Hostility to foreigners living in China is on the rise, according to some pundits. On May 15, officials announced a 100-day campaign to “sweep out” foreigners illegally living in Beijing, a crackdown which has been informally adopted by a handful of other Chinese cities. Just a few days later, Yang Rui, host of an English-language program on CCTV, launched an online tirade against “foreign trash” who “come to China to earn money, traffic in people and deceive the public.”
Several news organizations linked the events with mounting tension in the run-up to China’s leadership transition this fall, as well as insecurity borne of a slowdown in the economy.
“Before China’s Transition, a Wave of Nationalism,” crowed one New York Times headline; “Chinese Lash Out at Foreigners Amid Turmoil” claimed an article from Bloomberg Businessweek.
China has definitely had its share of anti-foreigner sentiment in the past, and the new campaign is a step in the wrong direction. But there’s little evidence to support alarmist claims that the campaign constitutes broad-based xenophobia. While no official reason has been given for the campaign, the timing suggests it may be an ad hoc fix to an online outcry over a video posted on the internet in early May, which showed a British man apparently sexually assaulting a Chinese woman on the streets of Beijing.
As far as xenophobic campaigns go, China’s current efforts are mild. The crackdown is temporary, expiring in just over three months. Enforcement has so far amounted to checking passports at bars frequented by foreigners on weekends and offering a hotline for citizens to report illegal residents.
A more serious crackdown might have included dramatically tougher visa restrictions, such as those implemented in the US in 2001 or the ongoing visa quota reductions in the UK. The government could charge police officers to inspect the documentation of all foreigners with a “reasonable suspicion” of being illegal residents, as required by a 2010 Arizona law currently under review by the US Supreme Court. It could spur civilian anti-immigrant vigilante groups into action (such as the so-called “Minutemen” in the US), or introduce large-scale deportations (like France’s expulsion of Roma immigrants in 2010).
China’s system of enforcement and regulation for foreigners illegally entering, residing and working in the country is nowhere near as developed as in the US and Europe. Visa rules are inconsistent from city to city, and officials frequently ignore past applicant rejections and overstays. Chinese companies regularly employ foreign residents on tourist visas, who renew them with perpetual “runs” to Hong Kong.
Such measures pale in comparison with the ironclad thicket of rules found in Western countries. These can include face-to-face interviews for visa applicants, heavy fines for employers of illegal migrants, and arrest, deportation and forbidden re-entry for even minor visa overstays or illegal employment.
Chinese jingoists avow that the “Western media” holds double standards for China. The argument is mostly nonsense, but in this case they may have a point.
Yang’s comments are no worse than the angry anti-immigrant diatribes regularly heard from conservative pundits in the US, and enforcement against illegal foreign residents in China is laughable compared to anti-immigrant backlashes in the West.
Those who sloppily claim that visa checks outside Beijing bars are tantamount to a xenophobic backlash would do well to reflect on how their own country treats foreigners.