China Brief

China Turns Inward in the Face of Pandemic

As Beijing reports that new coronavirus cases are all imported, foreigners in China face discrimination.

Chinese tourist information clerks wear protective masks and visors in the arrivals area at Beijing Capital International Airport on March 24.
Chinese tourist information clerks wear protective masks and visors in the arrivals area at Beijing Capital International Airport on March 24. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: Hostility against foreigners in China rises amid fears of imported coronavirus cases, China’s leaders are still worried about provincial outbreaks, and why Taiwan is shipping medical masks to the United States.

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Fears of Imported Coronavirus Cases Rise

New coronavirus cases are officially nearing zero within China, except for imported infections—those among people traveling from abroad. The rest of the world is now seen as the threat, and foreigners are increasingly facing discrimination, especially in Beijing. Signs on some businesses in the capital forbid foreigners from entry, and many hotels are refusing to accept foreigners—including residents—unless they are mandated as quarantine sites for recent arrivals. Security staff are even turning away foreigners from offices and apartment buildings.

As Chinese officials blame the outside world for the coronavirus, this treatment is likely to only get worse—and residing in the country is likely to become more difficult. Proposed changes to China’s immigration laws to allow permanent residence for experts and high-income foreigners have sparked racist backlash online. Meanwhile, visa renewal for foreigners will be challenging because of official barricades and because Chinese friends or companies that were once willing to sponsor visas might now fear the political consequences.

Unwelcome shift. For many foreigners who have lived in China, it’s hard to reconcile this discrimination with the warm and welcoming public they are used to. But it hasn’t come out of nowhere: For at least seven years, there has been an increase in Chinese anti-foreigner propaganda and a growing hostility toward the outside world. Public opinion isn’t constant, and friendlier voices are now becoming suppressed or are afraid to speak up.

Conflicting messages. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian, the most aggressive of China’s Twitter trolls, has drawn attention to an unfounded conspiracy theory that the virus originated in the United States. But in an interview on Sunday, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai appeared to push back against the misinformation embraced by his fellow diplomatic officials. (The government newspaper Global Times tried to spin this as an example of China’s democratic diversity.) It’s unclear whether this is a genuine split or a strategy designed to obfuscate.

What We’re Following

What’s going on in the provinces? There is good reason to be confident in the overall downward trend of China’s numbers, even if the overall death toll from Wuhan looks increasingly suspicious in light of the number of deaths elsewhere, such as the Lombardy region of Italy. The confidence shown in slowly opening the country back up and the lack of overrun hospitals does indicate successful containment. Still, it’s clear that China’s leaders are worried about the chance of a new provincial outbreak being covered up. On Tuesday, Premier Li Keqiang issued a warning (link in Chinese) to officials “not to hide cases for the sake of reporting zero.”

The recent demarcation of Beijing’s suburbs as a separate area from the inner city with extra security checks also indicates concern about further infections, especially among the leadership.

Mask up. Despite mistaken advice early on from Western health experts, mask-wearing—already a cultural norm in East Asia—appears to be a strong factor in preventing the rampant spread of the virus. Taiwan, which ramped up the production of medical masks early, is now donating 100,000 masks each week to the United States—angering Beijing, which called the move (link in Chinese) a “rebellion against your ancestral land.” Given the geopolitical shake-ups likely to come, Taiwan is keen to stay well within the umbrella of U.S. defense.

Uighur singer sentenced. As the world grapples with the coronavirus, routine repression rolls on in China, especially in Xinjiang. The latest victim of state abuse is the Uighur singer Rashida Dawut, a popular folk performer in the 1990s who has reportedly been sentenced to 15 years detention for “separatism.” Prison sentences are still regularly deployed against prominent figures, including former government officials, as part of the ongoing campaign of cultural genocide.

Tech and Business

Factory orders canceled. Asian factories are getting hit hard by the global markets collapse, with mass cancellations from retailers in the West. China is no exception, and Beijing knows that recovery can’t begin until Western consumers are spending properly again. China’s development zones—special areas for foreign business that are some of the country’s most prosperous spaces—will be very badly hit. Despite all the bitter recriminations between Beijing and Washington at the moment, the economy might eventually be a fruitful area of cooperation. But expect Beijing to look toward the European Union more than the United States, especially as it positions itself as a benevolent provider of public goods.

Labor laws tightened. In most Chinese cities, offices and factories have reopened, but many workers have reported slashed salaries or the loss of benefits. To avoid catastrophic unemployment, the authorities have tightened already restrictive laws around layoffs, pushing the financial burden onto businesses. There is aid in place for many hard-hit enterprises, but a lot of political competition around who gets it. Chinese labor laws have always been excellent on paper: It’s hard to fire workers without cause or carry out mass layoffs. But they are highly difficult to enforce in practice.

Ventilator gap. China’s place in the medical supply chain proved critical for coping with its early outbreak. Now, it gives Beijing unusual leverage, although the United States is rushing to try to repurpose its own factories. China’s main ventilator company says global demand is now 10 times supply. As China tries to recover, it’s likely more businesses will rush into the sector—but it will be a long time before that need is met.

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That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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