian cellist who put his legs up on a Chinese woman’s train seat and cursed her when she complained about it (He later apologized). Unlike the rape incident, this is not a crime; nor is it newsworthy. But that didn’t stop Beijing Morning Post from splashing the whole story on their front page this morning:

Then there was CCTV anchor Yang Rui, who made this tragically hilarious statement on Weibo. Here’s a blurb:

The Ministry of Public Security is getting rid of foreign trash right now, arresting foreign scum and protecting innocent Chinese girls from them. […]Foreigners who can’t find a job in their home country come to China and get involved in illegal business activities such as human trafficking and espionage; they also like to distribute lies which discredit China to persuade locals to move abroad. A lot of them look for Chinese women to live with as a disguise to further their espionage efforts.

Then finally, People’s Daily reported today that Baidu and mop.com have launched a campaign with Sina Weibo, “calling on internet users to expose bad behavior by foreigners in China.”

[Update: Kaiser Kuo, Baidu’s director of international communications, said this:  “The People’s Daily story is erroneous. Baidu has launched no such campaign. It was something done originally on Baidu PostBar but not under official auspices and we have now removed it.”]

A lot of people do bad things and break the law in China, regardless of their nationality. But this campaign intends to put the magnifying glass squarely over bad behavior – whether or not it’s anything remarkable – so long as the perpetrator is foreign. It implicitly calls on Chinese to look at foreigners with a suspicious eye while holstering a smart phone.

Recently I discussed how the Communist Party uses the “Century of Humiliation” as the cornerstone of its legitimacy. Foreigners invaded and defiled China for a hundred years until the CCP rescued the country from them – so the story goes. The government stays in the people’s good graces by constantly reminding them of this period and implying that the country still isn’t safe from the foreign menace.

I also predicted in that post that, as the increasingly complicated power transition draws near, “we can probably expect to see even more international events covered in China from an angle that harkens back to the humiliating century. And we might even see an uptick in coverage of scarcely-newsworthy events that portray foreigners in China as exploiters or aggressors.”

Trying to consolidate political support by taking a hard-line on foreigners in the country is hardly unique to China. It works the same almost everywhere. Foreigners make a perfect “them” to unite “us” against. They can be scapegoated and harassed without political liability because they’re too few, too vulnerable and, well, too foreign to defend themselves. In China, this tactic is a matter of survival for the authoritarian government.

These recent cases shining the spotlight on bad foreigners aren’t necessarily direct examples of this tactic though. After all, it was common citizens who first disseminated the British pervert and the Russian cellist stories. But both cases raise the “did the chicken or the egg come first” dilemma. Why did netizens frame the stories as a “bad foreigner attacking good Chinese” in the first place?

The subsequent actions by players like Beijing Morning Post and Yang Rui showed that they have every intention of making sure this cycle continues. They perpetuate the implicit anti-foreign angle, thereby assuring future incidents will continue to be framed as “peaceful Chinese vs. arrogant imperialistic foreigners.” That’s pretty good for creating very shallow Chinese unity and government support, but pretty awful for humanity.

Yesterday I looked at the case of the Japanese cyclist, which raised the question of a whether there’s a Chinese inferiority complex when dealing with foreigners. Global Times ran a piece along these lines saying, “A simple bike has seemingly reflected an embarrassing situation, namely that Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally. People are still too sensitive to foreign evaluations of the country and confined to an inferior mentality.”

Long ago China regarded all other countries as tributaries to itself and actually had a very blatant SUPERIORITY complex. In 1792, King George III of England sent a delegation to show the Qianlong emperor some British goods and persuade him to open China to greater trade with the West. The emperor responded with a sufficiently condescending refusal  that labeled foreigners barbarians and included passages like: “You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization, and in your eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence have sent an embassy across the sea bearing a memorial. I have already taken note of your respectful spirit of submission.”

By cutting itself off from the ever- globalized and technological world, China was left vulnerable to the Opium Wars. Then the end of the 19th century brought the ultimate slap in the face. China was pummeled in the First Sino-Japanese War after the little “barbarian” island seized the opportunity China had brushed away. This was all part of the greater “Century of Humiliation,” which is oft-cited as the root of China’s inferiority complex with foreigners and hunger for international validation.

So many Chinese regard it as shameless historical kowtowing when foreigners are perceived to get special treatment – like in the case with the Japanese cyclist. But do we foreigners really receive elevated treatment above our Chinese peers?

Yes and no. Global Times was absolutely right in saying Chinese still cannot view foreigners equally, but it goes both ways. Some take the 19th-20th century inferiority outlook and worship foreign things and people. But quite a few take the opposite 18th century chauvinistic attitude.

I’m often invited to stranger’s homes, bought drinks, taken to dinner and offered high-paying jobs by virtue of having a foreign face. That I can’t deny.

