Chaguan – A proposal to help a few foreigners settle in China triggers a furore | China
CHINA’S LEADERS have pulled off a remarkable feat. They have joined the long list of governments humbled by a populist revolt over immigration—though there are hardly any immigrants in China, and political opposition is banned. The revolt’s cause is also a surprise: a consultation exercise by the justice ministry, inviting comments on a proposal to make it slightly easier for rich or highly skilled foreigners to become permanent residents. This expands a scheme begun in 2004. On March 7th, after days of online fury, officials took the proposal back for revisions. Soon afterwards censors moved to shut down the debate. By then a related hashtag on Weibo, a Twitter-like service, had been viewed more than 5bn times. A dismaying number of comments betrayed racial and sexual panic, with men vowing to defend Chinese women from immigrants, notably from Africa. Several young women vowed to leap from the Great Wall rather than marry a foreigner.
Some anger is understandable. Foreign permanent residents may have as many children as they wish, and bring them up and educate them in any city in China. Bossy family-planning and residency rules deny Chinese citizens such freedom. Some indignation reflects a trend seen in other countries: a distrust of technocrats who defend migration as an economic necessity. Wang Huiyao heads a think-tank, the Centre for China and Globalisation, which promoted the permanent-residency scheme. For his pains he has been vilified online as a traitor. Mr Wang calls some suggestions helpful, such as requests for clarification of which PhD subjects earn a green card. Defending the scheme, he says: “China has been a giant exporter of talent for the 40 years of reform and opening. Why can’t China now seek to import some global talents?”
Some online panic is more difficult to understand. China is hardly poised to become an immigrant melting-pot. In 2016 it issued just 1,576 permanent-residency permits. In the same year America granted permanent residency to over 1m foreigners—roughly equivalent to China’s entire foreign-born population. Unlike American green cards, China’s residence permits are not considered a pathway to citizenship. William Rosoff is an American corporate lawyer turned academic. He teaches law at Tsinghua and other universities in Beijing, and secured permanent residency in 2018. Chinese colleagues see his status as a tribute to their homeland, not a new identity, he says. “My Chinese friends and students are all really pleased, not because it makes me Chinese but because it shows that I love China, otherwise why would I want it?”
Yet questions of identity have stoked the most online outrage in recent days. China must not become multicultural, social-media users wrote. Accused of taking foreign nationality, a film actress, Ning Jing, assured fans that she had never swayed “for even half a second” and remained a “child of the Flame Emperor and the Yellow Emperor”. That slogan, claiming descent from two mythological founders of China, is telling, for it draws on claims of Chinese racial purity peddled by nationalists for well over a century.
More than 90% of modern Chinese hail from the Han nationality. Han chauvinism helped topple the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, whose emperors were called impure outsiders on account of their Manchurian origins. With the Qing safely gone, nationalists reversed course and claimed the nations making up their new republic—Han, Manchu, Mongolian, Muslim Hui and Tibetan—as branches of one Chinese bloodline. Twentieth-century nationalists embraced Western racial theories and asserted the superiority of “yellow” and “white” races over the “brown” and “black”. In Communist times, state-backed scientists have sought proof, whether genetic or archaeological, that China’s ethnic groups share a common origin. President Xi Jinping calls China’s recorded history unique for its continuous transmission over 3,000 years by yellow-skinned, black-haired “descendants of the dragon”.
In much of the West arguments about racial superiority are taboo, and should be, thanks to shared guilt about the horrors of slavery, colonialism, the Holocaust and segregation. That taboo is weaker in China, where schools drum into students that their country is a victim of racist, imperialist bullying, and a benefactor to the developing world. As one netizen wrote during this immigration row, when the Chinese express dislike of Africans that cannot be racism, because “China never oppressed black people.”
Blood, soil and flags: a combustible mix
Though China is ageing fast and its working-age population is shrinking, the country does little to help immigrants who have neither a small fortune to invest nor a spare PhD in nuclear physics, and so may not seek a green card. Joseph Matanda, a 43-year-old from Zimbabwe, came to China in 2008 to teach English. Three years later he married Run Qi, a 36-year-old computer-network engineer from the northern province of Inner Mongolia. Mr Matanda lives in China on a spouse’s visa that does not allow him to work. He helps bring up his eight-year-old son and new baby, both of whom have Chinese passports. When ordinary Chinese shrink from him on the bus or in a lift, he engages with them in cheerful Mandarin. “I carry myself in such a way that people don’t look down on me,” he says. He dreams that his sons will grow up to be bilingual bridges between high-tech China and developing Africa: “The world is becoming smaller. I want them to be constructive.”
Still, neighbours do not consider their sons Chinese, sighs Ms Run. “In their eyes, they will always be ‘of mixed blood’.” She has learned to tolerate hearing casual assertions that mixed-race children are clever and good-looking. She cannot abide the usual follow-up, namely: “It’s good that they are not too black.” The family recently moved to Changping, a bustling outer suburb of Beijing, filled with migrants from other Chinese regions. It should be a fine place to start a new life. But this bicultural couple plan to move to a country where both are allowed to work. Online nationalists may cheer their departure, but it will be China’s loss. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “When nationalism bites back”