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".


Anonymous said...

a special exprience,you are going to get to know about china more day by day.i suppose maybe you would get more than i do one day./aileen.

franmau said...

What do you think about the new Chinese Nobel prize?

Ji Xiang said...

What do I think about the new Chinese nobel prize winner? I think he is probably an admirable individual who is acting in good faith because he wants to change China for the better, and deserves support.
I also think that the choice probably reflects the West's current obsession with China and its inability to accept the fact that China is increasingly succesful and powerful, while continuing not to work like Western countries do.

FOARP said...

Good try at blaming yourself for the hostility of others. "Self hating" is , I believe, the phrase that people in certain groups like to use for this kind of situation.

By the way, I've lived in a few countries other than the UK and China (Japan, Taiwan, Poland) and in no country did I experience the regular insults and occasional violence that I did in Shenzhen and Nanjing. I guess going out to the pubs isn't your thing, but three times I was attacked by locals in pubs for no other reason than I was a prosperous-looking white man with a Chinese girlfriend. I have never experienced anything like it elsewhere.

I find your assertion that violence towards foreigners in the UK is more common than in China very hard to accept. I lived in London in a shared flat in the East End (the roughest part of town) with a bunch of Greeks, a couple of Chinese, a Korean and a Zimbabwean. None of them ever received violence or was insulted in the street because they were a foreigner in the way that I did in China. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it is clear which place suffers most from violent xenophobia.

Ji Xiang said...

FOARP, where on earth do I "blame myself for the hostility of others" in my post? That is just what you assume I am doing, but why don't you read the post more carefully before making such comments?

I do not minimally blame myself for the incident, and I do not imply it anywhere. I did not burn down the Summer Palace, so why should I? I did however try to give some context to the man's outburst against me, which is perhaps what annoys you.

As for your other assertion, the fact is that London is not representative of Britain. In the more provincial parts of Britain you certainly can experience open racism. Considering how many foreigners there are in Britain and how much chance people have to interact with them, there is also far less "justification".
As for you not experiencing much
racism in Poland, does it occur to you it might because you were white?

I am sorry to hear you were attacked in bars in China. I don't doubt in bars you can sometimes find young Chinese men behaving like idiots, it happens everywhere. It's true that I don't go out to bars in China very often, but when I do I feel far safer here than I would in Britain, just because you get so many more fights and violence in British bars and nightclubs.

I have never been attacked in China for being a foreigner, but I think it might be to do with how I look. Assertive Western behaviour doesn't go down well with the Chinese, and I don't look like your typical big assertive Westerner, nore do I look very prosperous by how I dress, which may help.

FOARP said...

Jixiang, it's a common phenomenon in most countries that the capital city is not representative of the rest of the country. In China's case it is a good thing that this is so. I have never experienced quite the level of anti-foreigner sentiment in Shanghai, Shenzhen, or even Nanjing that I did when I visited Beijing.

My parents were visiting the country, and I took them to Beijing for a three-day visit. The first instant came as I was walking down the street to the hotel with my mother, when a young man walked past me and said simply "肏你妈,老外". The second was similar to the first.

People I know who have lived there long-term have told me about them and their friends being attacked unprovoked on more than one occasion. One of which is described here:


The US Embassy has even issued a warning about violence in local bars and clubs in Beijing.

As for violence in the UK, I'll just say that I have not overheard a racist epithet spoken in public in the UK since 2004, and before that probably 1998. I have never heard from anyone I know of an instance of someone being physically attacked based on ethnicity.

Compare this to China where every foreign resident I know can think of at least one instance in which they have experienced anti-foreigner violence, and where practically every day you would have someone shout "Laowai" or "Hello" in a mocking tone at you in the street.

Whilst certainly the UK has problems, I would never put it in the same league as China in this regard.

Poland - well I haven't been here long enough to say what their attitudes are towards other races, so I can only say that the omni-directional xenophobia which a certain subset of the Chinese population love to nurture, particularly the nationalists, is not present.

And yes, to make excuses for attitudes that people have towards you based simply on your ethnicity, is exactly the kind of thing that various anti-defamation leagues would describe as "self-hating".

Ji Xiang said...

