“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. (1)” -Yang Rui, China’s CCTV anchor, aka the ‘Voice of China’ on the expulsion of Melissa Chan – foreign journalist.
Last month, the communist party of China implemented a 100 day anti-foreigner campaign which will run from May 15 until the end of August. The stated purpose of this movement is to “curb the illegal entry, residence and employment of foreign nationals (2)”
Although couched in politically correct terms, the decision to enact such a campaign at this time, and its impact are telling.
China’s communist party is hanging on by a thread, and seeks to muzzle or remove anyone who could shed light on what the party will do to remain in power.
@Summer_嘎尛驴 “Beijing is even not big enough to hold Chinese people. It’s the time to kick out those foreigners who occupy space. (3)” – online comment on Chinese website regarding the 100 day campaign
Pulling a page from the Mao’ist playbook, the campaign ignites anti-foreigner sentiments. Based on this fear, the people can unite behind the communist party as the savior against a ‘foreign evil’.
The Anti-Foreign Movement
The anti-foreign movement is as old as China itself, and the party has successfully leveraged such sentiments in the past in order to maintain credibility.
As Susan Shirk stated in her book, “China: Fragile Superpower: How China’s Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise”, the communist party stokes nationalism whenever it feels threatened. By doing so, the party ensures an external, rather than an internal focus.
Consequently, the people of China will not ruminate about how the party has let them down and revolt.
Right now, the party feels threatened. Although the campaign comes after the alleged molestation of a Chinese woman by a man from the UK, its real purpose runs much deeper than that one event.
At issue is that in the run-up to the once-in-a-decade transfer of power, the communist party is weak. It is a splintered coalition of princelings (4) with no revolutionary cred.
The problem is that the communist party has no legitimacy, ie there are no elections, so the people have no say in whom will govern them. As a consequence, the party must ‘prove its worth’ to the people, lest there be a revolution.
The Times Have Changed for China
Although this dictatorial form of governance is all China has ever known, times and expectations have changed. In an agrarian society, notions such as the rule of law and lordship were not as suffocating as they would be today. However, as China climbs up the socio-economic ladder, they should tend to seek some sort of democratic or representative government.
The communist party knows this, and with the increase in riots and social instability, the party is cracking down with 1989-like intensity.
The anti-foreigner campaign accomplishes three things for the communist party. It plays on the fear of foreigners, fuels a general distrust that remains as a legacy of the cultural revolution, and puts expats on notice that their days here could be numbered.
Interestingly enough, the 100 day crackdown coincides with the timing of China’s October leadership change. New leaders will muscle their way to the top of the communist party food chain in October, and this 100-day crackdown ensures the silence of foreigners, should anything untoward take place during that time frame.
Foreigners, for better or worse, are lumped together as a collective bunch in China. This is the reason they have an all-encompassing term in Chinese, no matter their ethnic or cultural differences, as laowai (5).
A History of Anti-Foreign Thought
China was a closed society for thousands of years, and a lack of trust for foreign elements is deeply rooted.
Hundreds of years ago, Chinese could be put to death for even teaching Mandarin to anyone from a foreign land (6). The bond the Chinese feel is so strong that they even term all those who are Chinese ancestry, irrespective of their country of origin, as ‘Overseas Chinese’.
The import is that even though these people do not live in China, they are from China, and to a certain extent that is where their affinity should lie.
As an example, the Chinese government claimed that Jeremy Lin should give up his US citizenship so that he could play for team China in the Olympics (7). Ironically enough, Lin’s immediate ancestry is in Taiwan, and not the Chinese mainland.
The current push, however, plays into the millenia-old fear that the unknown is not safe and should be avoided. Much of this is buttressed by the fact that a few thousand years ago, China was an advanced society with simple laws and governance. Thus, they figured, there was not much they could learn from ‘outsiders’, they were self sufficient.
Thousands of years later, they still remained a closed society while most of the rest of the world had moved on.
In the more recent past, the communist party has played on those fears of everything foreign, and the 100 years of humiliation. The communist party claims that they ended a century of defeat at the hand of foreign invaders and should they lose power, China would splinter.
