Saturday, December 17, 2016

Good work, Netease! An honest discussion of Chinese attitudes towards black people

Guangzhou's African community, probably the most striking case of foreign immigration to China, is apparently getting smaller and smaller. Over the last few months, articles have appeared in the Huffington Post, Quartz and CNN claiming that there has been something of an exodus of Africans from Guangzhou and from China in general. Part of the reason would seem to be economic: most of the Africans in Guangzhou are small-time traders buying up cheap goods and exporting them to their own country, but China's economic growth is slowing down, and African consumers are becoming better at distinguishing fakes from original products. There is also currently a shortage of dollars in West Africa, which is a problem because these traders cannot use their local currencies to trade in China.

Another part of the explanation seems to be connected with the increasing strictness of the authorities towards foreigners breaking visa regulations in China, something which is affecting both African traders as well as English teachers. Some of the Africans in Guangzhou do indeed overstay their visas, often because they are itinerant traders who are given 30-day tourist visas at a time and find that they are unable to finish their business in such a short time or don't even have the money to fly home. There are however also Africans who have lived stably in the city for years and have proper work visas. What all the reports agree on is that many of the city's Africans complain about the impossibility of acquiring some kind of permanent residence right, and about a general climate of racism and hostility towards them.

That there is a certain dislike of black people among many Chinese is a well-known fact to those familiar with the country. It is however extremely rare to hear such things openly admitted or discussed in the Chinese media. When it comes to racism, official slogans like "racism doesn't exist in China" and "Chinese people are very friendly towards foreigners" are what you will usually hear both in public discourse and on the streets. That is why I was quite surprised, in a good way, to see an article entitled "Why do the Chinese self-righteously discriminate against black people?" appear in Wangyi (Netease), one of China's major internet portals. It should be noted that Netease is one of the most liberal and open-minded of the country's major media providers (of course this is very relative).

The article touches upon all of the problems that black people might encounter in China. For instance, there is an interview with a black American who teaches English in Beijing. He claims that his school was happy with his performance, but his boss still told him that they were forced to look for someone else, because "the students would like a different teacher". During the breaks, he said he would hear students say in Chinese "I spent such a lot of money, and I'd really like a white teacher", or "I really don't want to stare at his black face the whole evening".

The article then goes on: "Saying that in China there is no discrimination against black people means deceiving ourselves and others (自欺欺人). Any ordinary Chinese can imagine the hard-to-conceal sense of foreboding and dread they would feel if they saw a black person walking towards them. Even though historically China has not engaged in the kind of large-scale, organized discrimination that Europe and America did, and there haven't been any policies of separation aimed at black people, racial thinking has long embedded itself in the heart of the ordinary Chinese. These sayings that we often like to use, like "descendants of the dragon" and "descendants of the fiery emperor and the yellow emperor", are actually a kind of racial thinking which show how we uphold the concept of blood lineage." The sayings mentioned (龙的传人 and 炎黄子孙 in Chinese) are often-used ways to refer to the Chinese people. It is really quite rare for an article in the Chinese media to attack the roots of Chinese thinking about nation and race in this way.

Later on the article describes the anti-African protests of 1988-89 at Nanjing University, something else which I am relatively surprised to even see mentioned. Finally, it touches upon the African community in Guangzhou. It says that even though Africans in Guangzhou have their own "Little Africa", "in China they are still a group that is seen in a poor light, rarely mentioned and even studiously avoided". It also quotes an African trader who married a Chinese woman and found that even his wife was constantly telling their children bad things about Africa. Finally, the controversy over the Chinese "Star Wars" poster that relegates the leading black actor to the a supporting cast position is analyzed.

All in all, I am quite impressed at the honesty and self-reflection displayed in the piece, in a country where racial issues of this kind are rarely acknowledged. Hopefully articles like this might help to improve attitudes. Keep up the good work, Netease!

African woman and baby on the streets of Guangzhou

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why are there so many English teachers in China on the wrong visa?

