Tea Leaf Nation
Chinese Web Users: Keep the Huddled Masses Out
In China, memories of poverty and Malthusian disasters still linger.
In June 2016, China was accepted as a formal member of the International Organization for Migration, a Geneva-based intergovernmental organization. Wang Yaohui, director at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, said China should loosen its immigration policy and lower the bar for acquiring a Chinese permanent residency permit. “China hopes to shoulder more international responsibilities,” Wang said. “That has to include accepting refugees.”
That’s not likely to happen any time soon, and not just because China’s government lacks a welcoming refugee policy. (According to state-run China Daily, by the end of November 2015, there were 154 recognized refugees and 641 refugees in China yet to be processed; by comparison, in the United States, 69,933 refugees were resettled in fiscal year 2015.) It’s also because grassroots sentiment doesn’t appear to favor it. In June, the UN Refugee Agency marked World Refugee Day by publishing its annual estimate of worldwide refugees, showing the highest overall totals in 20 years. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, many mainstream accounts shared the news. Few grassroots users responded with empathy.
Many pointed out that China has long struggled with overpopulation and said should solve its own problems, including extreme income inequality, first. One Weibo user wrote, “Many people in China can’t even have a full meal. I know it sounds ruthless, but I really don’t want refugees to come.” Another wrote that poor Chinese in remote areas were the equivalent of internal refugees. “Go deep into the mountains and look around. They also need help.” Another user argued, “We [didn’t have] a one-child policy for so many years so we could save resources for foreigners.” (That policy, in place since the 1970s, was recently lifted.) The comments, while harsh, are not baseless: According to the World Bank, as of 2011, even after years of fast economic development, China still had the world’s third-largest share of people below the global poverty line.
Some commenters contrasted the refugee crisis with China’s own situation during World War II, when years of fighting invading Japanese and intermittent civil war between the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists laid portions of the country to waste. One argued that since China, once poor and war-torn, “kicked out the invaders” and “rebuilt our home” without “exporting any refugees,” other countries should be able to do the same. (In fact, starting in 1945, as the mainland approached the end of its civil war, massive number of refugees fled to the then-British colony Hong Kong, and some through Hong Kong to Britain.)
Others were bitter that foreign aid from Western countries slowed to a trickle shortly after the founding of the (Communist) People’s Republic in 1949, a result of both the Cold War and the new government’s attempt to nationalize foreign entities. “Those years we were very poor, but no one took us in,” one user wrote. “We relied on ourselves.” Traditional Chinese values consider begging for help shameful; China’s government reportedly rejected foreign aid from the United States and other countries during the great famine in early 1960s and again after a severe earthquake near the city of Tangshan in 1976.
Some of the most popular Weibo comments noted that China did not cause the refugee problem. Many suggested that refugees “go to the United States” instead of coming to China, because China should not be “paying for the bad things the United States did.” Some argued the United States would be an ideal destination: “they have money, land, and democracy; it will be heaven for refugees.”
Then there’s the rising global tide of Islamophobia, from which Chinese society is not immune. In recent years, increasing tension between Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority in western China, and Han, the ethnic supermajority, has led to violent clashes, including a 2009 riot in the western region of Xinjiang in which more than 200 people died. One Weibo account dedicated to anti-Muslim posts has attracted more than 100,000 followers. A day after World Refugee Day, it criticized the UN’s “stand with refugees” video as “politically correct.” In response, one user suggested that to solve the refugee problem, one should “consider Islam a cult, correct it … or decrease the number of the followers of the religion.” Weibo even has a hashtag called “the green religion is anti human race; quit the religion to be safe.” (“Green religion” is Chinese slang for Islam.)
To be sure, online opinion tends to be more extreme, and negative, than Chinese opinion at large. In survey results published May 19 by U.K.-based NGO Amnesty International, 46 percent of Chinese respondents said they would take refugees into their homes, and 94 percent said they would welcome refugees into China generally. Among the 27 nationalities surveyed, China ranked as the most welcoming. That may be because netizens tend to be young, while the Amnesty survey consulted only more educated people over age 18.
Even on Weibo, some of the less welcome comments faced rebuke. “You have no right to criticize other people’s religion,” one wrote. “Please be open-minded.” Some Weibo users were disappointed in how the online majority reacted to refugee issue. “I looked through many comments above, and I feel cold,” wrote another. “The world needs more tolerance and understanding.”
It’s nonetheless true that while many Chinese embrace its newfound status as an international power, they are less keen to embrace China’s international responsibilities. China is both rich and poor at the same time; while it became the world’s second-largest economy in 2009, in 2015 its per capita income still trailed the worldwide average. Perhaps as Chinese people get wealthier, they will also get more welcoming towards refugees.