The most recent example of the party leveraging this ideal was during the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s. During this ten year span, “capitalist roaders”, or those who were not “red enough”, were singled out, punished and killed (8). (Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party (9), is an excellent book which details how this has played out in the historical context.)
The current call for Beijingers to “be on the look out for suspicious looking foreigners”, harkens back to that epoch. For those who lived through the cultural revolution, there is a mixture of fear and hope. Fear of reprisal should they be singled out for punishment, and hope for change within China.
The Beijing Xenophobia
“The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls…Cut off the foreign snake heads. (10)” – Yang Rui, China’s CCTV anchor, aka the ‘Voice of China’
In addition to building up populist sentiment leading to xenophobia, the Beijing movement serves to foment a general feeling of distrust.
As part of the new campaign, foreigners can be stopped and questioned at home, in the streets and even in the clubs. The Chinese who watch foreigners being stopped and questioned, may recall the day when they too were handled as such.
In a country like China were foreigners can sometimes be treated with kid gloves, such an aggressive anti-foreigner gambit is surprising. This type of ‘search and destroy’ was typically reserved for the Chinese, and not people from abroad. The impact of this is to not only cause anxiety in the expat group, but also remind the Chinese themselves of the power of the party.
Just imagine, if you will, the level of fear that a Chinese citizen must feel. After all, if the police are rounding up foreigners in public, what could the police do to Chinese citizens in private?
The Chinese are all too aware of their history and the lengths to which the party will go to maintain silence. The actions against the “bad foreign element”, merely sends the signal that everyone needs to be silent and to go along, lest they be the next one punished. I
Interestingly enough, a poll on China’s Weibo shows that 89% of all respondents support such an extreme measure.
“@中国80后农民：The clean-up is more than just clean-up. It is calling on everyone to take part! Do not stand by and do nothing!” – Weibo comment regarding the 100 day campaign.
The third thing that the communist party accomplishes with this campaign is to put foreigners on notice. China has succeeded in kicking out an accredited journalist for the first time in 13 years (11). The communists want silence. Should a foreigner step of of line, or disagree with communist dictates, they too will be sent on their way.
“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 Rui, China’s CCTV anchor, aka the ‘Voice of China’
In the wake of the 1989 Tianenman massacre, China learned that bad press leads to economic hardship. Not only was the massacre of 1989 part of the reason for China not securing the 2000 Olympics, but it also led to economic sanctions. And with China’s economic growth slowing, sanctions could stall the Chinese juggernaut, leading to a call for ousting the communist party.
The party has recently built its case for legitimacy, among other things, on its ability to provide jobs. Economic slowdown and subsequent job loss could prove to be the death knell of communist China.
The difference between today and 1989, is that today there are more foreigners in China. This means more people who can report on and inform the outside world of what they see. Part of the reason that the death count of the 1989 massacre still remains such a mystery is the lack of credible evidence of how widespread the murders were.
Much of what we in the West know about the Tianenman massacre comes from those foreigners and Chinese leaders of the cause. Should the communist party feel another crackdown is necessary, they would like to have as few eye witnesses as possible to corroborate the event.
Twenty two years later, the increase in foreign presence, as well as the rise of social media would ensure that a similar event would not remain so secret – it would likely instantly be viewed around the entire world.
“Foreign scumbags should go back to their countries. China is not the place for them to do everything they want, yuxiaole” 12 – comment from Chinese microblogger.
As a consequence of the call to control the untoward foreigners, China’s Baidu and mop.com have joined in and called on everyone to expose the bad behaviors of foreigners in China (13). This will do little more than assist the communist party in fueling the anxiety it already feels over losing control.
With problems at home and abroad, the seams are about to burst. A last ditch effort may be what they feel is necessary, in order to secure a few more years of control. However, the bottom line is that the game is changing, and if the communist party does not change as well, they could be the next ones to feel the whip of populist dissension that seems to be spreading across the world.
References & Image Credits:
(1) The Atlantic
(2) China Daily
(3) Morning Whistle
(4) Sons of Chinese revolutionary leaders
(6) Devenny – on file with author
(8) Top Secret Writers
(9) The Epoch Times
(10) The Atlantic
(11) Al-Jezeera reporter kicked out in May
(12) The Mole
(14) Wall Street Journal