Is anti-foreign sentiment rising in China?
Guthrie McLean was detained in China on July 16, 2017, for an incident that happened on June 10, 2017. Photo: FACEBOOK
Recently, the kidnapping of Yingying Zhang, a young Chinese scholar, in the US has raised safety concerns among Chinese people planning to go abroad, reminding them that besides “sweet and fresh air”, there are other matters worth considering.

China’s state-owned media has taken the opportunity to preach how safe big cities in the country are. Expats on the streets of Beijing were inquired, and most of them could not help but express admiration. “I don’t need to worry even if I have to walk back home alone in the early hours of the morning,” a Swedish expat said, adding that being outside late at night could be quite unsettling in Europe. But some people argue there are other challenges for expats in China.

Over years, Chinese metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai have remained enchanting for ambitious and talented foreigners who seek good job opportunities and more diverse life styles. However, if you googled some key words, you’ll find out that at the beginning of the decade, there emerged an exodus trend with slowing economy, air pollution, food safety and education issues cited as main reasons. Mentions of xenophobia, or anti-foreign sentiment, have also grown in these years.

As one of the first foreigners to come to China for business since its opening-up, Gilbert Van Kerckhove, hailing from Belgium, has lived on and off in the country for over 30 years, witnessing the country’s changes and transformation into the world’s second-largest economy. The 68-year-old Belgian has been granted Chinese green card for his work in facilitating China’s top construction projects including the Birds Nest and Water Cube.

However, the man who has regarded China as his second home now told he and many of his friends have all detected anti-foreign reactions among the Chinese population. “It started about five years ago, and it’s been getting worse,” said Kerckhove.

“People may say foreigners in China get better treatment, which is no longer true. Now we get worse treatment,” he said, complaining expatriates in Beijing can’t do self-defense if they got into trouble with the Chinese people because the local police would not be on their side no matter what’s the situation. He believed at least this is the case in Beijing, the capital city of China and the second most preferred city by expatriates after Shanghai.

His remarks seem to echo with a recent incident involving a University of Montana student who’s detained by the Chinese police for allegedly injuring a taxi driver. The 25-year-old Guthrie Mclean was reported by media sources in the United States to be caught in trouble for defending his mother, who was roughed up by the taxi driver during a fare dispute.

The whole thing was called by Jennifer McLean, the young man’s mother and their family friend, Tom Mitchell, Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times as “a shakedown”.

The mother said she was asked to pay $7400 in compensation and threatened to jail her son for up to three years if she refused.

Guthrie Mclean was later freed after a week’s detention. The release followed an agreement with Chinese authorities to drop any charges against Guthrie Mclean, the Washington Post quoted Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines as saying.

The Mclean case was seldom mentioned by Chinese media but covered by multiple influential American media sources and has drawn mixed comments from English readers.

Some netizen nicknamed Dave Cornell shared his experiences of being wronged in China. “I tried to hire a graphic artist. He wanted four times the normal price for some simple artwork, so I looked at my translator and said, “that’s f__ing ridiculous. All the Chinese man understood the word and so he called the police. The police arrived and took me to the police debarment,” he wrote in his comments.

Some other called Vijay Sharma suggested, “The Chinese people are suffering from a collective madness due to the propaganda that is drilled into them from high school.” Similar opinions are specified by the Wikipedia definition of anti-western sentiment in China, which indicates that “there remains suspicion over the West’s motives towards China, while some allege that these suspicions have been increased by China’s ruling party’s “Patriotic Education Campaign”.

Actually, more netizens have taken more neutral ground toward the detainment argued by some to be indicative of rising hostility toward westerners in China. One nicknamed almosthappy wrote, “I don’t see the need for this news to be politicized. There are tons of American expats living and working in China, most peacefully and some occasionally get into legal troubles-just like tons of Chinese nationals working all over the US.”

Van Kerckhove cited new money and arrogance deriving from the rising prominence of the country as possible reasons behind the antagonism. Some cynical Chinese netizens however proposed differently. “Have foreigners living in China noticed an increase in anti-foreign sentiments outside of media?” someone asked through Quora, and confessed he has noticed disconnect between news stories about anti-foreign views spreading, and his own personal experience.

A netizen nicknamed ‘Jay Liu, I’ve been told I’m Chinese’ posted a quite derisive reply. The guy who suggested himself to be Chinese first agreed the “cooling” towards foreigner is real and then wrote, “The reason is simple. There are so many foreigners (by which I really just mean white people) around these days; you guys have lost your novelty factor. Chinese living in big cities no longer drops to their knees and worship your holy whiteness as they did in the 1990s.”

Some others surveyed by disagreed with the opinion about rising hostility. Derek calls himself “citizen of the world”. As an international admission officer, DSO, he spent 4 years in Beijing. “Chinese people in my experience are hospitable. It would be my guess that out of the thousands of people I’ve interacted with in Beijing, probably, less than a dozen have made me feel unsafe or uncomfortable,” he said.

“Traditional Chinese culture is celebrated for its tolerance and diversity, so expats in China would seldom confront hostility stemming from cross-culture conflicts,” said Liu Hongbin, vice principal of the Institute of International Police Law Enforcement of People’s Public Security of China said.

“Historically, Chinese culture is the result of multi-ethnic and cultural assimilation, so it features quite inclusiveness. Expats living in the country usually would not have concerns of being discriminated by the mainstream culture,” he explained.

Kerckhove believed the change of attitude toward expats could also be reflected by China’s new visa policy that categorizes foreigners.

“People feel completely unwelcome here because it’s becoming very difficult for them to gain work permit and visa. Either you’re too young to have enough experiences or you’re too old to work. People who’re retired are not here for the big money. They love to give out their expertise and do something for China because they really enjoy things here, but work permit and visa are becoming big problem,” he sighed.

The visa classification system gearing toward attracting more high-level talents to China was reported previously by media to have sparked mixed feelings among expats.

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