The entire world seems to have taken note of the current campaign to crack down on illegal foreigners in Beijing. It has been reported on all the main Western news outlets, including the BBC, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal.
The campaign, which started last week, is set to last 100 days. It has been announced that foreigners will be subjected to random checks on the street, and that they should have their passport and residence permit on them at all time, or at least a copy. I have already heard of police actually going to bars where foreigners are known to hang out and asking to see people's papers, and knocking on doors in neighbourhoods where lots of foreigners reside.
The Chinese authorities, with their penchant for making lists, have declared that their aim is to crack down on the "three illegalities": foreigners who have entered the country illegally, stay illegally and work illegally (luckily I do not currently fall into any of these categories). There is even a hotline for reporting cases. Foreigners in Beijing are a varied bunch, and I have little experience with some of the foreign communities here. When it comes to the group I am best acquainted with, in other words young expats from Western countries trying to make a living and gain some experience in China, I can say that I am pretty sure few people actually overstay their visas, and that nobody enters the country illegally. (How do you do that? Do you trek through the mountains on the border between China and Kirghizstan?)
What happens more often is people working illegally, in other words with no work visa. Work visas are hard to come by, and many of the foreign English teachers in China work on business or student visas, which are easier to obtain, and sometimes even on tourist visas. The same is true even for some people doing other kinds of jobs. The fact is that until recently, nobody really seemed to care. It was an accepted practice for language schools to get their teachers a business visa through an agency, or to employ foreign students. I myself worked part-time in a university while studying in Qinghua, and since I was on a student visa it was technically not allowed. This didn't stop the university from officially declaring my salary and me paying tax on it. As the dean of the college said "here in China no one checks, no one cares".
Things seemed to have suddenly changed, with talk of police raids on language schools and places where foreigners are known to work. A friend of mine, a young American on a one year tourist visa who works as an English teacher, is so freaked out that he is seriously considering quitting the English teaching job, and possibly moving to Korea until the crackdown is over. The authorities have threatened penalties ranging from fines to detentions and deportation. Personally I doubt it will go beyond fines, and I am supposing they just want to catch a few people to make examples of. Still, nobody wants to be one of those people.
There is a myth that the crackdown was motivated by this video which appeared on the internet a couple of weeks ago. It shows a foreign man apparently attempting to rape a Chinese girl on a Beijing street, and then getting beaten up by some local men in retaliation, before the police come and arrest him. The man looks either retarded or drunk out of his mind. The police have confirmed that he is a British citizen on a tourist visa and that he is being held under arrest. Although the case was reported in the media and has caused an uproar, it appears to be untrue that the crackdown on foreigners was started because of it. Authorities have denied a link, and articles in the Chinese media were already reporting on a coming drive to crackdown on illegal foreigners before the video came out.
To compound matters, another video has recently made the rounds of the Chinese internet, showing a foreign man behaving like a moron and swearing at a woman in Chinese on a train in China. The man turned out to be a Russian cellist in the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. He has now lost his job because of the uproar. Although the man does appear to be behaving in a boorish fashion in the video, he has broken no law, and I can't help feeling sorry for him. He had even posted a second video in which he apologized for his behaviour in Russian (with Chinese subtitles). This only prompted Chinese netizens to comment that if his Chinese is good enough for swearing at people, it should be good enough for apologizing as well (perhaps they don't realize how many foreigners can swear in Chinese in spite of speaking the language really badly).
It is a sobering thought that nowadays if you get into an argument in a public place and someone films you with their mobile and uploads the video on the internet, you might lose your job as a result. Of course, the fact that the man is a foreigner arguing in broken Chinese is the main reason the video grabbed such a lot of attention in the first place.
Personally, I feel that if it was made easier for foreigners to acquire work visas it would not be a bad thing. After all there is clearly no question of foreigners stealing jobs from the Chinese. Most of the foreign workers here fill positions where foreigners are needed for one reason or another. This is true of professionals and of English teachers. The number of foreign residents in China is minute in comparison to the local population anyway (less than a million as a opposed to 1400 million).
There is also no issue of foreign immigrants depressing the wages of local workers, like you find in Europe, for the simple fact that most foreigners earn more and not less than Chinese workers for the same sort of position. This can also cause resentment, but it is the result of the fact that people from Western countries simply would not work here for the sort of wages local workers get.
Most of the foreigners I have spoken to feel that the authorities would do better to crack down specifically on the foreign drug dealers who line the streets of Sanlitun, Beijing's bar district, and accost other foreigners. It is a well known fact that the trade is controlled by Nigerian gangs (of course, you would not want innocent Nigerians living in Beijing to get harassed by the police as a result). But as usual, the people who should really be targeted will probably be the ones who remain unscathed.
When it comes to the Chinese, it is hard to say whether the recent episodes have produced a hardening of attitudes. The comments in Chinese under the videos I linked in the article are mostly pretty ignorant and xenophobic, although not all of them. It should be remembered, however, that internet forums tend to be the place where the most ignorant and backward people and opinions run loose. If you look at any YouTube video concerning crimes committed by foreigners in any European country, some of the comments underneath are enough to make your blood chill.
In any case, I am not going to be walking around in Beijing without a copy of my passport on me for a while.