Will It Blow Over? Beijing’s Immigration Crackdown and Anti-Foreign Sentiment

Beijing Public Security Bureau announced on May 14 a 100-day crackdown on illegal immigration. At the same time, anti-immigrant rhetoric is heating up in China. Is this likely to all blow over?

During the 100-day campaign, PSB officers will perform random visa checks on foreigners in public spaces and apartment complexes in areas such as Sanlitun and the University District. PSB also set up a hotline for the public to report suspicious foreigners. PSB will be looking for the “three illegals,” namely, unlawful entry to China, unauthorized employment, and illegal residence in China.

Let’s look at what caused these events. The tactics PSB is using during the campaign are similar to the ones employed in 2007 and during the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Some say this year’s crackdown is analogous: it’s intended to promote stability and to bolster nationalism in advance of this fall’s 18th National Congress of the CCP, during which a new Politburo Standing Committee will be annointed. In other words, to calm the waters in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal.

Others see the immigration crackdown as a way to bolster support for the Party after the embarrassment of the February bid by Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, for asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s May bid at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

And the crackdown may be a way to deflect attention from China’s recent economic downturns.

In support of these theories, it seems the government has given a green light to xenophobic expressions. The PSB’s campaign was announced just days after a May 8 incident, caught on video, in which an apparently inebriated British man attempted to assault a young Chinese woman and was then set upon and beaten by several Chinese men passing by.

A May 14 video posted online showed the principal cellist with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, a Russian, getting into a fight on a high-speed train from Shenyang to Beijing after he placed his bare feet atop the seat in front of him. When a female passenger complained, Oleg Vedernikov hurled an unprintable Chinese slur at her. He apologized several days later, speaking in Russian in a video also posted online. But it was too late to stop the orchestra from dismissing him.

Both videos showcase dismal behavior by foreigners, but there are ne’er-do-wells in any population. The problem is that the government seems to have encouraged the videos to go viral.

Most disturbing, Yang Rui, host of the show Dialogue on government-owned CCTV International, posted on his Weibo microblog: “Cut off the foreign snake heads,” Yang wrote May 16. “People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists, while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West.” Yang capped his tirade against “foreign trash” with a salute to the Chinese government for its recent decision to expel Melissa Chan, a U.S. journalist at the news network al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. “We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing,” he wrote. This by the man who presents China to the world nightly on CCTV.

Given these causes of the PSB’s campaign, here’s my take on whether it will blow over.

First, there’s a long history of similar government actions to encouraging anti-immigrant sentiment and deflect public attention from real societal woes. In the U.S., witness Arizona’s SB1070 and the Chinese Exclusion Laws. In China, consider the Boxer Rebellion; demonstrations in Beijing after the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 NATO campaign in Yugoslavia; and the 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations throughout China.

Styling the current PSB efforts in Beijing as a “campaign” and a “crackdown” has the smell of anti-immigrant political motivation not evenhanded law enforcement. Consider, for example, the Beijing PSB use of the image of the “strike hard” fist typically associated with Chinese public crackdown campaigns.

So, to me the PSB campaign does seem to represent a politically opportunistic attempt to stir up nationalistic sentiments. As such, is likely to blow over, just like the immigration enforcement was moderated after the 2008 Olympics or the government dialed back the 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations once they had made their point. In fact, the Beijing PSB publicity this week of  a proposed 3-day visa-free travel policy may be an effort to begin to tone down anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Second, while we can expect the anti-immigrant rhetoric to die down, immigration law enforcement is here to stay. A draft of a new Law on Exit-Entry Management has been introduced in China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). The draft does not yet appear on the NPC’s website, but according to press reports, the law would cover various issues. For example, it would create a centralized records system to track information regarding foreigners in China, allowing sharing among the currently disconnected systems housed in the public security, foreign affairs, and other departments; it would provide for the fingerprinting of foreigners upon entering China and applying for residence permits; and it would enhance overstay and illegal employment penalties.

Increased immigration law enforcement is likely because China is experiencing a new trend of economic immigration, at the same time that emigration continues. The driving forces behind the trend are the nation’s economic growth and changing demography. As China modernizes and urbanizes, smaller families are preferred, labor force growth is slowing, and the elderly population is increasing. This results in wage pressure and economic immigration.

These demographic trends will require updated immigration laws and better enforcement. China still doesn’t have the administrative laws and bureaucracy in place to deal with large-scale immigration. Administrative responsibilities are scattered over numerous departments, such as public security, foreign affairs, human resources, foreign experts, commerce, and education. This creates conflicts and uncertainty in the regulated community of foreigners and their Chinese employers. Also, many rules are not publicly available and vary from place to place.

In sum, to me the Beijing PSB’s current campaign and the accompanying anti-immigrant rhetoric do seem to be politically opportunistic attempts to stir up nationalistic sentiments and are likely to blow over when they are no longer politically convenient. At the same time, immigration law enforcement is likely to be here to stay.

3 thoughts on “Will It Blow Over? Beijing’s Immigration Crackdown and Anti-Foreign Sentiment”

  1. China still doesn’t have the administrative laws and bureaucracy in place to deal with large-scale immigration is an understatement. China does not allow any immigration, and has no plans to allow it. By immigration i mean a path towards citizenship and nationality.

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