June 20 was “World Refugee Day,” but the following days witnessed strong debates over the refugee issue inside China. Many Chinese newspapers and websites highlighted the news of Yao Chen, who is a famous Chinese movie and TV star, visiting foreign refugees in both China and abroad. Those reports about refugees were viewed by Chinese public as attempts to “create a public atmosphere,” or a sign that Chinese government is preparing to accept Middle East refugees (an assumption made largely because of the official background of Chinese news agencies). Countless discussions and petitions denouncing Yao Chen and the possibility of China accepting refugees have emerged, not only on social media sites such as Weibo and WeChat, but also on several leading internet blogs. Public surveys show that a massive majority of Chinese (in some surveys, nearly 99 percent) strongly oppose the idea of settling Middle Eastern refugees, especially Muslim refugees, inside China.
This public fear of accepting refugees, especially Muslims, first and foremost reflects China’s increasing Islamophobia. Although Muslim ethnic groups inside China, such as Uyghur and Hui, are only a small percent of the total Chinese population, the total number of Chinese Muslims exceeds 20 million. Halal restaurants, hotels, and products have expanded rapidly inside China in recent years even as more and more mosques are set up. Added to this is the fact that China’s “One Child policy” targeted the majority Han ethnic group for more than three decades, while the Hui and other Muslim (and non-Muslim) minority groups have been permitted to have two or more children. There is a strong undercurrent of fear among many Chinese that China will be “Islamicized.” Against this backdrop, if China begins to accept Middle Eastern refugees, especially Muslims, many Chinese people would feel “betrayed” by the Communist government because, in the words of Professor Xi Wuyi from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “we are forced to give up our children to save space for foreigners.” Meanwhile, the continuing terrorism threat in Europe and increased reports of crimes such as rapes and murders committed by Syrian and Afghan refugees in Europe also stoked fear in the Chinese public.
In addition, negative stories about Middle Eastern refugees who have stayed in China made the Chinese public feel taken advantage of or offended. One such story recounts the example of a male Arab refugee who stayed in Beijing for seven years before he headed to Canada. He reportedly never worked or learned to speak Chinese and survived on his Chinese girlfriend’s monthly salary. When Yao Chen, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ goodwill ambassador in China, visited this refugee in Beijing and praised his Chinese girlfriend for being “hardworking,” the refugee replied: “My girlfriend should thank me because I teach her English!” Many Chinese took great offense to this “shameless” reaction.
According to other media reports, some Muslin refugees from Pakistan told their children to “never speak Chinese” because they do not want their kids to “forget English” and become Chinese. These reports also angered many Chinese and further cemented stereotypes of refugees as arrogant, ungrateful, and disrespectful of their Chinese hosts.
Beyond Islamophobia, the reluctance to accept refugees also has a political dimension. The rumor that the government might look to settle Middle Eastern refugees in China further arouse debate on the whether China has taken on excessive international responsibilities. This reason has been cited by even Chinese Muslim groups, such as Hui people, to argue strongly against accepting refugees. It should be noted that China still describes itself as “the biggest developing state” in the world. Although President Xi Jinping has created the Belt and Road initiative and increased China’s international influence, most Chinese still question whether China should help foreign states given the fact that there are still more than 500 million “underprivileged people” in China today. China’s rapidly decreasing foreign reserves and the increasing risk of Chinese investments, such as projects undertaken by Chinese state-owned companies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, encourage the Chinese public to strongly oppose any “international responsibility” to accept Middle Eastern refugees. Many Chinese believe their government is already doing enough — or even too much.
On a related note, many Chinese people believe it should be the United States, European states, or at least Arab states that resettle Middle Eastern refugees, based on the logic of “punishing” those who caused the problem in the first place. Chinese people believe the Middle Eastern refugee issue resulted from the civil wars “provoked” and “interfered” in by the West and other Middle Eastern states, and thus it should be their responsibility to take care of these refugees. In the opinions of Chinese people, China has already fulfilled its international obligations by advising relevant parties in Syria and Afghanistan to carry out dialogue and negotiation to end their civil wars. It is unacceptable to most Chinese for their country to help settle a problem widely seen as created by other states.
Chinese public strong opposition of “accepting Middle East refugee in China” demonstrates Chinese concern and anxiety over China’s decision-making procedures that lacks of transparency. Chinese public negative attitudes to Arab Muslim refugees are based not only on the Islamophobia, but also on the negative attitude of the existing Muslim refugees involvement inside China.
Wang Jin s a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Political Science, University of Haifa, Israel.