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David Wertime

China's Netizens Ask: Why Do We Fawn on Foreigners, And Spurn Ourselves?

Kawahara Keiichiro in Hangzhou

Sometimes, the Chinese saying goes, the spectators see the game better than the players. A 27-year-old Japanese man, who became an online phenomenon in February when his bicycle was stolen during a trip through the Chinese city of Wuhan, is back in the news, and this time, he has some advice for China. 

When Kawahara Keiichiro’s (河原启一郎) plight first appeared as the number one topic on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, it brought forth the kindness of tens of thousands of netizens, who offered the world traveler their own money in order to help him recover his beloved bicycle, which he is using to circumnavigate the globe. Donations proved unnecessary when local police promptly tracked down Keiichiro’s bicycle and returned it to his care. The outpouring of online kindness touched Keiichiro’s, and many observers’, hearts.

But if netizens are right, there’s a darker side to Chinese hospitality toward their foreign guests: They don’t show the same affection toward one another. As Keiichiro said in a recent interview with the Chinese-language Metro Bulletin

“There’s something that happens a lot, especially in small cities. When I go to a small store to buy something, perhaps because of my appearance, and my effort to use Chinese to say ‘I want that,’ the store owner’s attitude is really bad, really impatient, some will even say ‘If you’re not going to buy something just hurry up.’ Then when I switch to Japanese, and they discover I’m a foreigner, their attitude turns 180 degrees, and not only are they friendly, they ask me where I came from and where I’m going and give me directions. Maybe it really does help to be an obvious foreigner, so I’ve started to use Japanese to interact. Although we’re also polite to foreigners in Japan, we’re also equally good to each other, whereas in China they’re especially nice to foreigners. I hope that Chinese people can be nicer to each other.” {{Chinese}}[[Chinese]]有一个情况我遇到过好多次,尤其是在小城市。当我去小店买东西,可能是因为我的长相,而且我会努力用中文说“我要这个”,店主对我的态度很差,很不耐烦,有的还会说“不买就快点走”。之后我改用日语,他们发现我是外国人,态度会发生180度大转变,不但热情,还会问我从哪里来,到哪里去,给我指路。可能亮明外国人的身份确实有帮助,所以我之后都先用日语打招呼。虽然我们在日本也会对外国人很友善,但我们对彼此也是一样好,而中国人显然对外国人特别好,我希望中国人对彼此能更好一些。[[Chinese]]

The prospect of a foreigner telling Chinese people how to treat one another was deeply embarrassing–especially coming from a Japanese man, given the still-deep reservoir of ill will between China and Japan that dates, most recently anyway, from Japan’s treatment of the Middle Kingdom during World War II. As @KimJin_sz wrote, “This feels even worse than being personally insulted.” @书行我素 agreed, and didn’t hold back: “Letting Japanese people remind us that Chinese people should be better to each other is really a huge [expletive] loss of face.”

Some refused to accept advice from China’s erstwhile invaders. Well-known economist Liu Shengjun (@刘胜军改革) declared such behavior a remnant of foreign forces’ invasion of Qing-era China at the turn of the 20th century. @存活性灭亡 was even less interested in Keiichiro’s opinion, writing, “What does [he] know, if Japan hadn’t invaded China and raped its women, there wouldn’t be so many bastards fawning over foreigners.”

Would Keiichiro's bike have been returned so promptly if he were Chinese?

But the vast majority of commenters had something else to say to Keiichiro: You’re right. @2家姐Vivi averred that “this is a common disease among Chinese, many Chinese are very nice to foreigners and very cold to their own people.” Other netizens variously concluded that Chinese people were “bullies,” “servile,” “loved infighting” and were “slaves to status” who “had no future” as a people. @木子晃 wrote, “There’s a saying [in Chinese]: ‘chong yang mei wai [崇洋媚外],” which roughly means “to worship and fawn over all things foreign.” It’s a harsh accusation, and one that many Chinese will say other Chinese are guilty of. 

What to do about this “common disease?” Reprising (and perhaps partly explaining) recent anti-foreigner hostility in China’s capital, @顽强的番茄 suggested, “In fact, we need to be a bit worse towards the foreigners…I don’t like foreigners…there are too many foreigners in Beijing.” @八大奇迹之一 complained, “In my own country, I don’t live as well as a foreigner does here.” Others implied that China’s government was to blame, agreeing that the Wuhan cops would likely not have been as responsive to a common Chinese person with a similar dilemma.

Most felt there was no easy solution. @流浪酒杯 wrote that “The servility [is] in Chinese peoples’ bones.” @珠海海客 felt that the problem of status-consciousness lay at the root: “[Chinese are] very nice to foreigners, they seem hospitable and friendly, but in fact it’s the result of Chinese people caring a lot about ‘face,’ and caring a lot about positioning one’s own image. From a cultural standpoint, it’s a deep-rooted sense of capitulation to foreigners.”

During his travels, Keiichiro appears to have stumbled upon that peculiar admixture of pride and shame that often surfaces in China’s relationship with the outside world. Together, at least in this outside observer’s experience, the shame and pride somehow animate each other.

Many Chinese appear to feel shame that a prideful people cannot treat each other better, and shame at a great nation’s historical humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. Yet that shame also animates a more determined sense of national identity–because of the humiliation, China must strive now to seize its opportunity, and to be as independent and strong as it can possibly be. This may explain why netizen opinion appears to swing between drastic solutions–either treating foreigners worse in order to even the proverbial scales, or engaging in withering self-criticism to expose the root of Chinese “servility.”  

The timing of this debate was revealing. On a day when Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara provocatively declared that if Japan didn’t stand up to China over the Senkaku Islands it would end up as the “sixth star” on China’s flag, many resisted the urge to lump Keiichiro and Ishihara together, appearing more interested in self-reflection and spirited debate. On a path to the kinder society some netizens say China needs, perhaps that’s a step in the right direction.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
  • Mr Saturn

    It’s a complicated subject, this dichotomy. I really enjoyed this article, a great read. 

    • tealeafnation

      Thanks for your kind feedback, and for reading!

  • Mr Saturn

    It’s a complicated subject, this dichotomy. I really enjoyed this article, a great read. 

    • tealeafnation

      Thanks for your kind feedback, and for reading!

  • Benjamin Seeberger

    In my experience, this “capitulation” is less an honor and more a statement of “otherness”.  Whether foreigners are treated well or badly adds up to the same final result.  The actual solution is not how one treats foreigners, but why the term foreigner is used in today’s world when many “foreigners” have in-fact lived in China longer than many of their own residents.

  • Benjamin Seeberger

    In my experience, this “capitulation” is less an honor and more a statement of “otherness”.  Whether foreigners are treated well or badly adds up to the same final result.  The actual solution is not how one treats foreigners, but why the term foreigner is used in today’s world when many “foreigners” have in-fact lived in China longer than many of their own residents.