Foreigners in China: Rushing In, or Rushing Out?
The comings and goings of foreigners have been the subject of more public discourse than usual in recent months here in China.
Earlier this summer, there was a highly publicized official crackdown on foreigners in China who were working illegally or had overstayed their visas.
Unfortunately, overlapping the time frame of this crackdown, there were several incidents of foreigners in Beijing engaged in aggressive criminal behavior in public. This generated extensive online and weibo coverage, which triggered discussion about the merits of “decent” foreigners versus bad ones.
Some resident foreigners have expressed concern that a new wave of anti-foreign sentiment seems to be sweeping China, perhaps in parallel to the cooling in ardor for foreign investment.
Feedback from some of my Chinese friends on both counts is not too sympathetic, because of the widespread perception that foreigners and foreign business in China enjoyed too many advantages for too long.
Meanwhile, to further complicate the debate, even foreign fish swam into the controversy. Along the banks of Guangxi Province’s Liu River, two residents were badly bitten by piranhas, thought to be present as a result of being released by pet owners. The offending pet owners may not have been foreigners, but the fish clearly were (originating in South America); and ferocious ones with big teeth at that.
In response to the piranha panic, local authorities urgently ordered a large-scale fish-hunt. Fisherman using nets reportedly 10 kilometers long caught large quantities of fish, but natives rather than foreigners. Nary a piranha. Environmentalists labeled the official response as dangerous overkill. Perhaps somewhere upriver, some wily piranhas were engaged in a toothy chuckle over their successful escape from the purge.
Attitudes towards foreign things and foreign people in China seem to vacillate in cyclical waves of favor and disfavor, comfort and discomfort, worship and disdain. Despite 30 years of having the door open, that is still the case. This ambivalence seems to be rooted in modern Chinese history.
The uncertainty surrounding foreign things and people (and even animal and plant species) has been exacerbated by the impact of rapid globalization, which has quickly moved once distant neighbors into much closer proximity. While permitting a closer level of mutual awareness and interaction — at least superficially — it also unleashes resentment and rivalry in situations of conflict or competition. This phenomenon is far from unique to China, although it fits into a different historical context here.
In July, 2012, several well-known long-term foreign residents published articles announcing their decision to leave China, including explanations of the reasons why. They are not alone, judging by recent conversations I’ve had with other long-term foreign residents. All have their personal reasons for the decision. However, health issues — topped by air pollution and food safety — were cited by all.
I also know Chinese people formerly resident abroad who have come back to China, although none of them have written articles announcing their decision.
A South China Morning Post front page headline recently exclaimed: “Expats Rush In to Escape Euro Woes.” The rather anticlimactic story which followed described how an influx of young people escaping Europe’s economic woes is flooding into Hong Kong looking for jobs.
More than 6, 100 Hong Kong work visas were issued to nationals of seven European countries in 2011, up about 10% over 2010. In a city of more than seven million people, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world, it’s hard to see how this justifies being a top headline news story.
There has been an influx of Europeans to Hong Kong and China in recent years, due to sky-high rates of unemployment there, especially among those younger than age 30. These young people can apparently earn significantly higher wages for entry level jobs in China than they would in their home countries, even though most of them do not speak Chinese.
In the mid-1970s when I first visited China, ordinary Chinese people I’d pass on the street were afraid to talk to foreigners. In effect, due to the political atmosphere of the time, foreigners were perceived as “bad. ” In those days, foreigners were like flies and mosquitoes who’d slipped in through a slightly opened window.
Later, foreigners became the objects of blind admiration, for their wealth, their mobility, their expertise, their education, their passports, their blue eyes and blond hair, etc. In this era, foreigners were like modern-day Robin Hood figures.
Gradually, reality sank in: not all foreigners are smart, nice, respectable, wealthy, successful, or natural blondes. And some are even short people! Foreigners are neither as smart nor as dumb as we used to think.
So, as to whether foreigners are rushing into or out of China, the answer is: both. Some are coming, and some are going away. This will probably be the case for a long time to come, as in, possibly, the next few centuries. Let’s not get overly excited about the trend lines, or over-react about the implications.
A better focus would be to redouble our efforts to see beyond stereotypes and superficial impressions of our neighbors around the globe. At the same time, when you are losing talented people –whether foreigners or locals — because of environmental or food safety issues, it’s time to pay even more serious attention to these issues as well.
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