The civil war in Syria, now spanning almost half a decade, and the Islamic State’s territorial advances there have led to the world’s worst refugee crisis in decades. More than 4.7 million Syrians have left their homeland, pouring into neighboring countries as well as Europe. The influx of refugees has strained resources in the region and fomented xenophobia and nativism in countries throughout Europe, helping to buoy the rise of extreme right-wing parties there.
But China, the world’s most populous nation and its second largest economy, has sat on the sidelines. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Beijing, by the end of August 2015, there were nine refugees and 26 asylum seekers from Syria in China. They were among the 795 UN-registered “persons of concern,” or displaced people, mainly from Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, and Liberia living in China temporarily while waiting to be transferred. The East Asian giant faces complex political, demographic, religious, and economic challenges that have prevented it from considering allowing migrants inside its borders. Even so, if China is to become a responsible global power, the country must reevaluate the ideology that has prevented it from taking an active role in ameliorating a global crisis.
Chinese authorities argue that Western countries caused the meltdown in Syria that resulted in the mass exodus, making its resolution their responsibility. In an October 2015 opinion piece in Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, Wu Sike, former Chinese Ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia and former Special Envoy on the Middle East, argued that the Middle East “democratization” agenda of the United States and its allies lies at the root of the migrant refugee crisis. In a Feb. 15 piece in party journal Seeking Truth, Zhang Weiwei, director of the Center for China Development Model Research at Fudan University in Shanghai, contended that the “European refugee crisis is a price” that Western countries must pay for their “arrogance.” Chinese web users largely agreed. After the photos of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach went viral in September 2015, netizens in China shared in the grief and largely blamed the United States for the chaos in Syria which had led to the boy’s drowning.
Regardless of the validity of this outlook, however, it is non-western countries with little economic power and precarious security situations that are bearing the brunt of the displaced population. Statistics from the nonprofit Amnesty International show that while Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt have absorbed more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees, other countries around the world have offered to resettle less than 200,000. Such numbers would be a mere drop in the bucket for a country with the population, land area, and raw economic might of China. In fact, even if China were to host all 4.7 million Syrian refugees, that would only amount to 3.5 refugees per every 1,000 inhabitants – that’s a far lower proportion than even Turkey, at 23.7 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, actually hosted in 2015. The per capita GDPs of China and Jordan are roughly equal — $4,515 and $4,371, respectively, according to recent data from the World Bank. But by mid-2015, Jordan was hosting 685,000 displaced people of multiple nationalities. Jordan’s population is 6.6 million; China’s is over 1.3 billion.
Yet China almost certainly will not adopt a refugee resettlement plan that will help relieve the heavy burden faced by the other developing countries in the region currently overwhelmed by the influx. China lacks the institutions conducive to supporting immigration on a mass scale. Although it ratified the UN’s Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1982, the country still lacks related national institutions. It was only in 2012 that China adopted a revised Entry-Exit Administration Law that allows public security authorities to issue identity certificates to refugees and refugee status applicants. According to an August 2015 UNHCR fact sheet, the Chinese government does not provide assistance to refugees in China.
Then there’s the Chinese “green card,” which provides only a “narrow path to residency,” according to a memo by Melissa Lefkowitz, a program officer at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at the New York University School of Law. China’s official statistics show that, as of 2013, only 7,300 among 600,000-plus foreigners living in China had permanent residence. (In 2013 alone, almost a million people became permanent residents in the United States.) Naturalization is extremely rare.
Chinese political ideology actively discourages the acceptance of non-Chinese migrants: non-interference in other countries domestic affairs is the cornerstone of its foreign policy, and accepting refugees is often viewed as demonstrating a political preference of the country of origin. Beijing even claims its foreign aid has “no political strings attached.” Unlike major western powers, China vehemently opposed external interference in Syria — in particular military intervention. By taking in refugees from the region, China could risk forsaking its diplomatic principle and partaking in the fallout of a failed Middle East policy against which it had tried to warn the West.
