Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Xenophobia may be growing in China

The man was undoubtedly inviting trouble as he assaulted a girl in Beijing recently. And many netizens in China believed he deserved the beating he received. But the incident has sparked not only a wild debate. It has opened up wounds and highlighted divisions that exist between foreigners and their Chinese hosts  

Online debate

The incident might has gone unnoticed but for the growing popularity of social networks. Despite strict censorship and controls on what is posted online there are vibrant debates over any number of issues, ranging from corruption to the banal. But after the video of a foreigner sexually assaulting a girl was posted on China's equivalent of YouTube the debate has risen to fever pitch with calls for stricter rules being applied to foreigners.

In the video a Chinese girl can be seen lying in flower bed while a tall foreigner pushes against her. In her distressed calls she can be heard to say, "No, no" before telling a Chinese man who intervenes that she doesn't know the man.

The foreigner can be heard saying, "Ok man," several times, in what sounds like a northern British accent, as he is ushered away from the girl. Within seconds punches are thrown and the foreigner finds himself unconscious and lying in the middle of the road.

Traffic continues to pass the man as some Chinese continue to kick and insult the foreigner who was later arrested [Shanghaiist].

Media reports

The news spread quickly after the video of the incident was posted on Youku, YouTube [with subtitles] and later reported in the Beijing News [Chinese], the Global Times, China Daily and other news outlets. The incident, which happened near Xuanwuman, to the west of Tiananmen Square and south of the popular shopping district of Xidan, has been reported in British media, though the man has yet to be identified and his face was pixeled out [Telegraph / Sky News].

If convicted he faces a long time behind bars. People convicted of rape in China can face the death penalty, although a prison sentence of 10-20 years is a more common punishment. Even attempted rape carries a sentence of between three and 10 years. According to CRIEnglish it remains unknown whether police have charged the man with sexual assault or intentional rape.

Rising nationalism

The assault has raised the temperatures of the nationalists in China. But if that wasn't enough a Russian cellist has further inflamed emotions after he had the audacity to put his feet on the back of some train seats. Such an act is common everywhere, but given this too was filmed and posted online, anger towards foreigners has intensified. In the video the cellist who was later identified as Oleg Vedernikov insults a woman calling her a "silly c***" and draws the attention of police [Shanghaiist].

Despite his later apology, the online debate has not ended. In fact the growing backlash has prompted well known broadcaster to chip in. A well known commentator and presenter of the flagship CCTV programme 'Dialogue' entered the storm referring to expelled Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan as a 'bitch' and foreigners as 'snake heads'. In a rant, seen by some as xenophobic, Yang Rui posted a comment on Sina Weibo suggesting that many visitors to China were nothing less than spies. "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," Yang said in a tweet which has since been deleted. Yang also disputed his referring to Melissa Chan as a 'bitch', saying it was mistranslation. He said, quoting from a Chinese dictionary, that he meant 'foreign shrew' [WSJ]. To some extent Yang is arguing over semantics. 泼妇 or pofu can be translated as bitch, vixen or shrew and according to one online Chinese dictionary 'refers to aggressive and unreasonable women'.

"Foreign trash"

"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," Yang said. "People who can't find jobs in the US 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." [WSJ / CDT]

Unhappy at the exposure Yang received, and the accusations of xenophobia, the broadcaster is now reported to be considering legal action against blogger Charles Custer who first reported the story on the website ChinaGeeks [China Daily].

The wave of anti-foreigner sentiment has been growing in recent weeks. Business Week reports that a campaign has been launched on China's version of Twitter "calling on Internet users to expose bad behaviour by foreigners in China," according to a report on the People's Daily Online English website on May 18th. "Foreign scumbags should go back to their countries. China is not the place for them to do everything they want," the report quoted microblogger "yuxiaole" as writing.

100-day clampdown

With all this the police have been pressured to clamp down on illegal foreigners and according to an item in the China Daily, a 100-day crackdown has been started which will target foreigners and issue fine, detain them or even expel them from the country should their paperwork not be in order [AP / Telegraph].

Employers and landlords who knowingly hire or house illegal foreigners will also face penalties, with employers liable to bear the cost of the foreigners' deportation, the newspaper said. Spot checks of expats' visas and permits are expected, while locals are being encouraged to report anyone they suspect of not having the correct documentation on a police hotline.

"We just want foreigners to know about Chinese rules governing the housing, employment and entry of foreigners with our enforcement. We hope foreigners can understand our work and abide by Chinese regulations," a spokesman was quoted as saying.


Nonetheless, many laowei - a word that some foreigners find disparaging - will find the new measures intimidating [Beijinger]. There may also be greater tension seen between foreigners and the indigenous population if calm is not restored. With the likes of Yang and band of netizens fanning the flames of racist, xenophobic nationalism, things could get out of hand very fast indeed. 

The sexual assault of a young Chinese woman cannot be condoned, whether by a local nor a foreigner. Nor should bad behaviour on trains be tolerated, whether a Russian cellist or a Chinese peasant. Using such incidents to label all foreigners as 'scumbags' is dangerous. It could mark a turning point in relations between China and a growing number of expats, tourists and those it does business with.

"Lumped together"

The Global Times, while condemning the assault, has tried to dampen the flames saying that two wrongs do not make a right. "There were no winners in last week's video. Two wrongs, no matter how satisfying the second may seem, don't make a right," the paper said. "The only person who can hold his head high from the assault is the middle-aged man who restrained an enraged youth from inflicting further harm on the prone Briton."

One problem that the incident, and the resulting online debate, highlighted was an apparent deep division existing in China, the paper suggested. "Foreigners, for better or worse, are lumped together as a collective bunch in China," the commentary read. It pointed to the comments of the security guard who initially intervened after hearing the girl's cries. The man, named Wu, told the newspaper, "After I grabbed his neck and saw he was a laowai [foreigner], I felt more obligated to save the girl."

The paper then questions how such an attitude might play in other countries, saying that there would likely be an outcry over apparently racist attitudes.

Foreigners win adulation and even evoke domestic shame in China when depicted helping others [Xinhua]. Two recent examples include a young American man, Jason Loose who was spotted in Nanjing sharing his McDonald's meal with a beggar [Sina / WhatsOnJinanGlobal Times / LATimes / CNN], and a Brazilian man in Dongguan who was beaten up after trying to stop a thief while passers-by looked on [Shanghaiist]. "The truth is that no nationality has sovereignty over good or evil deeds," the paper observes. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the comments were not written by a Chinese national, but instead American copy-editor Tom Feeron.

Hu Jintao often talks about a harmonious society. As he hands over the reins to Xi Jinping, it seems that the harmony is rapidly evaporating and an new hardline regime is coming into play.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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