The crackdown and foreign garbage – a few ideas that still need to be addressed

For the last few weeks, the expat community in China has been abuzz with talk about Beijing’s crackdown on foreigners who are here illegally, and the growing anti-foreign sentiment that seems to be stoked by state media (Beijing Cream’s summary of what sparked it all and the fiery post that almost got China Geeks sued). So far the crackdown has already spread to Yanbian and Chengdu is preparing to announce similar measures, a nationwide campaign in the next few months would not be surprising. If we’re completely honest though, I think most of us would agree with the importance of enforcing visa policies, but dislike the tone of the rhetoric and the nationalism it encourages. I think we should also admit that most of us know people who are currently violating the terms of their visa, and that this pushes us to view the directives in a different light. Today I want to bring up a few ideas that I think are worthy of further discussion, without rehashing too much of what has already been said.

Note: China “cracks down” on lots of things, and my Chinese friends found nothing surprising about the language used. It’s highly likely that local authorities did not consider how the campaign would sound to foreigners. Hopefully, someone will learn a lesson from the backlash, the poor “journalists” at People’s Daily have been trying to put a positive spin on it for days now.

“Strengthen the management of foreigners. Crack down on the three types of illegals.” Banner in Beijing from @niubi. The three illegals are: illegal entry, overstayed visa, and illegal employment

First, it is important to note that “foreigners” is a catch-all term for a very disparate group. South East Asians and North Koreans (a second campaign was launched in North Eastern China to combat this) fill the needs of cheap physical labor in industries that are no longer enticing to Chinese workers; African traders have found a base that offers them a reasonably comfortable life, while opening a market for cheaply made Chinese goods; and young, mostly white, English speakers only partially fill the gigantic demand for teachers. They are attracted to China for many reasons, but the fact that work is easy to find is likely the most common one (I was almost made a VP of marketing for a wine distributor while shopping at the supermarket once). Unfortunately, China seems to have been completely unprepared for this, and has what could only charitably be described as a rudimentary system for handling the influx.

This brings me to my second point: except for the occasional, vague threats, there is little reason to follow China’s visa regulations for the time being. As far as I have seen, companies hiring foreigners breaching the terms of their visas never face repercussions (same in the US), and so have no reason not to hire these people. At the same time, the chances of getting caught working illegally are probably about the same as being audited by the IRS, and the salary generally is much higher than whatever the fines would be (for English Teachers). While I am in no way encouraging this behavior, it is not hard to understand why so many otherwise law abiding individuals break the terms of their visas.

This is further exacerbated by the often mercurial visa process, and the hassle associated with it (this of course coming from expats like me, who have never had to apply for a US or EU visa). Not only is it confusing for an individual applying for a visa, but it can also be incredibly difficult and expensive for companies/schools to get permission from gov’t officials to hire foreigners. In the cases I am familiar with it has been the school or company that encouraged the expat to come on a tourist visa, insisting that it is common (it is) and legal (it isn’t).

The majority of the people I know in this category are living in China on student visas, but find themselves working on holidays and weekends for spending money. I doubt that very many of these people will be swept out in this campaign, yet this group seems to be the most vocal about the crack down. Instead I think it will focus on people from other Asian countries and Africa, these are the groups that my co-workers quite openly despise and are seen as a source of crime (I don’t know of any statistics backing this up, but neither do any of my co-workers).

In the debate, it’s also worth noting that there are a large number (but a small percentage) of foreigners in China that are truly despicable, but are here completely legally. This was the case with the Russian cellist who swore at the woman on the train, and the British tourist who attempted to rape a local woman (which in Chinese is simply two undifferentiated foreign devils). Checking visas and passports does nothing to curb the underlying problems related to Chinese law enforcement.

Twice I have been approached by completely unknown expats who were teachers that openly bragged about sleeping with their students or prostitutes. After the disturbing conversation, they gave me their business cards. Yet, when I contacted their schools and the local authorities about these individuals, I was completely brushed aside. The training school in Guangdong said the man had a heart condition and therefore could not engage in sexual activity. Shanghai Normal University, where the other man was employed, said that they were confident that such a thing had not happened and weren’t going to investigate it. The gov’t agencies in Shenzhen never replied to my emails. Sadly, I doubt that this is uncommon.

Yet, I worry that even if these schools were to fire these individuals, another institute would offer them a position. The sad reality is that many institutions are so starved for foreign talent, that they never question the character of the individuals; even when presented with damning evidence they are more concerned with saving face than protecting their students (I know of similar cases involving Chinese teachers that were also covered up).