But I’m also overcharged for everything (by normal merchants and government policy). I’m used as a pawn in guanxi-maneuvering and treated like a performing monkey. I live in constant fear that I’ll be booted out of the country if I flub up some bureaucratic procedure. A few people have tried to talk my girlfriend out of dating me because of the indignity it brings to China. And I’m reminded on a daily basis that my entire identity is nothing more than 外国人 (outside-country person). And if that’s all a Japanese visitor deals with, he’s very lucky.

Obviously most foreigners feel like they come out ahead in the end, or they wouldn’t still be here. But being a foreigner entails trade-offs many Chinese don’t recognize.

Today I read a very interesting piece in the Economic Observer giving a very different take on the Japanese cyclist. It said, “Is the problem that police neglect ordinary people or that ordinary people let themselves be neglected? Government is always blamed for discontent, and social problems are always ascribed to mismanagement by officials. But there are plenty of people acquiescing in this. […]Why do foreigners always get special treatment in China? Is it because, unlike many Chinese who are willing to put up with the way things are, they insist on making a fuss?”

In the graduate program I’m in currently in Beijing, we’re separated into a class of only foreigners and a few classes of only Chinese. A few weeks ago a Chinese classmate was told by an administrator that she wouldn’t get credit for a class she’d completed. It had been approved as an elective at the beginning of the semester but, at the end, the administrator (who my friend says hates her) arbitrarily decided the course wouldn’t count.

On the other side, we foreign students are accommodated at every turn. Administration holds regular meetings to hear our feedback on what we like and don’t like about the program. And if someone has beef with a teacher, they’ll usually get their way. On the surface this probably looks like blatant special treatment for foreigners.

But I remember last year many of the foreign and Chinese students had plans to go out together one night.  However, a few hours before, the Chinese students said their teacher had scheduled a last-minute meeting to go over pointless drivel…at 7:00 on a Friday night.

“So?” I said. “Tell the teacher tough shit. You already have plans.”

“No, she’s making us go,” my friend replied.

“Is she holding a gun to your head or something?” I pushed. “Tell her she needs to give you a respectful amount of notice if she expects you to show up.”

“We can’t,” my friend scoffed gently. “I’m sorry.”

The reason for the “special treatment” of foreign students became pretty clear. Another Chinese student would later talk about the administration saying, only half-jokingly,“They come and bully us because they’ve gotten so used to getting bullied by you foreigners.”

A few months ago I asked if this kind of innate submissiveness is traditional filial culture, or if it’s been hammered in from above by an authoritarian system. But wherever it comes from, in the end, people will only receive the treatment that they stand up and demand.

Now that it’s evident foreign coverage of the attempted protests in China and the government backlash against them isn’t simply going away unnoticed, it’s time for Beijing to resort to the one-size-fits-all response they use in any similar situation:

Foreigners who show interest in the events want to see China in chaos.

Global Times, China Daily, the Foreign Ministry, and numerous netizens have flaunted this claim. Basically, foreign reporters who showed up to Wangfujing to do their job were hoping to see demonstrations because they, and their viewers back home, want to see China implode. Committing journalism is evidently proof of willingly agitating upheaval.

I won’t deny that most of the journalists who showed up probably were hoping for demonstrations. It does make for exciting news. I also won’t deny that many in the West do cheer on the kind upheavals happening in the Middle-East without really understanding their long-term implications. It’s inspirational to film statues of dictators toppling over, but after the initial party most media don’t stick around for the ugly clean up.

The Chinese claim goes way beyond any of this though. It suggests people in the West want to see China in chaos just for chaos’ sake. Then their countries can carry out their own devious political objectives without the benevolent Chinese counter-weight.

Pictured: Typical foreign journalist

It was exactly the same during the Tibet and Xinjiang riots, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize saga. Foreign media showed implicit support for the events simply by covering them. And again, foreigners who showed any kind of approval wanted only to disrupt the peace of China.

In those cases, the government was even able to blame the initiation of unrest on underground anti-China conspiracies (which TOTALLY exist) who fund and pull the strings of misguided local villains like the Dalai Lama, Rebiya Kadeer or Liu Xiaobo.

In the government narrative, there’s no middle ground for supporting peaceful protest or calling for reform and transparency. You can either silently trust and submit to them totally, or live in absolute anarchy. In most cases, this false dilemma sells pretty well to domestic audiences. After years of schooling emphasizing western arrogance, foreign occupation and the “century of humiliation”, it’s generally accepted that foreigners who say otherwise really do want to see China collapse, or at best, they simply “don’t understand China.”

After living in China through all these events, I’m getting pretty tired of being told I don’t understand China because I advocate transparency in the government and media . I don’t appreciate the idea that I’m labeled anti-China because I don’t think Liu Xiaobo is Hitler. And most of all, I’m dumbstruck at seeing the Chinese media say that I must wish to see the country I’ve made my home erupt into chaos since I condone peaceful public demonstration as a means of airing grievances.

So Chinese government and media, find a new scapegoat already. I know we foreigners are an easy target to use in consolidating nationalistic support for your actions, but please stop making me refute all the bloodthirsty bullshit you ram down your people’s throats about us.