Seeing Refugees in China: A realist bystander

On 20 June 2017, a piece of micro-blog (similar to twitter) written by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) caused a breakout of public anger and worry regarding refugees in the People’s Republic of China. The micro-blog, which only had 10,000 followers at that time, became a platform to protest the emerging plan of action to accept refugees in China. Furthermore, according to an online poll called《微博网友“难民欢迎度”网络调查》数据分析报告 (“Microblogging friends” refugee welcome degree “network survey” data analysis report) that was conducted later, 97.4% of the 200,000 participants refuse to accept refugees, highlighting that the opinion on the micro-blog is significantly widespread. However, the triggering micro-blog post by UNHCR is rather mild. The message simply asks people to show respect to refugees in the Middle East who fight for their lives in exile. One of the Chinese citizens’ favorite comments on this message is that we should respect people because of their contribution to this state, not simply because they are the weak.

This attitude is nothing new. Recently, there have been rumors of accepting refugees, which have drawn more attention from the public because of the refugee crisis in Europe. There were popular articles telling stories like ‘twenty refugee camps have been secretly set up in a number of cities’ and ‘Chinese government plans to accept 300,000 refugees from the Middle East’. All of these articles were eventually blocked by the Chinese government as fake news, but the impact has been made. The majority of the public is extremely unwelcoming of refugees due to many concerns, and the government stands behind the scenes, callous and emotionless.

Image courtesy of U.S. Marines in Japan Homepage, © 2013, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of U.S. Marines in Japan Homepage via Wikipedia, © 2013, some rights reserved

South Vietnamese Refugees 

Public opinion in China is largely shaped by government propaganda. Most citizens have little experience with refugees, or even more generally any person coming from a different nationality, ethnicity, or race. China is not a state built on immigrants. In fact, getting a Chinese residence card is extremely difficult for people who are born outside the country. Thus, the society is a highly unified one, in which newcomers are likely to be suspect and alien. This raises other issues, like social equality and religious freedom. For example, an article with the title translated as ‘state compensation for refugees are five times as much as pensions for Chinese citizens’ reveals the worry over the potential unequal distribution of resources after refugees are accepted. Additionally, the religious beliefs of refugees are carefully weighed because of growing Islamophobia in the state.

Furthermore, some people see a bigger picture in the rumors, believing that it is a so-called western conspiracy which is manipulating the Chinese government to accept refugees. The Chinese government’s mindset is simple: it divides the world into two parts, namely China and China’s enemies. It is worth noticing that there are enemies within the people. Yao Chen, a well-known actress and four-year UNHCR National Goodwill Ambassador, supported and reposted UNHCR’s micro-blog, which led to her being fiercely attacked for betraying her culture and being brainwashed by the West.

The Chinese government furthers this sense of suspicion. State press and broadcasts have been actively reporting on the refugee crisis in Europe, particularly focusing on the seemingly unstoppable immigrant flow and the dilemma the EU found itself in. These issues are related to the more macro-level problems of the West. Political systems and values in the West are scrutinized and criticized. The translated ‘Refugee crisis in Europe reveals the weaknesses of the West’ is one of those articles published on an influential party journal, qiu’shi (query for truth). It attributes the refugee crisis to Western failure in diplomacy and the impractical ambition of establishing democracy in the Middle East. Therefore, dealing with the refugee crisis is interpreted as the West eating its own bitter fruits.

China’s stance on Western intervention in the Middle East is becoming increasingly clear. China, along with Russia, has vetoed the UN’s intervention in Syria several times in the name of non-intervention. And criticism on so-called Western democracy is a constant theme for the state press. However, apart from criticizing and questioning the West, the Chinese government shows little interest in helping to solve the crisis by accepting refugees. In a press conference of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in September 2015, the spokesman answered the question ‘would China accept refugees from Iraq and Syria?’ by saying that the international community needs a solution that can fundamentally turn the situation around, and this solution is most likely to be eliminating poverty and restoring peace in the refugees’ home countries. Two years later, the foreign minister Wang YI re-insisted this stance, and claimed that refugees are not and cannot be immigrants. It is essential to help them return to and rebuild their homeland. It is unclear if China has truly taken steps towards this.

Broadly, China sees refugees as the legacy of colonialism, the consequence of Western interference in the Middle East, and the evidence of failed applications of Western values in the region. China does not expect to accept or even share the consequences caused by others. Events like the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis are regionally limited to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In addition to that, there is no consensus or norm on how to deal with refugee issues in Asia; the norms followed primarily by Western world are not headed. It can be easily observed in the recent case of Rohingya refugee crisis, in which little substantial humanitarian aid has been provided by neighboring states (for example, refugees are not allowed to step on territory in most cases). In contrast to the constantly intense criticism coming outside the region, most Asian states, except Indonesia, are quiet. However, it is impossible for China to remain a complete bystander in this refugee crisis or any similar issues in the future. In the short term, as a key member of the Security Council, China has been deeply involved in the international community’s efforts to restore peace in Syria. Meanwhile, China has been establishing increasingly close cooperation with some states in the Middle East, as a key part of ‘one belt one road’. China’s role is often described as a mere businessman in its relationship with the Middle Eastern states, because the state is willing to trade with any potential partners regardless of their political records. It is difficult to say whether China can keep playing such role, especially in an era when the state seeks greater influence across the globe. As the think tank report titled “一带一路”:与中国和亚洲合作的新愿景 (“Along the way”: New vision for cooperation with China and Asia) shows, China should take more responsibility for international humanitarian aid, because it is the expectation of a great state from the international community.

The hospitality of all human beings proposed by Cosmopolitan ideals is something remote here. Individual experiences of refugees are absent. Instead, China is more of a Machiavellian bystander. As Machiavelli once wrote, ‘blind mercy is dangerous and shallow love can destroy a state’. We shall not only pursue love and beauty, but also need to control dangerous moral impulse. Above all, we need to be aware that many disasters are rooted in a silly idealism.