Posts Tagged ‘xenophobia’

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.

Today I saw this campaign ad, which ran during the Superbowl, for Michigan Republican Senate-hopeful Peter Hoekstra. In the ad, an Asian [presumably Chinese] woman says:

“Thank you Michigan senator Debbie Spend-it-now. Debbie spends so much American money, you borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie Spend-it-now.”

And if that weren’t enough, the website for debbiespenditnow.com is full of stereotypical Chinese imagery interlaced with statistics about how the red menace is eating our lunch thanks to the Democrats.

It doesn’t upset me so much that the campaign could afford a Superbowl commercial, yet couldn’t be bothered to find an actual Chinese person to act in it – instead opting to use an American-accented woman offensively feigning Chinglish. What bothers me is that the old foreign menace political tactic is still being used as much as it was 50, 100, and 500 years ago… and it’s still working.

This election season is already shaping up to be the most xenophobic ever (and given the 2010 election, that would be quite a feat). In a special election last summer Nevada congressman hopeful Mark Amodei ran an ad with the PLA marching on Washington and hoisting the Chinese flag atop the capitol building – suggesting a scenario that could not conceivably happen. Sure, plenty of people decried it; just as they are now for this new Hoekstra ad. But in the end, Amodei won in a 58-to-36% landslide.

Throughout history, when a hopeful leader has nothing real to put on the table, caricaturizing and exaggerating a foreign rival to whip up nationalistic support has been a go-to short cut to power and influence. None of the great progress in technology and education has changed that. So we still see plenty of modern democratic leaders using the same playbook as some of history’s greatest monsters.

Every time I see this tactic employed in the US toward China, I think of routine statements by Chinese leaders like Hu Jintao – who said last month, “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China.”

For leaders that are supposedly so ideologically different, they can look pretty similar sometimes.

[UPDATE 1: Apparently Peter Hoekstra’s Facebook page started deleting negative comments on a thread with this video today until the link was finally taken down completely. When I said he and Chinese leaders look pretty similar, I didn’t realize it was this identical.]

[UPDATE 2: Pete “Spend-it-not” Hoekstra spent $75,000 for the Superbowl slot this ad ran in. This out of an at least $1 million campaign fund]

[UPDATE 3: A February 5th  press release on this ad from Hoekstra’s campaign website (highlights added by me):

“Holland, Mich. – Hoekstra for Senate today launched a new television ad and website that calls attention to Debbie ‘Spend-It-Now’ Stabenow’s dismal record on spending, the national debt and jobs, which has increased our reliance on foreign countries, including China.  The ad and DebbieSpendItNow.com contrast Stabenow’s big-spending policies with Pete Hoekstra’s penny pinching agenda.

‘Debbie Spend-It-Now has increased our national debt, cracked the foundation of our economy, and bolstered our reliance on foreign countries like China,’ said Hoekstra.  ‘The growing dependence on China, which Stabenow’s policies have fostered, weakens our economy and jeopardizes our national security.  We can’t afford it any longer and it’s time to hold Debbie Spend-It-Now accountable for her reckless agenda.  My views on the economy and jobs could not be more different.  I will be a penny pincher in Washington, working to not just pass a budget, but balance the budget so we can break free from our reliance on China and other countries.’

The $150,000 ad buy begins on Sunday, February 5, and will run for two weeks. To view the ad, please click here.”]