HONG KONG, China — When the buttoned-up host of a TV program that is supposed to showcase intelligent dialogue with foreigners begins calling foreigners “trash,” “spies” and “bitch,” you might think that the host’s job would be in trouble.
Not so for Yang Rui, the usually prim and stolid host of “Dialogue,” a high-profile English-language show on China’s state-controlled CCTV International. His program is intended to be part of China’s soft-power mission to the rest of the world.
In a recent post on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, he unleashed a rant following the announcement of a crackdown against illegal foreigners in Beijing that so deeply alarmed expats — including former guests on Yang’s show — that some have begun calling for a boycott against his program.
In his tweet, as translated by Brendan O’Kane, Yang called for China’s Ministry of Public Security to “clean out the foreign trash” and “protect innocent girls,” urging the public to root out “foreign spies who find a Chinese girl to shack up with.”
Most viciously, he celebrated the expulsion of American reporter Melissa Chan, calling her a “shrill foreign bitch.”
“We should make everyone who demonizes China shut up and f**k off,” he concluded.
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He continued in this vein over several messages, in one of them telling non-Chinese, “don’t try to mess with us; or it’ll be no more Mr. Nice Guy.”
When Charles Custer, an American editor and resident of Beijing, circulated a flyer calling for Yang’s firing, the host threatened to sue him and accused him of “inciting racial hatred.” Those remarks have since been deleted, but Yang’s original posting is still visible on his microblog account.
While all countries have hot-headed, xenophobic pundits, what many China watchers found most disturbing about Yang’s outburst was that it came from a man who has tried to cultivate an image as the reasonable, international face of China’s state-run media. The fact that his comments went unpunished by his superiors has also raised suspicions that they tacitly condone his views.
“Perhaps Yang thought this attack was something that fits with the current environment and would be welcomed by those above him in the propaganda bureaucracy,” writes Bill Bishop, an entrepreneur and editor of the blog Sinocism.
The last several weeks have been a delicate time for foreigners in China. In addition to the 100-day crackdown — in which police are urging the public to report foreigners to a hotline — two videos showing expats behaving terribly have infuriated ordinary Chinese. In one, a drunk British man appeared to molest a local woman, and in the other, a Russian cellist rudely berated a woman on a high-speed train.
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Still, many Chinese netizens reacted harshly to Yang’s tirade. Charlie Custer collected and translated some of the more sarcastic replies:
“There is a reason fewer and fewer people are watching TV,” wrote one user. “Haha, so Yang Rui is really this big a dumbass. A dumbass pretending to be cool but actually a Boxer ” wrote another.
When contacted by GlobalPost, Custer declined to comment on the Yang Rui case. "Believe me, I would love to talk about it, but as Mr. Yang has threatened to sue me I think it's safest if I don't say anything more publicly at this juncture," Custer wrote by email.
Yang has since tried to explain away the controversy, telling The Guardian that he was sorry for his “strong” language, while noting that he was not “beating a retreat from the principles” of his original post.
But the damage may already be done. A number of Western journalists have vowed not to appear on Yang’s “Dialogue” again, and have urged other guests to follow suit.
To many, Yang’s posting is a vivid illustration of the contradictions in China’s push to improve its image around the world. On the one hand, it has spent heavily to build stadiums, buildings and infrastructure in Africa and the developing world. It has also launched an English-language version of its flagship news service, CCTV, for American audiences.
On the other hand, the government has responded belligerently to the standoff in the Philippines, and in recent days, state-sponsored newspapers have been running editorials warning readers to be "on guard against hostile forces" from abroad "who use rights preservation to incite the masses."
For foreigners who love China and have lived there for years, it's a tense and worrisome time. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a writer for the International Herald Tribune, remarks in a reflection on the Yang Rui case that "in the more than three decades I’ve lived in China I have never experienced so much disquiet."