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Expat Life in China: No Bed of Roses
Recently, HSBC ranked China seventh in the world, up from 18th in 2011, for expatriates on disposable income, quality of life, the challenges of raising children and other issues by talking to expatriates living in other countries. The rising ranking was mostly because their household financial status improved markedly on moving to China to work. Half of those surveyed, according to the report, came with the expectation that they would earn more money. Some 64 percent of those surveyed indeed did earn more.
However, there is another side, and that is human rights. So far, the debate in China has focused on the rights violations of Chinese citizens, which is understandable considering the party-state's routine and often egregious violations of the rights of its own people.
But expatriates are also subject to very real and increasing rights violations, an issue that has been consistently ignored by the media, including foreign journalists living in China. Hundreds of thousands of expatriates are resident in China, yet they are one ethnic minority that the media feel can safely be ignored. This attitude is partly due to self-censorship and the feeling that anyone who moves to a self-proclaimed dictatorship is asking for what they get.
In May, anti-foreign feeling burst into the open when Beijing police announced they intended a campaign to "clean up unwelcome outsiders,"going after foreign nationals in the country or remaining and working illegally. That generated a huge spate of comments on the Internet, with people in Dalian, Shanghai and Guanghou as well as Beijing calling foreigners "trash on the street," according to the blog Tea Leaf Nation, with few people finding any distinction between legal foreigners and illegal ones.
One wrote "Clean slowly, so that not a single one is left." Foreign nationals were called "white-skinned pigs," "black devils," "sticks" (a slur referring to Koreans], "devils" and "Southeast Asian monkeys", according to Tea Leaf Nation, with other kinds of foreign trash that "should all be swept out the door."
While in the United States Chinese nationals can attain full citizenship, as can their children and they can vote and eventually hold office, none of these rights are available to expatriates working in China.
Critics point out that expats can always go back to the free world although repatriation is not always as easy as it sounds, any more than it is for ethnic Chinese who put down roots and raise families in the United States, the UK or other countries. Many expatriates spend years living in China, building lives and families there, acquiring Chinese language skills, culture and local contacts and networks. Returning home may not be as easy as it seems and involves loss of employment and the break-up of families. Even so, many young Americans would rather chance their luck in China than be one of the millions of young unemployed in the US. China has become the factory of the world, and the world is lacking in factories to employ young people. They constantly hear from politicians that they must adapt to globalization, but those who take the plunge of moving to China are penalized with dual taxation while abroad and ignored when they return.
Foreigners who stay in China are facing a worsening human rights situation from which they are no longer sheltered, as they were to some extent in the past. They worry that talking openly about sensitive subjects such as the "3 T's -- Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Massacre-- will get them deported. They internalize self-censorship. Many have an exaggerated fear of the Chinese police, whereas Chinese know the gaps within the system and its annual rhythms, and thus self-censor less.
Foreigners are also increasingly unsure of their visa access, since Beijing suddenly and arbitrarily stopped issuing multiple entry visas in March 2008. Beijing could again at any time drastically reduce visa access to foreign nationals without warning, including those with families, business and properties in China, as they did in 2008.
Life has been getting harder in other ways. Maintaining contact with friends and business overseas is getting more difficult, as the government increasingly restricts internet access to the web, especially social media. The Chinese government has increased employment rights for Chinese citizens with recent legislation, but these rights do not apply to expatriates, who can be dismissed and made to leave China by their employers by the simple expedient of failing to renew work visas. Nor are expatriates covered by the Chinese social security system. Expatriates are increasingly bugged and spied upon using internet and mobile phone surveillance as well as more traditional methods.
And then there are the perennial issues; the impossibility of getting a hukou (residence permit), lack of a route to naturalization, lack of political rights, lack of a transparent legal system and lack of access to accurate information such as what food is safe to eat and when the air is safe to breathe. Chinese have the same difficulties, but they often have insider information, back doors and connections which help them get around obstacles.
Everywhere in the world, immigrants tend to start at the bottom of the ladder and face obstacles and challenges. China is no exception. But in the US, for instance, an immigrant from Africa can have a child and that child can grow up to become President of the United States. In the US an immigrant from Austria can become governor of California. A Chinese woman from Hong Kong can have a child who becomes US Secretary of State for Commerce (Gary Locke). Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian parents from Punjab, is governor of the state of Louisiana,. What is the highest political level to which a foreigner in China can rise? Even the children of US immigrants born in China are unlikely to gain Chinese citizenship or hold public office, even if one of the parents is a Chinese national.
Many defenders of Chinese dictatorship, and these include many foreign nationals, use simple-minded arguments. They say that China cannot be democratic because there are too many people. They fail to consider that the larger the population of a country, the more it needs a sophisticated, multi-tier political system that can represent the divergent views of all the people.
Such a system could also allow China to draw into public office some of the best of the increasing numbers of talented foreign nationals to tackle the tricky challenges which the Chinese party-state will face in the coming years. Unfortunately, under the suffocating policy grip of stability and harmonization, this sounds like a fairy tale at present.
(Stephen Thompson is an expatriate living in China)