Furthermore, legal cases involving foreigners are still unclear in the eyes of law enforcement officials which leads to “special treatment.” This of course is something that expats have little control over, and quite frankly should not demand. As mentioned in today’s People’s Daily, expats pulled over for speeding are occasionally let off without a fine due to the police officer’s inability to communicate with them. While English shouldn’t be a requirement for all officers, perhaps a translation service could be set up to help police communicate with expats to avoid such unequal application of the law.

Others are let go because the officers are concerned about how to handle the situation and are wary of the possible mountains of paper work, which has been another aspect specifically mentioned in Chinese editorials on the issue. Perhaps here foreigners are targeted because it is not possible to openly criticize the military personnel and gov’t officials who also receive these undeserved privileges.

So I would like to propose the following – that we expats living in China improve our efforts to police ourselves. When we hear our friends talking about looking for work, we push them to get the proper visas. When we see obnoxiously drunk expats staggering out of a bar, we get them into a cab and on their way home. When we hear of teachers sleeping with their own students, we take action to protect their students. You can also focus on your own behavior- like withstanding the pushing on the bus without screaming and maybe even give up your seat when no one else is willing. Reply to as many “Haalllooows” with a friendly smile and wave as long as you can stomach. As unfair as it is, remember that wherever you go, you’re not only representing yourself or even your country, but all waiguoren, all ~5.6 billion of us.

About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
This entry was posted in Current Events, Life in China and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The crackdown and foreign garbage – a few ideas that still need to be addressed

  1. B says:

    I live in China and you are right. There are a few total scumbags but the majority are just trying to get by just like their Chinese hosts.

  2. Hugh Grigg says:

    Well said! It’s true about being a representative of billions of people. Like you say, however incorrect the arrangement is, the best response is to try our best to live up to the responsibility.

    The “haalllooow” thing really does get to me sometimes though. At times it almost feels like foreigners are an animal and the noise we make is “hello”, just as cows go “moo” and dogs go “woof”. This perception is all in my mind of course, but it can be hard to shake after a day of repeated “haalllooow”s and snickering.

  3. Good post Tom. Your suggestion is excellent; all us expats should do our fair share of respecting the land (and the people) we are visitors in.

  4. ToTheLightHouse says:

    The British tourist incident may be a farce choreographed deliberately by the ccp gov.As a Chinese,I really have no reason to believe that the ccp wages such a campaign for the good of chinese citizen.what they do is just the orwellian stuff:to inculcate the chinese with xenophobic dogma.They utilize this “melodrama” to convince their people that morally foreigners are not superior to chinese ruled by them or even inferior and to shift chinese netizen’s focus from such topics as 薄熙来 and 陈光诚.

    • Tom says:

      While I would agree with your conclusion, I personally don’t think that the British tourist incident was faked. I just think they have chosen to greatly play up the situation to distract from politics and the economy.

  5. sarahinguangzhou says:

    The whole policy does seem incredibly racist; the main idea seems to be to get rid of African or other black workers rather than foreigners generally.

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  7. Excellent article, and I completely agree. We need to take a hard look at our own behavior first.

  8. Jewish says:

    People say The whole policy does seem incredibly racist; Well, China have never taken Africans as slave in their history or killed jews.

    China have the rights to be as racist as they want IMO, it is their country not mine.

    • Tom says:

      Just nobody look in Tibet, Xinjiang, or Inner Mongolia. Absolutely nothing racist has happened there, ever, so don’t bother checking it out…

      Also who has the “right” to be racist? Does racism only stop being ok when it crosses that fine line between nationalism and racially motivated wars?

    • Chopstik says:

      I believe the appropriate aphorism for this is “two wrongs don’t make a right”. And if you go back through history, I think you will find that China and Chinese have not been immune to racism and racist acts. Consider the names used for foreigners or how many foreigners were viewed when they came into contact with Chinese in China during the earlier dynasties.

      Regardless, even if they had no history of their own racist behavior, that would still not be an excuse to perpetuate it in the cause of “getting even”.

