Foreigners, watch out. Beijing police have sent a shot across the bow of the city’s estimated 120,000 non-Chinese residents, some of whom are in the country illegally. After a video of a British man apparently sexually assaulting a Chinese woman caught fire on Weibo, Beijing police have announced a campaign to “clean up” (清理) unwelcome outsiders (Chinese).
Specifically, the police have announced they will go after foreign nationals who are 1) in the country illegally, 2) remaining illegally, or 3) working illegally. They call such foreigners “san fei” foreigners, or 三非外国人, meaning “three illegals.”
Clouds on the horizon
Reading through a small sample of the 114,000 comments to the recent news, Tea Leaf Nation found netizens roundly and angrily supportive of the measure. Many argued this step was “overdue” and “better late than never” (亡羊补牢). Many from other cities chimed in to call for similar measures in Dalian, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
The overall tone of discussion will surely be deeply troubling to anyone who has ever had to be an “outsider.” @魚魚桑 honed in on, and lauded, the dangerous semantics employed by Beijing police: “‘Clean up’…This is really the right word to use. I feel like it’s cleaning up trash from the street.”
Others piled on, in many cases disregarding the original distinction between illegal foreigners and legal foreigners. @Bob_慕小落 wrote, “Clean slowly, so that not a single one is left.” But @味同烂嚼 wanted speed: “We should thoroughly clean up, hurry up and clean up, I don’t want to see these disgusting people anymore.” @山哥SANGER opined, “White-skinned pigs [白皮猪], black devils [黑鬼], sticks [棒子, a slur referring to Koreans], devils [鬼子], Southeast Asian monkeys [东南亚猴子] and other kinds of foreign trash should all be swept out the door.”
Some netizens did not seem to know what “foreigner” actually meant. A number of users asked that people from Xinjiang, a (sometimes reluctant) Chinese border province, be expelled from the capital. As @阿琦爱ZHOULINBO wrote, “Xinjiang people are the scariest, I hate the Xinjiang [people] the most.” When one user challenged her view, she simply wrote, “I don’t need to explain.”
A few cooler heads, but not prevailing
Others chastised what one user (@公益小杨) called the “xenophobic passion” of fellow netizens. She tried to interject: “Kicking out the foreigners doesn’t mean China has won, if one day Chinese people were kicked out from other countries as ‘foreigners,’ would you all be happy?” @若讷小东邪 cautioned, “I hope everyone does not start to see the legal immigrants and tourists in a new light.”
That may already be too late. While it would be comforting to conclude the vitriol spewed online represents a minority, if this is the case cooler heads have spent a great deal of time sitting sideline. One culprit behind such anti-foreigner sentiment is the sense that foreigners have been given special treatment for too long. As @Ren类已经无法阻止我了 asked ironically, “Has Beijing begun to pay attention to we second-class citizens?” @Mantarine agreed, “Chinese have been too tolerant of foreigners … some foreigners’ conduct has really been over the top.”
A minority of foreigners have doubtless taken advantage of a country that has often afforded certain outsiders un-earned leeway. This lax regime, not to mention plentiful job opportunities for those who can teach English, has surely attracted some who for whatever reason lack good prospects in their home countries. (@恢复第一人格的阿燕 would call them “defective and unsaleable products.”) Yet Chinese social media just recently heated up with discussions of two relatively idealistic foreigners, one a young American man who shared food with an elderly beggar, the other a Brazilian man who was the only one (including two nearby guards) to intervene in a purse snatching. Why should the bad blot out the good?
Explaining the anger
The outburst of anger at Beijing’s foreigners may be linked to the recent rise of nationalism in some corners of China’s blogosphere. China and the Philippines have recently been purportedly sharpening swords as the ownership spat over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea risks metastasizing into international armed conflict. With such tensions just below the surface, it is a particularly inapt time to come across as an overbearing foreigner in China’s capital.
Coded language has also played a role. The announcement’s targeting so-called “three illegals” (as well as a hotline to report them) implied Beijing is crawling with serial foreign lawbreakers, even though it would actually be difficult for a given foreigner to break all three of the cited laws him or herself. The stated need for a “clean up” employed language of disgust, always fertile ground for hatred. These linguistic feints not only set the tone of discussion, they draw in netizens already inclined to vent their spleen.
There’s no question that Beijing authorities can, and should, enforce the law. For their part, foreigners in China would do well to remember that they are ultimately guests who should be on their best behavior, not their worst. At the same time, it is incumbent on each netizen to decide whether to react to their guests with viciousness or grace. Weibo remains China’s premier platform for free speech and debate, affording netizens a level of unprecedented freedom to project their views around the globe with the push of a button. With this power, it must be said, comes responsibility.
[Correction: A previous version of this article said that the number of foreigners in Beijing was estimated to be 200,000. That number should have been 120,000. We're sorry for the error.]