Why Foreigners in China Should Check Their Privilege
In April, a group of Western men set up a makeshift dining table stacked with wine glasses, baguettes, cheese, and napkins in the aisle of a Line 11 Shanghai subway car. A photograph of the men, uploaded to the Weibo microblog account of a Shanghai soccer fanatic who witnessed the scene, reignited a heated online discussion of foreigners’ behavior in China.
These conversations have, in the past, descended into tit-for-tat accusations about the behavior of Chinese tourists abroad: Spitting, shouting, and allowing children to defecate in the street are among the most notable complaints. Though these cases regularly make the news, they by no means represent the conduct of the majority, and it is imperative to remember that Chinese tourists’ behavior has not changed because they are outside of their home country. Rather, controversy arises from their failure to suppress habits that are commonplace back home. In comparison, China’s badly behaved Westerners go further than neglecting Chinese customs — they act with a sense of impunity, believing themselves free from all social constraints.
The rest of us can learn something from the actions of the minority of Westerners in China who act with wanton disrespect. What makes them feel that behavior considered embarrassingly immature back home is somehow acceptable in China?
The answer, in short, is the historical legacy of Western imperialism. The legitimizing rhetoric of all colonial ventures is that the colonized are uncivilized and will therefore benefit from the colonizers’ presence. Western expatriates in the 19th and early 20th centuries justified their mistreatment of Chinese people by casting them as subhuman. While the imperialist project is long deceased, the attitudes it birthed still endure today.
Extraterritoriality laws that exempted the citizens of occupying nations such as the U.K., the U.S., and France from Chinese law continued until as late as 1943, defended with arguments that the “uncivilized” Chinese were unfit to have jurisdiction over Westerners. This system fostered a racist disregard for Chinese life. In 1920, the American sailor Homer Darke threw a Chinese cobbler who approached him to collect a debt into the Yangtze River. The man drowned but Darke was not charged with murder; instead, he was fined and sentenced to two years in prison. Beyond that, Darke’s case established a chilling precedent for the exact circumstances under which a foreigner could throw a Chinese person into the Yangtze River and not be held responsible for their death.
Henry Knollys, a British artillery officer and author of the book “English Life in China,” penned this telling image of the racism with which early 20th century expats viewed Chinese people: “Europeans here are, in numbers, but as a few salmon in a river teeming with myriads of minnows.” What’s worse is that after more than a century, we seem not to have fully shaken this sense.
A self-conscious use of the words wenming, or “civilized,” and suzhi, a term pertaining to a person’s moral fiber, still persist in discussions of foreigners’ public conduct among Chinese. Reflecting a long history of Western doubt over the supposed caliber of Chinese society, netizens responded to the Shanghai subway diners with comments such as: “Huh, so there you go, foreigners are uncivilized too!” and “Foreigners are always saying Chinese people have no moral fiber, but where is the moral fiber in this kind of behavior?”
Privilege does not always manifest in theatrical public scenes that make the news, but is instead woven into the fabric of our day-to-day interactions. For many Westerners, there is an unspoken process which takes place when we first arrive in China and integrate into an expat subculture which has carved out a means for living separately from the locals.
Of course, while some of us are expats, others are immigrants. If you are Western and white in China, then you are an expat. If not, then the terminology becomes more pejorative. There have been calls for an end to the use of the word “expat,” whose connotations perpetuate a distinction from migrants that is based on white privilege. But I would caution against shedding the term too hastily, as a small reminder of persistent inequality is perhaps useful. Sometimes, changing the language before we have fully figured out how to change our behavior simply masks the problem. Westerners in China might technically be immigrants, but there is no pretending that the doors open to us are comparable to those coming from, say, most African nations.
Differences in terms of language and culture have opened a gulf between expats and Chinese that must either be addressed or accepted. Privilege gives many of us the option to accept this logical disconnect without feeling any discomfort. According to a 2016 survey by InterNations, the organization behind an annual guide to life in different countries, expats ranked China 45th out 67 countries polled for ease of making friends and 60th in terms of getting acclimated in general. But privilege not only allows us to cheerfully go about our segregated lives; it also bestows a sense of disassociation from non-Westerners, a notion that there are no repercussions for actions when they are witnessed solely by Chinese people.
Any controversy having to do with the behavior of foreigners in China inevitably collides with a complex social hierarchy. Many Chinese netizens, for example, compared the onlookers’ tacit acceptance of the subway car diners with a perceived Shanghainese snobbery toward waidiren — those who live in the city without formal household registration, or who lack a full understanding of the local dialect and culture. One highly upvoted comment on the Weibo microblog account of the magazine China Business Journal read: “Noble people of Shanghai, why the silence? These outsiders — excuse me, ‘foreigners’ — behave like this on the subway, how come no one stood up and condemned it??? Do you weaklings only know how to bully your own people?”
Chinese people police their own behavior far more readily than they do that of expats. We wield a form of social capital that imparts a degree of immunity from the repercussions of our actions, as well as greater attendance to our well-being from wider Chinese society. When we get in serious trouble, our embassies weigh in, and in most cases upsetting us is far more trouble than it’s worth.
Last week, a journalist from the official website of Yunnan province, in southwestern China, discovered a store on online shopping platform Taobao offering an iPhone recovery service that would get a foreigner to report your loss to the local police, with the logic being that the authorities expend greater effort to recover the property of an expat. While this appears to be an isolated case, the prevalence of such services offline suggests, sadly, that the logic is sound.
Clearly, the same privileges do not extend to all foreigners in China. There are countless stories of prospective English teachers of color being rejected for jobs, or losing work as a result of complaints from parents. Whiteness in China is often misconstrued as a foolproof guarantee of perfect English, and good English is a coveted ticket to social mobility in a highly competitive education system. That said, the presence of a person of color will not earn parents the same prestige as having a white person teaching their child, regardless of that person’s English proficiency or teaching ability.
Holding an impromptu dinner party on the subway is of little consequence in itself, but it is symptomatic of pervasive white privilege, something that, in China, is rooted in colonialism. The same colonialism that made English the lingua franca of the world, and mastery of it a prerequisite for entering the middle class in former British colonies. The same colonialism that justified domination and exploitation by casting white sensibilities as civilized, against all other means of existence.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A group of foreigners learn tai chi at the Bund in Shanghai, Sept. 26, 2013. Yang Huanmin/VCG)