Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Yang Rui's rant and foreigners in China

More news related to the recent crackdown on foreigners has attracted the attention of the foreign community in Beijing.

First there was Yang Rui's demented post on Weibo. Yang Rui is a Chinese journalist who presents a show called Dialogue on CCTV 9, the only channel in English on Chinese state TV. The show consists of him interviewing foreign guests, usually on political issues. Here is the man's entire Weibo post, translated by the Wall Street Journal:

"The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing."

Lovely stuff, hey? The "foreign bitch" in question is Melissa Chan, Al-Jazeera's China correspondent who was recently refused a renewal of her visa by the Chinese government, effectively kicking her out. Apparently she had made some reports on sensitive topics. Yang Rui complained that this translation was incorrect, because the Chinese word he used in the original (泼妇) can best be translated as "shrew", rather than "bitch". Foreign shrew then.

Yang Rui later released a statement claiming that he was only targetting foreigners who behave badly, which he again called "foreign trash", and that he wants to distinguish them from "the silent majority in the expat community that respect our culture and society". He did not apologize or display any understanding of why his comments provoked so much offense.

A few days ago this rather absurd page appeared in the English section of Sina Weibo (which is a listed company, not a government department), with the title "Beijing Welcomes you, Decent Foreigners". At fist I wondered if it might be a parody, but it is all too real. It's not that there is anything specific which is downright racist. It's more that the whole thing comes across as extremely patronizing, fake and frankly ridicolous. I suspect that few Chinese would understand why it feels patronizing and fake to foreigners, including clearly the people at Weibo who cobbled the page together. If someone asked them how they would feel if someone made a web page called "the World Welcomes you, Decent Chinese", with articles about both decent and indecent things done by Chinese abroad, then maybe they would begin to figure it out.

It is easy as a foreigner in Beijing to become extremely upset about this sort of thing, but it is good not to get overly worked up about the situation. Yang Rui's rant is extreme and unrepresentative for a public figure, and some of the Chinese comments under his Weibo post criticize him for being prejudist. I have not experienced any particular abuse or hostility by anyone in the last few days, any more than I have at any other time in Beijing. The crackdown on foreigners continues, but I have yet to be stopped and checked up on by the police (although a friend of mine told me the police went round knocking on doors in his block of flats, which is packed with foreigners). It also seems that the penalties for those caught working illegally are not that great (a 1000 RMB fine according to one person who was caught, with no deportation).

One must also remember what it is like to be a foreign immigrant back in one's own part of the world. Idiotic rants about immigrants on the level of Yang Rui's outburst are nothing new anywhere in Europe, even coming from members of parliament and celebrities. Hysterical talk of Muslim immigrants wanting to "impose Sharia law" in Britain is really not much less disconnected from reality than Yang Rui's talk of foreign spies and human traffickers. Let us also remember all the unfair complaints about immigrants not learning the language and not adjusting to "our values" which you hear all over Europe, and the way that foreigners get blamed for crime all the time. If you come from a rich and respected Western country and live in China, you actually have it pretty easy by comparison.

It is hard to really compare Europe and China in this respect, because in Europe there is mass immigration of people from poor countries doing menial jobs, while in China most of the foreign residents are students, professionals and English teachers concentrated in a few big cities (with some drug dealers and shady businessmen thrown in). Furthermore, few of the foreigners in China are really settling in the country long term, and most of those who do have married a local. Things may be changing though, as Chinese police recently repatriated some illegal immigrants from Vietnam working in a factory in Anhui province. Rising wages in China could mean increasing numbers of illegal immigrants from poorer countries working low paid jobs, just like what you see in Europe. At that point, it will be interesting to see how the issue is dealt with.

In some ways, China strikes me as being in a similar position to most European societies a few decades ago, in the sense that it is not traditionally an immigrant society, and most Chinese are just not used to the idea of sharing their cities and neighbourhoods with foreigners who look and act differently. It is a fact that as long as you don't have Chinese blood you will always be seen as a foreigner here, for good or bad, and I doubt this will change any time soon.

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