As China’s economic and military clout grows, it seeks power and respect. Beijing has intelligently recognized that to gain its desired status, the gap between its middling soft power – its capacity for non-military projection of influence – and its muscular hard power must shrink. Until it confronts difficult issues of global governance – such as the refugee crises – head on, it will not be seen as a responsible burden sharer. China cannot have its cake and eat it, too. To enjoy the advantages of being an international stakeholder, it inevitably has to agree to bear the costs that come with this.
Despite being party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, China has no domestic definition of refugee. Its 1982 Constitution grants it the ability, not the duty, to “grant asylum…for political reasons,” but language from the 1978 version equates “political” with what the Communist Party of China considers “revolutionary movements,” excluding many who would fall under the UN’s definition of refugee.
China’s incoherent refugee policy makes it difficult to count the actual number of refugees it harbors. The UNHCR counts 317,255 registered refugees in China, but naturally misses those out of its reach. About 300,000 of these registered refugees fled Indochina due to the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, and are mostly ethnic Chinese Hoa people. Although they faced some initial discrimination as “overseas Chinese,” the Hoa are culturally similar to citizens in China’s southern provinces, and therefore have been fairly well-integrated. Most public goods – education, healthcare, employment opportunities – afforded to Chinese citizens are also available to them. Although still designated as refugees, the Hoa people appear to enjoy a relatively stable position in Chinese society.
The rest of the 317,255 are mostly from Africa and the Middle East, but tens of thousands of unregistered asylum seekers also live in China. In the past ten years, armed conflicts in Myanmar have pushed tens of thousands of people into China’s Yunnan Province. China has treated some migrants better than others, but it has rejected UN involvement in all cases. Ethnic Kachins faced harassment from officials before being expelled from China by People’s Liberation Army troops in 2011. Chinese agencies provided ethnic Kokangs with food and shelter for a few months in 2015, but abandoned them thereafter. These populations would likely be protected by the UNHCR, but Chinese authorities bar humanitarian access to their remote settlements, leaving them undocumented and isolated.
As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), China does not explicitly reject the UNHCR’s authority for fear of jeopardizing its UNSC veto. However, that is not to say that China fully accedes to its mandate. The multilateral nature of the UN can produce outcomes that are watered down by a multitude of competing interests. Bilateral or unofficial negotiations allow China more room to twist its counterpart’s arm to achieve an optimal result. In this case, the UNHCR maintains offices in Beijing and Hong Kong, but China refuses to cooperate with cataloging and processing refugees within the country. The Hoa populations are integrated enough to be self-sufficient, but for other persons of concern living in China, the UNHCR is their sole provider. Even when the popular actress Yao Chen, a UNHCR goodwill ambassador, pushed for China to admit refugees on Weibo in June, she was met with public outrage.
Chinese citizens increasingly disapprove of the UN as a whole, perhaps for curtailing China’s growth and arbitrating territorial disputes unfavorably. The UNHCR is no exception, for three reasons. First, China fears the economic cost of providing the refugee services that the UNHCR advocates. Second, granting full access to the UNHCR could expose China’s poor treatment of refugees. Beijing would have no good excuse for its actions, and this attention could spill over to China’s record with its Uyghur population, political dissidents, and other marginalized groups. Third, it would rattle domestic politics, as granting North Korean defectors refugee status is politically unfeasible, and the bad press China would receive may foment political instability. If China accepted the UNHCR’s terms, it would open another can of worms that it cannot afford.
China even passes the buck on the world’s most high-profile refugee crisis. The United States has absorbed more than 18,000 Syrian refugees since 2011, has contributed $6.5 billion in humanitarian assistance since 2012, and still receives criticism for not doing enough. This criticism may be warranted, but compared to China, the United States looks like the exemplar of charity. By the end of 2015, China had admitted only nine Syrian refugees. Beijing did pledge ten thousand metric tons of food aid and $135 million in 2016, as well as an additional $29.5 million in January. Foreign Minister Wang Yi claims that China offers monetary aid “compatible with [its] abilities,” but according to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service, China donated about as much to Syrian refugees in 2016 as Hungary did: around $3 million.
Chinese scholars contend that Washington should take responsibility for “creating the problem in the first place” and that repatriation should be emphasized over resettlement. These are fair points, but they do not annul China’s normative obligation to extend real and meaningful aid contributions to vulnerable peoples. Neither does China’s admission of Arab businesspeople to the boomtown of Yiwu – these migrants flee conflict and persecution, but instead of receiving support, they are only granted short-term visas and pay business taxes and language fees themselves.
No longer can Beijing hide under the aegis of “non-interference” to dodge calls to action. China’s negligence of today’s refugees furthers its image as an unwilling member of the global community. To improve its reputation, it must show that it takes refugees seriously. A comprehensive review, overhaul, and publication of its refugee policy would be a good start. If China really buys into the rules-based international order, it should start acting that way.
Jonathan Lesh is a researcher at the East Asia program of the Stimson Center. The views and opinions expressed here are of the author only.