“What are they saying about us?” a diner is overheard wondering as he looks over at a group of Western tourists. “Foreigners never say anything good about China,” grumbles one companion.
Outside a lively barbecue restaurant in central Beijing, their conversation turns to a current propaganda campaign, invoking the so-called Beijing Spirit – “Patriotism, Innovation, Virtue, Inclusiveness.” Here, the platitudes are invoked approvingly, particularly the latter. Beijingers, they agree, are quite friendly.
Lately, there is a growing undercurrent of wariness directed at foreigners in China, typified by a government campaign in Beijing that urges people to report foreigners for the “Three Illegals” illegal entry, overstayed visas, and working without a permit.
Or there’s the CCTV presenter Yang Rui, who showed support for the crackdown with a bizarre online outburst in which he cursed mysterious foreign “snake heads,” who dupe innocent local women into bed, while really acting as secret GPS-wielding spies.
Then came the recent news that a US tourist, Howard Thomas Mills, had been stabbed to death in Qianmen, near Tiananmen Square. Weeks earlier, an American was knifed in the same area (in the buttocks, to be exact) by a man apparently seeking to bring attention to himself. The incident recalled the shocking 2008 murder of Todd Bachman, an American tourist, at the 13th century Drum Tower just hours after the opening Olympic Games ceremony, who was stabbed by a man who appeared distraught and may have had some unspecified grudge against society. It seems in China, if you have a grievance it pays to stab a foreigner: people will notice.
Whatever their reasons, these events challenge perceptions of a city famous for being safe, secure and full of smiles. “Beijing Welcomes You,” the capital told its Olympics tourists, and it still does – but for how long?
The immediate cause of the current frosting in relations seems to be a pair of videos depicting foreigners behaving badly towards Chinese, which surfaced in May. Although a link between the footage, which provoked fury and debate, and the ensuing police campaign has been formally denied, officers in conversation have openly acknowledged otherwise.
Long-term Beijing resident, and co-founder of the human resources website Zhaopin.com, Stephen Chiu, agrees that recent crackdowns on visa regulations are unsettling. They “are constant reminders that you are a stranger in a strange land and always will be,” he said. “For many of my long-term foreign friends, it’s things like this that push them over the limit… There have been far too many farewells this summer.”
May’s viral video depicting locals beating up a sexually aggressive Briton under the title “Foreigner, We’re Going to Beat You Out of China,” provoked an outpouring of online venom that startled complacent expats. Even normally friendly Chinese seemed to reconsider their country’s hospitality to outsiders.
Wiser hands recalled another long, hot summer – back in 1999, after Nato forces bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three. The US said it was a tragic accident; conspiracy theorists insisted otherwise (later European reports confirmed the building had indeed been deliberately targeted for rebroadcasting Yugoslav army transmissions). The officially condoned reaction saw the largest anti-foreign demonstrations in China since the May Fourth Movement of 1919; Chengdu’s US Embassy was partially burned and tens of thousands massed in Beijing’s embassy district; Americans found themselves accosted by strangers and even shunned by Chinese friends.
Journalist Paul Mooney was returning home in a taxi when he saw the lines of buses disgorging protesting students in Chaoyang district. “I walked to the US Embassy and got surrounded by 20-30 people. I thought, as a journalist, I would be viewed as neutral,” Mooney recalls. “But people were grabbing and poking me in the chest… a cop had to come and help me out of the crowd.” A mob formed around several Western embassies, throwing bottles and tiles. “I even saw a cop throwing rocks… I had to tell people I was Irish,” says Mooney, who walked home to “cries of “Fuck you” in English… it was really quite a nasty mood.”
Large-scale protests are extremely rare in Beijing but the government explicitly allowed the ’99 rallies. Historian Robert Bickers, an expert on Sino-British relations and author of “The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire,” says these incidents receive a disproportionate response, partly because they “create a safe space in which people can get angry” – especially if that rage is usually suppressed by the state.
Writing in Danwei, academic David Moser recalls meeting a Deng Xiaoping impersonator at a banquet on the evening of the 2001 collision between a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over Hainan. After being mildly “scolded” by “Deng,” Moser watched the ersatz leader whip up the crowd with slogans like “We will stand up to American hegemony! We will never give up!” Fired up by the plane incident, Moser reckoned “this pseudo-Deng was bringing out very genuine cathartic feelings in this audience, enabling them to vent their frustration and outrage through a proxy spokesman who had more symbolic power than the current leadership did.”
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has taken action for years to boost nationalism. “After 1989, the government thought China was insufficiently patriotic,” Bickers says. “Since 1991, ‘patriotic education’ in China has seen children learning about the horrors of foreign imperialism… creating a sense that any criticism of China is from those who do not wish to see China strong.’
