China’s leaders have ample reason to want to change the subject from a slowing economy and scandals around official Bo Xilai, which have rocked the Communist Party in this year of leadership transition.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Beijing has launched a 100-day campaign to crack down on illegal foreigners, while the state-run media have amped up criticism of foreigners in general –especially those who make China look bad.
Posters for the campaign show a “strike hard” fist on one side, and a smiling cartoon police on the other, encouraging Chinese citizens to call a hotline to report suspicious foreigners. The notice says police will go to bars, restaurants and other places foreigners are known to gather, to do spot checks of visas and work permits.
“It’s very odd,” says Lisa Ericson of Minnesota, walking through the bar & restaurant district of Sanlitun, one of those areas foreigners – and Chinese – gather. “We’re not sure of the reasoning behind here. It’s actually pretty difficult to get in here, so we’re not sure what this is really about.”
Ostensibly, the crackdown is on foreigners who either come in on tourist visas and work illegally, or who overstay their visas. The state-run Xinhua News Agency quotes the Public Security Bureau as saying there are some 20,000 such people, along with 600,000 legal foreign residents in China, and 27 million foreign visitors to China last year alone.
But the crackdown is happening in a broader context. State-run media have run a stream of stories about foreigners behaving badly. Two videos have been making the rounds, one of a British tourist sexually assaulting a Chinese woman and then being beaten unconscious by outraged Chinese men, and one of a Russian cellist on a train putting his bare feet up on the seat in front of him, and refusing to take them down even when the indignant Chinese passenger insisted, and beat his feet with a magazine. Both videos have received millions of hits, and have provoked a good deal of anti-foreign bile. The cellist, Oleg Verdernikov, eventually apologized, but was still fired from his position with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra.
Bile has even come from one of the most prominent English-language hosts on state-run CNTV, part of the government’s multi-billion dollar effort to improve China’s image internationally. Yang Rui, host of the program “Dialogue,” sent this to his 800,000+ followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter:
“People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. 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. 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.”
The Al Jazeera correspondent Yang Rui calls a ‘foreign bitch’ is Melissa Chan. She’s a respected Chinese-American journalist who was known for tackling tough stories here. She just became the first foreign correspondent to be kicked out of China in 14 years – though, the Al-Jazeera bureau wasn’t shut down. Chan said on an Al Jazeera program that her expulsion seems to be a sign of the times.
“There is a very interesting Chinese saying, which is that you kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,” she said. “And in this case, I may have been the sacrificial chicken, to warn other foreign journalists away from doing sensitive stories.”
Other foreign correspondents have been warned by the Public Security Bureau that they could have their visas pulled, too, if they cover sensitive stories without permission or write too critically about China.
Using threats against foreign journalists in the quest for greater soft power seems an odd approach. So did the recent attempts by half a dozen state-run newspapers to blast US Ambassador Gary Locke, for using ‘little tricks’, like flying economy class, buying his own coffee at Starbucks and carrying his own luggage, to build a favorable image with Chinese. The articles provoked howls of derision – against the state-run newspapers. The Beijing Daily called for Locke to disclose his assets; one commenter suggested the editors of the Beijing Daily could first do the same. And a story that got even more play was of a grade school girl, thrilled that Ambassador Locke got down on one knee so he could look her in the eye as he talked to her, when her dad refused to do the same.
But the drumbeat against foreigners has been resonating with many Chinese, online and off. In the Sanlitun neighborhood, migrant worker Li Xingli, who collects trash for recycling, said he thinks foreigners have it too easy in China.
“We’re being too good to the foreigners, so they’re being arrogant,” he said. “It’s like, in a personal relationship, if you treat someone too well, they’ll walk all over you. But if you’re tough, they’ll learn to behave themselves.”
It’s not much of a leap from criticizing foreigners to criticizing what the Communist Party calls foreign ideas, not suited for China. The People’s Daily, the Party newspaper, devoted a whole page to the subject last week.
“Socialist democratic politics is a living organism that takes in the fresh and exhales the stale,” it said. “We should stick to the Party’s leadership, people being the master and governance according to the law. The Western political model should not be copied. So long as we take gradual steps based on our national conditions, we can continue to create miracles and harvest national confidence.”
And CCTV host Yang Rui wrote to his Weibo followers for good measure, “The Western-centric era should be over. The rise of the rest is changing the world. Period.”
But it’s not as easy to run a good old-fashioned propaganda campaign as it used to be. With half a billion Chinese online and increasingly media-savvy, there’s been interesting pushback.
“We have been trying to block a lot of Western things — Western values, hostile Western forces, Western hegemony, and the Western cultural infiltration,” wrote actor Sun Haiying on his Weibo account. “Our firewall is the world’s most advanced. Strangely though, we’ve never heard of the West trying to block Oriental values, hostile Oriental forces, and the Oriental cultural invasion. This illustrates a truth: Where there is freedom, there is no need for firewalls.”