Foreigners in China in the Time of Coronavirus: “See the Whole as Well as the Parts”

One of the most unfortunate twists in the ongoing COVID-19 emergency is the racism and xenophobia it has unleashed across the world. To be sure, much of this has been directed at Chinese and Asians generally.  See our plea to stop this here: Do Not Blame Chinese People for the Coronavirus. No Exceptions.
However, concerns in China over a potential second wave caused by “imported” new cases have devolved into vile hostility against foreigners, on account of their foreignness. According to a Guardian article, foreigners

have been turned away from restaurants, shops, gyms and hotels, subjected to further screening, yelled at by locals and avoided in public spaces.


Experiences range from socially awkward to xenophobic. An American walking with a group of foreigners in a park in Beijing saw a woman grab her child and run the other way. Others have described being called “foreign trash”. A recent online article, under an image of ship stacked with refuse being pushed away from China’s coast, was headlined: “Beware of a second outbreak started by foreign garbage.”

What the Guardian reports perfectly matches with what we are hearing directly from people in China. Though I could certainly dig deeper and connect what is happening right now to long term historical trends in China, I won’t, as that would give a pass to the cretins in Italy who assaulted a 15-year-old boy while screaming “Go away! You’re bringing us disease,” or the person in Texas who attempted to murder a family “because he thought [they were] infecting people with the coronavirus.”

Having said that, this is the China Law Blog, and so we focus on what happens there and what is happening there should be of serious concern to foreigners who live or do business in China.

To be clear, as the world faces its “greatest test” since WWII, it is absolutely reasonable for governments to impose certain restrictions. Though much hay has been made about China’s ban on foreign travelers, it is not that different from what other countries are doing. Sure, it’s an arbitrary cutoff from a medical standpoint, but as a practical matter it will likely reduce the workload for officials at China’s ports of entry and quarantine facilities, while still ensuring the country can adequately tend to its returning citizens. Some will point to the fact that “around 90 per cent of imported cases had involved Chinese nationals,” but China does have some basis for trying to keep out that other 10%.

Where China’s response turns sinister is when foreigners can’t enter their regular gym or market because they are foreigners. Let’s be honest: If a Chinese national who had been living in Seattle since before the COVID-19 outbreak began was not allowed to enter his local gym, or could not buy a bus ticket to travel to Portland, there would justifiably be outrage and legal repercussions. Travel history is a valid criterion for assessing COVID-19 risks; nationality and ethnicity are not.

But as outrageous as the incidents that have been happening with increasing regularity in China are, dealing with discrimination (both positive and negative) has always been part of the challenge of working in China and other countries. An American friend was once asked to leave a club in Almaty, as it was not safe for “Russians” (read, non-ethnic Kazakhs) after a certain hour. I have personally seen “Japanese Only” signs outside bars in Shinjuku. Visiting a museum in Crete, I was waved in without charge as a “European Union citizen,” while my Asian-American classmate who went in a few minutes later was charged.

These experiences sting, but they’re part of the cost of doing business overseas. However, there is a fine line between irritation and real harm. Consider these China scenarios:

In mid-March, a coach station in Zhuhai refused to sell a bus ticket to a British man named Tom due to his nationality. After handing his passport to the staff member at the bus station, she said that “the company isn’t selling tickets to people from the UK.” Despite the fact that Tom had traveled to Zhuhai via the same bus company three days prior, the staffer maintained that “the company policy is that they aren’t allowing UK citizens to buy tickets.”

Imagine Tom is a sourcing professional who lives with his wife in Taishan and was trying to get back there after a business trip . There is no train from Zhuhai to Taishan, and it’s a 75-mile taxi ride, assuming a taxi driver is willing to make the drive, for a foreigner, in the midst of COVID-19 paranoia. Depending on the time of the day, Tom might have no choice but to bunk down in Zhuhai for the night and then review his options the next morning. But checking into a hotel might not be an option either.

Now imagine Tom lives in Shenzhen and so has more transport options to get back home. Maybe it takes him a little bit longer and/or he pays more than he anticipated, but he manages to get back home without being too inconvenienced. He reasonably decides to stay put and not attempt intercity travel. Fortunately, Shenzhen is a major electronics hub, so he should be able to get a lot done for his clients in that industry without leaving town. Unfortunately, “Huaqiangbei market, a well-known shopping destination for electronics and other gadgets in Futian district, recently barred foreigners from entering.”

The completely unreasonable restrictions being placed on foreigners trying to get on with their daily lives in China has and will continue to compromise the livelihoods of many. Tasks like finding a new apartment as a lease is about to expire (or after a landlord refuses to renew it) are also made more difficult:

With much of the lockdown lifted in Shenzhen, American Rachel Walters and her Brazilian housemate looked for a new apartment but several communities refused to let her view flats.
Guards at one compound demanded to see her passport, health check and proof that she had been in the country, she said – requirements that have become common for both foreigners and Chinese citizens during the outbreak.

“After seeing all of that they just said, ‘no, no foreigners inside, we won’t accept foreigners’,” she said.

Even being denied access to the gym or nearby eateries can, before long, become serious quality of life issues.

It is worth stressing that these are actions being taken by bus companies, hotels and the management companies of world-famous markets — not only bouncers or restaurant owners or gym managers.  Indeed the Chinese authorities themselves have been exhibiting xenophobia as well. China’s travel restrictions extend to those with residence permits. By contrast, in the US, permanent residents are being treated as citizens for travel restriction purposes: a recognition that, despite their foreign passport, these persons belong in America. Canada is also exempting permanent residents and their families. The message the Chinese government sends to its foreigners is that they are not valued or even wanted.

On a more personal level, foreigners — particularly Americans — are getting tarred with the lie that they started the coronavirus in China so as to “slow down China’s rise.” This has become the Chinese government’s de facto position regarding its genesis and many Chinese citizens now believe and have become angered by this. We are hearing countless reports from foreigners being yelled at (sometimes while out with their children) for “wanting to harm China.”

The most interesting — and concerning — thing about China’s response is what it tells us about broader attitudes towards foreigners, and their place in China’s economy and society. If this is what is happening now, imagine how it will be if a severe second wave of COVID-19 hits China. I have no doubt some (probably most) medical professionals in China will act ethically when faced with foreign COVID-19 patients — but I would not count on such fair treatment across the nation. This current mood could also provide cover for those in China who want to mistreat foreigners for more mundane reasons. It’s the ideal time to fire foreigners and renege on contracts and my law firm’s international employment lawyers have been getting a steady stream of emails to this effect for months.

It’s a shame things are this way, but to pretend they are any different is both dishonest and harmful. As Chairman Mao said, “See the whole as well as the parts.” The parts are the small acts of hostility being experienced by foreigners across China as the country deals with an undoubtedly traumatic experience — albeit by no means one that excuses racism and xenophobia. The whole is a broader context that far predates coronavirus, which leads to proud announcements that “China is not an immigrant country.” This is evidently not the view of everyone in China, but it is also not an uncommon sentiment. And frankly it should be up to the Chinese to decide what kind of country they want. The question for foreigners in China, more urgent than ever, is in what kind of country do they want to live.

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