Over the last few days, China's expat magazines and websites have been reporting the news that a large number of foreign English teachers have been detained for working without a Z (work) visa, or in some cases for using fake diplomas to obtain their visas. They will certainly be fined and may be deported. Although it is hard to separate facts from hearsay, it seems that Chinese police officers are being offered a reward of 2000 Yuan for every foreign teacher without the right visa they can bust.

Due to this incentive they have become very determined, and apparently have gone to the lengths of posting fake adverts for high-paying English teaching jobs on websites used by expats. They will then arrest people who present themselves to the interview if they don't have a Z visa (I don't really understand how it can be a crime to just go to a job interview, but anyway). They have also threatened the foreign teachers detained with 30 days in jail if they don't turn over all their phone contacts, some of whom will then supposedly be the victims of more checks.

When I first came to China, the general situation was that nobody really seemed to care what visa foreigners worked on. It was common for foreign students to round up their meagre scholarship allowances by teaching English part-time in schools. Although it is theoretically illegal for a foreigner to work and earn money on a student visa or anything other than a Z visa, in actuality nobody was bothered. Teachers working full-time on a business visas or even tourist visas were also quite common, and again it was very rare for anything bad to happen. As long as a foreigner didn't actually overstay their visa, nobody really seemed to mind if it didn't match their occupation.

There have of course been moments in the past when the authorities became stricter with foreigners. I have been in China long enough to remember the 2012 crackdown on foreigners "entering illegally, staying illegally and working illegally". I was never actually affected myself, but stories abounded of police randomly stopping foreigners on the street and demanding to see their passports, or raiding language schools and checking whether all the foreigners present had work visas. Although I was not yet in China at the time, the crackdown just before the Olympic games in 2008 is supposed to have been quite bad, with foreigners who had worked in China for years suddenly being refused visas and raids on bars where foreigners liked to gather.

The truth though is that those crackdown were only temporary, and in 2012 things were back to normal after about two or three months of the campaign beginning. The whole campaign gave me the feeling of being more of a show than a serious attempt to weed out foreigners on the wrong visa, although of course I stand to be corrected about this. Nowadays however, what we appear to be seeing is a serious, sustained attempt to kick out any foreigners who work here on the wrong visa. If police officers are being offered bonuses to catch illegal foreigners, then someone is pretty determined to make this happen.

Of course, it could be argued that the Chinese authorities have a perfect right to ensure that their visa regulations are respected. If you need a Z visa to work, then you should get a Z visa, right? As always however, things are not that simple and can be seen from a variety of angles. China is not a country where rules are clearcut and always followed. Rather, it is a country where rules are often unclear, selectively applied and ignored when it is considered convenient. This flexibility allows the authorities to get things done quickly and efficiently when they want to, but it also means that few people are ever completely clean and unassailable. Depending on how strict they decide to be, the government can pretty much choose to crackdown on anyone and anything they like.

There are a number of factors pushing foreigners to teach on the wrong visas in China. For one thing, Z visas are very hard to obtain, and only getting harder. Applicants need to have at least an undergraduate university degree, and they have to get hold of a criminal record certificate from their own country's police, an official letter by an employer proving two years of full-time work experience after graduation, translate all of the required documents into Chinese, and finally apply at their own country's Chinese embassy (it cannot be in a third country).

On the other hand, the demand for foreign English teachers in China is extremely high. Parents in cities all over the country are ready to fork out quite a bit of cash to have their children taught by a "native" English teacher (native very often meaning "white" in their minds). Often the employment of foreign English teachers is handled by third-party agencies that rent them out to schools. Given the difficulty and high costs associated with getting a work visa, agencies and schools have every incentive to hire foreigners who are in China on a business or student visa, and try and convince them that there is no risk involved.

What's more, there have been cases of agencies faking university diplomas for foreigners without a bachelor's degree so that they would be given a work visa. This is another thing which is being cracked down upon. There are also restrictions on the number of foreigners which Chinese companies can legally hire. Although I am not sure how this is applied to language schools, it may mean that schools cannot legally get work visas for as many foreign teachers as they would like.

