Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The first case of anti-foreigner hostility directed towards me in China

A few days ago I had the experience of witnessing a case of open hostility directed against me as a foreigner, for the first time since I have started living in China two years ago. The setting was the small city of Chengde (承德) in Hebei province, slightly to the north of Beijing. I went there with a few friends over the holidays for the Chinese national day. Chengde used to be the summer resort of the emperors during the Qing dinasty. The Manchu rulers would come to this place to escape the heat of Beijing, but they would also use Chengde to hold talks with the nomadic groups who lived along China's northern borders, making use of the town's location on the northern fringes of China. Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) commissioned the building of twelve temples around the town, eight of which survive today. One of the temples is an exact replica of the famous Potala palace in Tibet, once the residence of the Dalai Lamas.

It was outside the entrance to the 避暑山庄 (bishu shanzhuang or literally the "avoid summer town"),the summer resort of the emperors, that the unpleasant incident occured. My friends and I were waiting in a queue to buy the entry tickets, which were ridicolously overpriced (120 yuan each with no student discount!). Our group included two Chinese, a Tibetan girl, a Dutchman and myself. While my Dutch friend was buying the tickets and I was nearby, a Chinese man buying his ticket in a different queue suddenly blurted out in an angry tone in Chinese that he had seen so many television programmes about how the foreigners burned down and looted the Summer Palace in the last few days, that he really couldn't stand foreigners. After that he took his ticket and walked away. The comment was clearly directed at my Dutch friend and probably at me, as we were the only foreigners on the scene at the time.

For those of you who don't know the background: the Summer Palace the man referred to is the Yuanmingyuan complex in Beijing, also know as the old Summer Palace, not to be confused with the new Summer Palace which is still a famous tourist attraction. It was built in the eighteenth century, and it used to be a magnificent complex of palaces and gardens where the Qing emperors resided, until it was looted and destroyed by British and French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War. This act of wanton destruction is still seen as a potent symbol of Western aggresion and imperialism in China. The 150th anniversary of the looting of Yuanmingyuan falls on October 18th this year, and a series of activities and events will mark the anniversary (all of them under the theme of "peace, cooperation and friendship", including the Sino-French cooperation society donating a statue of Victor Hugo, who wrote about the looting in a book). I suppose that there have been a lot of television programmes talking about the anniversary in the last few days, and this is what set the man off.

To be clear, the destruction of Yuanmingyuan was a barbaric act of destruction which deserves all our revulsion. It was theoretically done as retaliation for the torture and execution of twenty foreign prisoners by the Chinese (in the context of a war of aggression started by the British and the French). On the other hand, when the British troops finally burned down the palace, 300 eunuchs, maids and workers were unable to escape because the gates were locked, and they were burned to death. However, all this happened 150 years ago. It is clearly not a good reason to go abusing Westerners one meets nowadays. Not to mention that the man had no way of knowing whether my friend and I were British or French, but clearly in his eyes one white person is worth another.

As I said this was the first instance of open hostility towards me as a foreigner which I have come across in China, and it is certainly not a common occurence. In my estimation it is actually far more common for foreigners to experience hostility directed at them in Britain or in other Western countries. One has to live in China a long time before coming across such a thing. A friendly kind of curiosity is a much more common reaction to foreigners. The man at the center of the incident (which was after all very minor) has most likely never had any interraction with a foreigner throughout his life, which partly explains his attitude and the fact that he sees all foreigners as an undistinguished mass. However, the incident is significant of the fact that the memories of the "century of humiliation", the Opium wars and Western colonialism are still strong in China, and they can still generate a certain resentment of Westerners, which the recent commemoration of the destruction of Yuanmingyuan obviously brought to the surface in the case of this man in Chengde.

Inside the imperial resort in Chengde, there were more reminders of the history of European imperialism in China. The resort turned out to be the place where the emperor was forced to sign the convention of Beijing in 1860, under which the Chinese ceeded to the British part of the Kowloon peninsula which now lies in Hong Kong. Next to the spot where the signing took place, there was a plaque entitled "never forget the national humiliation".