  9. Isham Cook says:

    I appreciate the author’s nuanced approach to this issue, but I cannot agree with his conclusion that we need to “police” ourselves, as if most of us were not already doing this as a matter of course. There are hundreds of thousands of foreigners in China, the vast majority living and working productively and appropriately. The problems raised need to be teased out and dealt with individually: 1) The largest group living in China without “illegally” (i.e. without any kind of visa) are North Korean refugees fleeing the gulag across the border and southeast Asians trying finding gain employment (or marriage to Chinese); both of these groups should be allowed to stay in China, and China has a moral responsibility with regard to the North Koreans in particular not to send them back. 2) The remaining foreigners in China are on valid visas. Some overstay their visas (for a number of possible reasons, sometimes accidental), but few do that for long because of the heavy financial penalties. Many do “violate” the terms of their visas by working on a non-working visa, but the reality is China needs this work (primarily English teachers). Is the author suggesting the countless students productively doing some part-time teaching should stop being students and get full-time teaching jobs here instead? Give me a break. Others “violate” the terms of their visas by traveling around the country and failing to register at the local police station at every stop of the way; is the author really suggesting these tourists need more “policing”? 3) The issue of proper behavior and respect for the law is a totally different issue and has nothing to do with visas. Of course one should obey the law when traveling/living in any country; one shouldn’t make a drunken ass of oneself and should respect local mores and conventions. The tiny minority of boors not doing so are probably all on valid visas. Incidents like the attempted rape by the UK dude and the Russian cellist on the train are comparatively rare, however; with so many foreigners in China, it’s inevitable there will be a few cases like this; I’m surprised there aren’t more. Yes, it’s well-known some foreign male teachers sleep with their students, as do some Chinese male teachers. That also has nothing to do with visas. Teachers engaging in risky or inappropriate behavior will probably get flushed out and will lose their job sooner or later anyway. The majority do not do this, however, so it is really not the issue at hand. What I believe the issue at hand is, is China is experiencing growing pains, with larger numbers of foreigners coming here than ever before in history, and it’s confronting the inevitable complexities of so much contact and cultural clashes. Don’t forget about the many foreigners who go out of their way to create a good impression. And don’t forget about the occasional bad behavior of the Chinese against foreigners here, such as the recent murder of a British man by the wife of a very important government VIP, which somehow got lost in the news about “lawful” behavior in China.

    • Tom says:

      I agree with the fact that N. Koreans and SE Asians make up the bulk of this group, but let’s be honest, it’s doubtful that they are reading this post that reaches a largely Western audience based in China. So this audience is who the self-policing is aimed at. Secondly, if you’re teaching for a private company while here as a student you are breaking the terms of your visa, but hopefully China will reconsider letting students take part time jobs, which is common in other countries. This part though was meant more for those who come on a tourist visa and work without proper qualifications, this makes up the other half of illegal teachers. Thirdly, most foreigners do register while touring the country, as this is why hotels require your passport on check in.
      As for your other points, you are completely right, behavior has nothing to do with visas (as I stated in the post), but as expats we can reign in the boors, and lodge complaints with our schools if there is serious misconduct like sleeping with students. If you simply let such behavior go then it’s just a matter of time before the anti-foreign sentiment boils over.

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  11. Kyle says:

    While I appreciate the idea, the fundamental problem does not lie in the actions of foreigners but in the disproportionate reaction amongst Chinese (as well as their “higher expectations of foreigners”).

    “As unfair as it is, remember that wherever you go, you’re not only representing yourself or even your country, but all waiguoren, all ~5.6 billion of us.”

    To simply play into the skewed wishes of others, is going to do nothing to change extreme intolerance within China. This is like asking us to be “good ni–ers” in 1960’s southern US.

    The idea that we must somehow police ourselves, in areas that even the Chinese do not “police” themselves, is doing nothing but playing right into that mindset. It’s tantamount to asking a black man to carry on a “Step-n-fetch” routine in the US. Or asking us to act like chaste nuns in the middle of a prison yard.

    China is a land of extremes – for those of us who have lived in China for any real amount of time, we have come to the realization that we are treated in the extreme (from the undeserved “Rock Star” treatment, to the undeserved “粪” treatment) – However, there is no in-between – no sense of normalcy. Sure you are going to have those who bask in that rock star treatment, but for the majority of us, we simply wish to be treated as equals.

    I hate to admit it, but China needs to see MORE of the fact that people are the SAME, wherever they go. Until that realization comes to the people of China, we will only have to continue to endure this lack of normalcy.

    This mentality can be seen in some of the examples you gave:

    “Sex with students”? – While obviously it is considered taboo in the west, it is surely not considered taboo here – to the contrary, it is widely accepted and practiced by Chinese. The idea that we need to “protect their students” implies that the students need protecting and that they are victims. Maybe you have not taught in China, but to imply that students are being preyed upon is like saying an ice cream truck preys upon children.

    “…obnoxiously drunk expats staggering out of a bar” – remove the word ‘expat’ and replace it with the word ‘Chinese’, and you have one of the most common sights not only at bars but also at restaurants, KTV, and simply sitting around a bbq grill.