I said clearly that what the man said to us was silly and unjustified, but I tried to give some context to his actions, which shouldn't mean that I am "self-hating". I just refuse to demonize the Chinese the way certain Westerners who reside in China unfortunately do.

The fact of the matter is that if you don't have the experience of being a foreigner in Britain, than you can't easily make comparisons. I personally know a Frenchman who was physically attacked on the street in Britain simply because France had just beaten England in the 2004 Euro Cup. Far more stupid than attacking people because of historical grievances.

I personally do not seem to have the kind of experiences which you recount in China. It's true that I have never been to the cities you mention, but I have traveled a lot within China, especially the interior. Oddly enough my mother also just visited me here. We went to Chengde (a small city in Hebei) for a few days and encountered no hostility at all. But also there are different ways of interpreting the same event, and I do not consider someone saying "laowai" or "hello" as I pass to be mocking. They simply think it's funny and even friendly, and have no way of knowing that it can get annoying. And let's not mention all the people who will constantly go out of their way to help you just because you are a foreigner, and no it's not just people who hope to sell you something. Try finding that in Britain.

FOARP said...

"And let's not mention all the people who will constantly go out of their way to help you just because you are a foreigner, and no it's not just people who hope to sell you something. Try finding that in Britain."

Strangely enough, I spoke today to a Polish girl I know who had just returned from a few months in Glasgow, and her one comment on the people she met was how often she had been helped by strangers. Similarly, a Japanese lady I knew in Osaka had once spent the winter in London, and was amazed to have been invited to spend Christmas dinner with the family of a couple who were complete strangers to her when she met them whilst shopping at a farmer's market. One of my best friends in China is a man who went to the same university that I studied my masters at, and always said that when he did me a good turn he was repaying the generosity he had received in London.

This is not to detract from the many instances of kindness that I received during my time in China, both from my friends there, and from many strangers. However, it would be equally churlish of me not acknowledge that I have also received great kindness from people in many other countries, including Japan, Taiwan, Poland, as well as in my home country. There are kind people everywhere, it is only the kind of hatred of which nationalism is an example that can cause this kindness to be withheld.

I am somewhat surprised at your attempt to rank things in terms of stupidity. In fact, as far as I am concerned, football hooliganism and nationalist beat-downs differ little in terms of stupidity, and I wonder how anyone could conclude otherwise.

Likewise, yes, most adult Chinese people do know that it's annoying to 'laowai' and 'hello' foreigners on the street, at least in the big cities - it is a subject talked about both on the radio and on television, and in the newspapers. Yet they still do it. Why?

Well, at least a few still haven't gotten the message yet, a few are mothers and fathers trying to teach their children a bit of English, and some others are language students keen to grasp even the briefest opportunity to use what they have learned. I find all these relatively unobjectionable.

The majority, however, are people who simply want to get your attention (mildly annoying), people who genuinely think its funny (more annoying), or people who say it because they want to mock you (most annoying of all, and hard to distinguish from the 'funny' type).

To excuse this is a relatively small concession. To ignore xenophobia directed against foreigners in the media - this seems somewhat worse. To impose false 'context' on what is, in reality, simply government-manufactured xenophobia instilled through centres of 'patriotic' education like the Yuan Ming Yuan or SACO (see Xujun Eberlein's piece on this), seems worst of all.

As for the UK, why not stick to what you know?

Ji Xiang said...

"As for the UK, why not stick to what you know?"

I am still trying to figure out the meaning of this sentence.

As for Yuan Ming Yuan, you call it a center for patriotic education. Were the Chinese supposed to knock it down completely? Or keep it as a park (and it is still a nice park) and not have notices around explaining who it was who turned the place to ruins? It is also reasonable that the event should have been commemorated on national television, although of course there are ways and ways of doing so.

And by the way, attacking people because of their nationality is always horrible, but I do think that doing so because their football team has just beaten your own is somehow even stupider than doing so because of historical grievances. After all, a war is a more serious matter than 11 men kicking a ball around.

As for people saying laowai or "hello" when you pass, it must be said that in Beijing it is not a common occurrence at all anymore, at least within the fifth ring road. Clearly, all these TV shows have made a difference. Or quite simply, the large amount of foreigners means that it is no longer surprising or exciting to meet one.