Proposed Residency Changes Spark Racist Backlash in China
Soliciting public opinion on draft legislation is a routine part of Chinese lawmaking, but one recent proposal has generated far more buzz than usual.
Last week, China’s Ministry of Justice proposed new rules that would broaden the criteria for foreigners to obtain permanent residency, with feedback to be submitted through an official website by the end of March.
Permanent residency is difficult to obtain in China, which approved just 1,576 applications in 2016, the last year for which such data was publicly disclosed. Under the new draft regulation, professionals in certain fields would be eligible for permanent residency immediately, irrespective of whether they’ve been living in China for an extended period of time.
The new regulations also stipulate that graduates from top foreign universities who work in China, academics doing research in key strategic areas, and people with internationally recognized achievements in sports, economics, science, technology, culture, health, or education would all be eligible for permanent residency. Foreign permanent residents would also have easier access to buying property, investing in the domestic market, and trading in foreign currencies using their government-issued ID cards.
Though the draft regulation is not a dramatic departure from a previous regulation adopted in 2004, for many thousands of Chinese, their reactions can be summed up in a single phrase: “No thanks.”
A vocal group of netizens who seem to view the proposal as a perilous step toward compromising China racially, socially, culturally, and economically over the long run whipped up a storm of opposition in the days after the draft regulation was announced, imploring their fellow citizens to submit negative feedback via the government website and even hand-write letters protesting the potential changes.
Most of the discussion took place on Weibo, a microblogging site with nearly 500 million monthly active users, over half of which are in third- or fourth-tier cities or rural areas, which tend to be more conservative. On the platform, rallying cries against the regulation picked up hundreds of thousands of likes and shares. One Q&A thread soliciting opinions on the policy received close to 150,000 responses, with the 100 most upvoted being calls for the policy to be rejected outright.
The opposition stems in part from fears that the rules are too opaque and susceptible to abuse, and could lead to an influx of supposedly “low-quality” immigrants, particularly from Africa. Such foreigners would cause crime, abuse China’s welfare system, and intermarry with Chinese people, compromising the nation’s racial purity over time, the opponents argued. Some posts accused a Chinese academic of being a race-traitor for allegedly claiming that China needed foreigners to develop and suggesting that China’s female university students marry their foreign peers. Though these claims were later debunked, they sparked a viral discussion thread in which male netizens vowed to “protect” Chinese women from foreigners.
Other widely shared posts warned that “China must not become another France,” and falsely claimed that France had gone from being 100% white 80 years ago to 60% black and brown today. (The country is currently around 85% white.)
“In a hundred years’ time, I don’t want China to have become like the U.S., with all kinds of people mixed together,” one Weibo user wrote in a post that received over 22,000 likes. “We Chinese people have a strong national sentiment. We have the same ancestors, we’re all children of the Yellow Emperor, the same blood courses through our veins.”
However, some commentators called out the racist rhetoric as an unhelpful distraction to the real threat posed by the draft regulation — which could provide a streamlined mechanism for the purchasing of foreign currencies, thereby promoting capital flight from China. Labeling the proposal a conspiracy from “capitalist roaders,” these netizens argued that some wealthy opportunists would be more easily able to reside in China while funneling their assets abroad.
Other popular reasons for rejecting the regulation included the belief that foreigners aren’t a necessary part of China’s development, that they receive special privileges for being different — scholarships and free social insurance, for example — and that a spike in diversity might lead to culture clashes and water down the country’s collective patriotism over time.
Pointing to foreign flight from Wuhan during the COVID-19 epidemic, a female sci-fi writer who posted the top comment under the Q&A thread said that although she has many foreign friends, she thinks of them as mercenaries and tourists to China who are disloyal to the country and would abandon it at the first sign of trouble.
Wang Wei, a doctoral candidate at Hong Kong University who researches marriages between Africans and Chinese in neighboring Guangzhou, said that existing permanent residency rules for foreigners were little-known and rarely applied in China, and this may have contributed to the public’s strong reaction to the recent proposal.
“Most Chinese had no idea such rules even existed — I think only high-ranking officials and scholars in those circles knew,” Wang told Sixth Tone.
Only 7,356 green cards were issued from 2004 to 2014, and even now China’s website for consular affairs makes no reference to permanent residency for foreigners, according to Wang. When rules for permanent residency were issued in 2005, certain clauses were explicitly marked as “not for public dissemination.”
The purpose of the new rules is likely to align China’s immigration system with international standards and encourage immigration, Wang said. China’s leaders know the country is aging, he said, and will need injections of both high- and low-end labor to maintain economic growth.
China’s protesting netizens are mostly concerned with the arrival of black Africans, whom they fear will bring crime and pollute the Chinese race, according to Wang. Many Chinese proudly view themselves as members of the “yellow race,” which they consider roughly equal to whites but superior to blacks, he said, adding that such prejudices stem from a mixture of geopolitical realities and ingrained racist attitudes. Wang recalls that when he was a child, the media he consumed — both Chinese and Western — left him with two prevailing impressions of Africa: poverty and wild animals.
The emergence of social media and independent blogs has exacerbated some of these prejudices, with clickbait articles telling bald-faced lies about Africans in China proliferating under the watch of internet regulators, Wang said. In this case, however, many of the more extreme protest posts have already been deleted from Chinese social media.
Huang Kun, a doctoral student at Cornell University who studies anti-black sentiment among Chinese, said that a focus on interracial intimacy is a common feature of racist episodes in China, and that this is a byproduct of the patriarchal and heteronormative pillars of nationalism.
“There’s also the very crude kind of racism that claims that Chinese have to look and be cultured in a certain way,” Huang told Sixth Tone. She noted that, after many racist posts were deleted, their authors seemed to think that they were being repressed for expressing views that were in the best interest of the masses.
The outrage also stemmed in part from a feeling that foreigners receive preferential treatment — which does have some historical basis, Huang said. Many felt it was especially unfair for the policy proposal to come so soon after Chinese parents had “sacrificed” the younger generation to the one-child policy.
But although extreme voices tend to garner the most attention, Huang hasn’t found evidence that such views are “contagious” — they don’t seem to influence the established opinions of others. In addition, the real-life interactions she has observed between Chinese and African people have only helped reduce racism, not perpetuate it.
Online reactions haven’t been completely one-sided. Some Weibo users have called out the racist campaigners and accused netizens of blindly following the tide of public opinion. Female users have snapped back at some of the more chauvinistic posts by reminding their authors that Chinese women are neither owned by nor owed to Chinese men, and do not need protecting.
Meanwhile, other online platforms such as Q&A platform Zhihu have been barely roused by the trending topic. One blogger on the site wrote that the racism exhibited over the past few days suggests some Chinese people may be no better than the Westerners who once tossed around xenophobic slurs like “yellow peril.”
“To those of you who paint all foreigners with one brush because one or two exchange students caused some trouble, congratulations: You’re no better than all the Western media that used to demonize China,” she wrote.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: People leaving the famous wholesale market in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, April 28, 2017. VCG)