Jiang Zemin proclaimed that “Forgetting the humiliation of modern Chinese history means betraying your country.” September 18, which officially marks the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, was named National Humiliation Day and popular dictionaries and atlases of “national humiliation” exist today.
“Add together a 20-year history of state-sponsored nationalism, growing supposed economic supremacy, [China’s] slowly developing projections of itself abroad and the suspicions that engenders, and it easily spills into xenophobia,” Bickers concludes. Chiu thinks “unsound biases” among Chinese are “indisputable” but reckons “it is easier to deal with, because people here tell you what they think to your face, so at least you know.”
While this kind of honesty mostly involves being told that your nose is unusually large, flash-points can provoke unexpected anger. A Nigerian in Guangzhou who died while in police custody sparked protests from the local African community. Getting mad at the police is common-enough among China’s Han population, but the Africans taking it up did not go down well with local internet users, some of whom used racial epithets to condemn both the protest and the presence of Nigerian immigrants in the city.
Of course the vitriol is often amplified on the Web. David Wertime, an editor at Tea Leaf Nation, a website that analyses Chinese social media, said that while online “people proffer memorable or outlandish comments in order to be heard, or noticed, above the fray.” Still, virtually every foreigner has a personal yarn that demonstrates occasional, undisguised racial animosity. The most common involve a minor traffic incident that quickly escalates, authorities are called and the foreigner ends up having to agree to some kind of financial compensation.
I recently went to a police station in central Beijing after some friends got into a scrape involving a woman and a drunken foreigner. “I want 10,000 yuan. Why not? I’m not cheap,” seethed “Beibei,” who was wearing an obviously pricey outfit of a green shirt and hotpants. “I’m worth it.”
Earlier in the night, Beibei had been accosted by an Australian in a nightclub, which led to the scuffle. Two hours later, feeling wronged, Beibei was demanding revenge: in cash. And she had the bruises to prove it – although they were from an earlier fight that week with her American banker fiancé. Why not just use the courts, I asked. “My family knows all of them,” she replied. “I’d love to.”
Her friends rolled their eyeballs. She didn’t need the money, they confided, but that much was obvious. On Sunday morning, five hours after the incident, Beibei and the Australian had reached an agreement: he would apologize and pay her 5,000 yuan she would drop all further claims. It wasn’t cheap – but it was certainly worth it.
Whether it’s a shakedown over a nightclub dispute or a business deal that suddenly leaves the foreign partner high and dry (or worse, facing corruption charges), stories like these show a legal framework in which being non-Chinese is a distinct disadvantage. You can usually chalk this up to the typical tensions that expats might face in any foreign culture ‑ unless there’s been an incident in the news.
When anti-foreign feelings spikes, however, as it has the last two months, a question arises. “Are we seeing people’s true sentiments?” wonders Wertime. “It’s the question, broadly, of whether online speech, at a given time, is representative.”
The same question could also be applied to “foreignness.” News of the stabbing in Qianmen – as well as most incidents involving non-Chinese – was initially reported as having happened to a “foreigner,” a term that sounds provocative to Western ears. In fact, the word is “quite another matter in China,” says Bickers, where it can be used loosely to describe rivals from the next town, someone from another province or those who are considered to have lost their Chinese identity.
This is what happened to “collaborators” or “deracinated” Christian Chinese during the ill-fated 1896 Boxer Rebellion. Then, the Qing court offered quasi-support to the superstitious young anti-foreign fighters. This is “why people killed each other with such glee” during the period, Bickers explains.
Today, the Boxers are considered “patriotic fighters” in the official media, where, lately, even the most innocuous anti-foreigner story – such as a New Zealander pushing a child into a swimming pool – gets coverage. But is this juicy coverage of the small and large misdeeds of outsiders part of a larger campaign? “It’s possible,” says Wertime, noting that one notorious English-language newspaper editor has directed his reporters to actively seek out stories about expats misbehaving.
“When videos or images go viral, it puts pressure on mainstream sources to treat them as mainstream news,” argues Wertime. “This can have a democratising effect and increase transparency and media oversight; it can also lead to the explosion of stories that are probably not all that inherently consequential,” but which may have “real-world effects.”
Journalist Mooney is disturbed by what’s going on. Having lived in China since 1994, the award-winning reporter is pessimistic about future attitudes towards foreigners. “You’d think there’d be more integration but I don’t see that,” he said. “Every week, I meet Western NGOs or foreigners who are making contributions to China, helping to improve education, health care, and other areas. But we rarely see any of this reported in the Chinese media.
“Maybe if more of these things were reported, then Chinese would not have the paranoid feeling that the West is out to hold China back.”
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