    • Tom says:

      Is something not taboo just because a few Chinese teachers engage in the practice? I would argue that even though this behavior is tolerated to some degree within universities, it is far from being seen as acceptable given that schools will quickly cover it up, in some cases expelling the student to protect the teacher. Secondly the idea that students need to be protected is a very strongly held idea by the Chinese public and schools will go to extremes to try and prevent students from coming into any kind of danger. At one school I worked at a student fell ill from food poisoning while on a trip home his teacher had approved – the school fired him over it. I think their reticence to remove lecherous teachers has more to do with denying the fact that anything happens than any form of acceptance on the part of society.

      Drunkenness falls into this category too, but you’ll notice that I don’t encourage people to quit drinking, just get drunk people home before they cause other problems like fighting.

  12. Jeff G. says:

    The current situation has little to do with visa laws, and much to do with the government promoting xenophobia and violence against foreigners as a distraction from their current problems, or possibly as retaliation for the Chen Guangcheng situation.

    I obey the laws, register etc because it is how I believe one should behave in any country. The simple truth your post skips over is the fact that Chinese pick and choose which laws they want to obey on a whim, and enforce them the same way.

  13. ZhangJian says:

    Some good points, but let me know if you need a hand getting down from that high horse.

  14. Isham Cook says:

    I second Kyle and Jeff G.
    ZhangJian: What’s your point?

  15. Servaas says:

    I read the article of People’s Daily English and found it funny one can easily replace “foreigners” with word “Chengguan” and the article will be just as valid.

  16. erraffety says:

    I really appreciate the spirit of your post, Tom. I think as guests in this country we invariably represent our country, and I hope we can do so with some humor and humility, even when some things get tiring or don’t swing in our favor!

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  18. Ron says:

    I am here now for 17 years and I am getting very tired of this inferiority complex of the Chinese and the “begeisterung” with anything foreign on one hand and the nationalist superiority the government drums up. earlier comments about the Orwellian role of the government is spot on. I live here, don’t bother others, work and spend so policeman no. 150 or neighborhood watch women no. 20 trying to figure out if I am another foreign spy can go and fuck themselves and usually I tell them immediately. I don’t rent, have my own apartment so as far as I am I am just as local as the rest except for that you never become local…..never ever. I don’t go out much since the racist comments and drunk violence of young drunk locals annoy me. If you understand the comments here you just don’t have to bother to comment…ignorance is bliss. I doubt if I make 20 years here. I had enough

  19. M says:

    I stopped reading your post when I saw “Twice I have been approached by completely unknown expats who were teachers that openly bragged about sleeping with their students or prostitutes. After the disturbing conversation, they gave me their business cards. Yet, when I contacted their schools and the local authorities about these individuals, I was completely brushed aside.”

    I don’t mind reporting on teacher sleeping with students, one should not really do that (although if both parties agreed, I don’t see it as so harmful), but reporting on adult guy visiting adult prostitute, sorry that’s just too much, reporting on someone, you can congratulate yourself you reached level of chinese communists, I hope you are proud about yourself reporting on other people, I am going to vomit…

    • Tom says:

      In the conversation the man referred to how the prostitutes he visited were “sweet and innocent” like his students. The fact that he was so willing to discuss at great length the process of visiting prostitutes in China and Thailand (despite being married) shows some lack of boundaries and questionable judgement. If he was a businessman I wouldn’t have said anything, if he wants to visit prostitutes that’s between him and his wife, but I draw the line when it comes to putting students at risk. I will never apologize for that.

      • M says:

        i have to agree with kyle, jeff and zhangjian, especially after finishing article and reading that absurd last paragraph. so because of chinese government trying to use foreigners topic as distraction from real problems I should start behaving even better than normal?

        I am representing myself, if it’s anyone so stupid that he is going to judge rest of world according my actions (person) I don’t need really to care about opinion of such person because it’s clearly dumb and don’t understand diversity of people/world. so if you need to be monkey to satisfy someone you will do it? where is your boundary, you have lost all your dignity in china trying to go in good way with stupid people to gain their respect?

        I have my own dignity and i have backbone (unlike some people), I am not going to do white monkey out of myself, clever people don’t judge other people by one person and if majority is dumb I don’t care, majority is dumb everywhere (we can see how demoracy fails every time again)

        I am not going to police myself to satisfy you or some nationalists affected by this stupid campaign, I’m behaving nice or better said normal according western standard which is something to look upon in China, when I see someone old in bus or subway I am offering seat and when I am helloed by small kid in subway who is sent by his mother to practice english I won’t refuse, but if I am helloed on street by bunch of young idiots or if they see me with girl and they will say in english “chinese girl” I am going just to ignore those idiots

        anyway if you know that your reporting will change nothing you are not doing it really for good reason trying to change something but just to satisfy your conscience

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