There is thus a vast English teaching industry in which all players have an interest in cheating. The small army of foreign English teachers is also a most diverse one. The unfortunate stereotype of the Western reprobate who comes to China to teach English because they have nothing going for them back home or to get away from personal problems is probably true for some people, but certainly not in the majority of cases. There are the young Brits and Americans who do it a few years for the adventure. But there are also plenty of people coming from countries like Pakistan, the Philippines and South Africa teaching English in China, probably attracted by the relatively good money you can make.

I have also met people from countries like Ukraine and Russia, hardly famous for their English fluency, teaching English here. Years ago I met a Polish couple teaching English in a small town near Chongqing. They had passable English, and their agency had told them to introduce themselves to their high schools students as Jack and Martha, from England. As far as I know nobody doubted them. But while it is true that some foreign teachers may not speak English quite as well as advertised or may not be the best educators, there are certainly also employers that act dishonestly towards them. This is a field where standards are generally low on all sides.

Essentially, for years this hugely profitable industry was kept going on the understanding that nobody would care if foreigners worked in China without the appropriate visa. Now, however, the authorities have started to care. Of course China's vast size and chaotic development means that different people can have very different experiences. I am sure there are still plenty of foreigners teaching on the wrong visas, or places where the authorities have not started to make a fuss. Essentially, though, the trend is towards greater controls and strictness.

Basically what I see is a contrast between the demand for English language training in China and the sums parents are ready to spend on it, which remain vast, and the current tendency towards more control in all fields and stricter application processes and checks for foreigners who want to work China. If nothing else, when teaching English on the wrong visa becomes so risky it isn't worthwhile, legitimate and certified foreign teachers with the right visa might actually find themselves in better demand and able to earn more for their efforts.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Three-Body Problem: Chinese science-fiction

I have just finished reading Liu Cixin's famous science-fiction trilogy, Remembrance of Earth's Past, better know by the title of its first book, "the Three-body Problem". This trilogy by a computer engineer from Shanxi province is one of the few Chinese science-fiction works to have been translated into other languages. It is also one of the few that have really piqued international interest, and rightly so.

The three novels in the series are high quality science-fiction, on a par with Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. They take an old question (what would happen if humanity came into contact with aliens?) and really run away with it in ways that are both unpredictable and astonishing, as well as scientifically sound. Some of the books' ideas are quite thought-provoking, like the one of the whole universe being a dark forest in which any civilisation that reveals its planet's location to outsiders risks imminent destruction (thus providing an explanation for the Fermi paradox), and the final image of a universe that is dying as a result of different civilisations constantly waging war with each other by turning the very laws of physics into weapons. 

The interesting twist, of course, is the fact that much of the series is set in China, and most of the characters are Chinese, even though you could often forget this. The setting makes itself felt most heavily in the first book, part of which takes place during the Cultural Revolution, and part in present-day China. The second and third books are set centuries in the future, and even though some of the plot still takes place in Beijing, which has now become an underground city, the location obviously becomes less relevant. There is the idea that in future humanity's global language will be a mixture of English and Chinese, but I could easily imagine an American science-fiction writer coming up with exactly the same unoriginal prediction. Apart from the scenes from the Cultural Revolution (a period which the author himself remembers from his childhood), most of the time the Chinese setting feels more like an accidental irrelevance to a series that could just as well take place in another country if the names were changed.

Having said that the books do draw from Chinese history and literature. For instance, there are the aliens who read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and can't understand the constant deception and trickery which the characters employ, since they come from a civilisation in which thoughts are always expressed openly. There is the appearance of Qin Shihuang, China's first emperor, as a character in the virtual reality game set up by the sect that want to assist the aliens in invading the earth. And there is the quixotic advice given by a Buddhist monk to one of the characters in the first book.

If you like science fiction the series is well worth a read. Among other things, it really makes you wonder whether humanity's amateurish attempts to broadcast messages disclosing its existence into outer space are really a good idea.

Liu Cixin and the fist book of the series