China Power

Foreigners Under Fire

Chinese commentators appear to be increasingly training their fire on foreigners. It’s a troubling development.

My new book, Lost Colony: the Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West, won’t be published in mainland China. It might have found a strong readership there. Its main personage, Koxinga, is famous for driving the Dutch from Taiwan and bringing the island under Chinese rule. The story of his triumph is a gripping one, and I strove to tell it in a balanced way: no East versus West, just humans scrambling to do their best during hard times. As a member of the global history movement, this kind of balanced history is what I strive for. It’s the mission of my scholarly life.

But Chinese censors apparently don’t truck with balance. My erstwhile publisher asked whether I would acquiesce to omitting some “sensitive material” and changing some wording. It sounded like an innocuous request until I got to the details. Since Koxinga is considered a “positive figure in China,” my publisher informed me that the text would have to omit any discussion of torture by him and his soldiers. (Descriptions of Dutch atrocities were acceptable, though.) The book couldn’t refer to Koxinga as a “conqueror” or a “warlord,” and his “restoration of Taiwan” couldn’t be referred to as an invasion or an attack. Similarly, any mention of resistance by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples (who, historical sources make clear, rose up and killed thousands of his soldiers), would also have to be excised, on the grounds that such episodes hint of “some sort of consciousness of Taiwanese independence.” The Chinese publisher said that if I refused to make such changes, the translation wouldn’t proceed. “Abridgement,” I was told, “is unavoidable.”

And so I set aside my dreams of renown and royalties and said no.

I wouldn’t have thought it worth mentioning this episode if it didn’t seem to be part of a troubling trend. The party’s censors seem to be focusing more attention on foreign authors as of late.

Recently, Chinese authorities kicked American reporter Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera out of China, refusing to renew her visa. It was the first time in 14 years that a foreign correspondent had been banned from the country. As China specialist Evan Osnos notes, her expulsion is a sign that “China is moving backwards.”

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It’s just one of many signs. China’s publishers have flexed their muscles at this year’s London Book Fair, arguably the most important gathering of publishers in the world. Historian Jonathan Mirsky attended and describes his increasing dismay as he interacted with the many Chinese who manned the official booths. One high-ranking representative informed him that all foreigners lie about China, saying it in such an offhanded manner that it was clear the man felt it were an obvious fact. When Mirsky asked what lies they tell, the man turned to an assistant and said, in Chinese, “Don’t talk to this foreigner.” Mirsky revealed that he could understand Mandarin, to which the man said, in English, “You’re a shit.” Mirsky’s piece is worth reading in full, particularly the part where a Chinese representative gives him a stuffed panda as a symbol of China’s friendliness and openness and then snatches it back again when he asks about dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.

But most troublesome of all are recent rantings by Yang Rui, an urbane host of CCTV’s internationally-broadcast English-language program “Dialogue.” As he himself acknowledged, Yang is a de facto “spokesperson” for China in the international media. Yet in recent microblog posts, he has been fulminating against foreigners, accusing them of spying in China and engaging in human trafficking. Referring to the banned journalist Melissa Chan, he wrote, “We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China.” An editorial in the People’s Daily suggests that communist officials are backing Yang, who also has a history of making remarks on his microblog that many people interpret as anti-Semitic.

China experts believe this surge of xenophobia may be related to recent signs of factionalism within the party. Chinese officials know that blaming foreigners is an easy way to deflect attention from their own failures. Should China’s economic slowdown continue, expect to see anti-foreign sentiment continue to increase.

China’s most glorious periods of history were times when foreigners and Chinese mixed and traded and cooperated in grand profusion. In fact, one reason the famous Koxinga won his war against the Dutch is that he was better at incorporating foreigners and foreign ideas into his army and administration. I talk about this in my book. Too bad it won’t be available in China.

Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of the recent book ‘Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West‘.