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.
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.