There’s also little public support for refugee resettlement. Beijing has long been heavy-handed on population control, implementing a planned birth policy that has spanned decades, enforced via draconian fines and penalties and even forced abortions and sterilizations. Although the policy has become less strict in recent years, it would be a tough sell to the people if the government suddenly allowed foreign refugees to populate the country.
Mirroring the concerns of some in Europe and the United States, religion is also a factor. Islam is one of the religions whose practice is permitted in China, albeit with many preconditions. The Chinese government exercises relatively fewer controls over the Muslim Hui ethnic group, due to the group’s cultural affinity and long-time integration with the majority Han Chinese. But in the western region of Xinjiang, the native Muslim Uighur population of about 10 million has long chafed at the close monitoring and often repressive regulation by a central government fearful of secessionist political movements. A growing number of Uighur Muslims have fled to Turkey, and over the last few years Uighurs have carried out several major terrorist attacks on civilians. Taking in a large number of Muslim refugees from the Middle East could further complicate China’s religious landscape and identity politics.
The move would also be unpopular economically. During a 2015 UN summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $2 billion and announced major debt forgiveness to assist the development in poor countries. The international community welcomed the move, but domestic critics carped at China’s foreign-bound munificence, arguing that the government had overdone international philanthropy when a large population at home was still below poverty line. The criticism was so scathing that Beijing had to set its propaganda machine in motion to counter public opinion. Given the current economic climate in China, with growth slowing substantially, the people expect their government to use its financial resources to fix the economy, not help foreign nationals.
But the reluctance to take in refugees is perhaps, at its root, a cultural problem. As the scholar Benedict Anderson wrote, the nation is “imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” The narrative of nationhood of the United States is dynamic and inclusive. The country describes itself as a nation renewing itself through arrival of people leaving their past behind and a place for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” China’s narrative of nationhood is more static and exclusive. It emphasizes shared history and common heritage. Although Beijing advocates the concept of ethnic diversity, the rhetoric focuses on the symbiosis of the 56 ethnic groups recognized by the government.
China’s patchy refugee resettlement record speaks volumes about the narrow scope of the national and cultural identity. The last time China accepted refugees on a large scale was in 1979 during the Sino-Vietnamese war. About 300,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were resettled in rural areas in southwest China. These refugees were mainly of Chinese ethnic origin. By contrast, when thousands of Rohingya refugees escaped Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2015 because of persecution and poverty, China was almost irresponsive to this humanitarian crisis in its own neighborhood.
To be sure, China does not stand alone in its reluctance to host refugees. Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates, as well as developed nations such as Japan, Singapore, and South Korea all give Syrian refuges the cold shoulder. While the United States resettles more refugees and asylum seekers than any other country in the world, it has resettled just under 3,000 Syrians since 2011, according to the Refugee Processing Center, an organization operated by the U.S. Department of State.
Still, China has sought a growing, if still largely reticent, role in the region. It has participated in multilateral peace mediation, such as the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference, cohosted by the United Kingdom, Germany, Kuwait and the United Nations, and the International Syria Support Group, which includes the United States, the United Kingdom, the Arab League, the EU, and others. China also pledged a combined $135 million in humanitarian aid after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tour of several Middle Eastern countries and participation in a recent G-20 summit.
If China aspires to rise among the global powers and meet the international expectations it’s long courted, it has to pluck up the political courage to re-envision itself. It’s got a lot to work with. The East Asian giant boasts a stable, low unemployment rate. Its many large cities feature extensive public transportation networks and lack the slums so common in many other developing nations. And with a prematurely aging population, it’s facing a looming demographic crisis; immigration could help prevent long-term economic stagnation associated with a shortage of young workers and a growing number of retired dependents.
As international relations scholar Yan Xuetong noted, a new Chinese foreign policy could find the source for its conduct in Confucian morality. The traditional Chinese system of ethics, as Yan interpreted, asserts that the “sphere of concern for any humane ruler should be the whole world, not just the people of one state.”