China Power

China’s Proposed Immigration Changes Spark Xenophobic Backlash Online

Recent Features

China Power | Society | East Asia

China’s Proposed Immigration Changes Spark Xenophobic Backlash Online

Beijing is facing the consequences of its own nationalist propaganda strategy.

China’s Proposed Immigration Changes Spark Xenophobic Backlash Online
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

While China is struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s Ministry of Justice has sparked another controversy over some proposed changes in China’s immigration policy. The policy proposed by Chinese officials has been slammed by Chinese internet users on the country’s social media outlets WeChat and Weibo since the ministry began seeking public consultations through departmental websites and social media in late February.

According to the proposed clauses listed by the Chinese Ministry Of Justice, the new legislation aims to attract high-income foreign nationals to permanently live in China. In order to qualify, applicants need to have made major contributions to China’s science, technologies, sports, or cultural sectors. Experts in specific subjects may also qualify for permanent residence status in China. Foreign nationals whose incomes are six times higher than local residents can also apply after working in China for four consecutive years, or eight consecutive years if their incomes are less than six times but more than three times the average income of local residents.

The latest proposed changes to China’s immigration system are designed to attract a limited number of experts, specialists, and high-income individuals who can contribute significantly to China. Yet Chinese internet users are not showing any signs of support. There were more than 70,000 comments under the original Ministry of Justice Weibo post, which later got censored because of the backlash. The ministry closed down comments on the post announcing the legislative proposal for granting permanent resident status to foreign nationals. According to reports from the Beijing News, the topic generated billions of reads on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime is attempting to win back some support on this issue from the public through its state media outlets. Following the online anger, China Daily issued an op-ed about the importance of attracting foreign talents to develop the country’s economy and technology. CGTN, another English-language state media outlet, also published an op-ed calling for “a more open and inclusive society.” However, the overwhelming voices of dissent are dominating the spotlight.

Immigration has always been a challenging issue in Chinese society. The CCP’s past policies and records are making it difficult for the Chinese government to argue in favor of immigration, even for the purpose of attracting elite talents from other countries. According to an Initium News report, the majority of people in Chinese society believe that foreign nationals have been granted privileges and special status that they do not deserve. Some critics point out the unequal treatment between local Chinese and foreign nationals, accusing the Chinese government of opening up immigration while still having population planning policies to restrict the number of children Chinese nationals can have.

It is also important to note the prevalence of hatred and racism among the voices speaking against China’s plan to attract foreign talents. From questioning the loyalties of individuals from a different race to propagating stereotypes about other ethnic groups, many internet users seem to be opposing the Chinese government’s immigration proposals not because of the potential impacts of the policies, but rather because of racial biases and prejudices. Such attitudes are all too common. In 2017, a Chinese legislator attempted to bring up a proposal to conduct stringent and swift measures to eliminate the black communities in China’s Guangdong province. Pan Qinglin, a member of China’s Political Consultative Conference, claimed that “Africans have a high rate of AIDS and the Ebola virus.” Pan further suggested that China will change from a “yellow country” to a “yellow and black country” if black communities continue to exist in China.

While some argue that those reactions are rooted in the country’s closed cultural background, it is obvious that China’s propaganda strategy has also played a huge part in fueling nationalism and anti-foreign sentiments. In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping added the importance of promoting “cultural confidence” as a major propaganda theme. The cultural confidence portion began to advocate for stronger recognition of China’s cultural strength and traditional values. Adding to the propaganda efforts promoting the country’s political system, the CCP’s messages have been actively instigating nationalism that shows little respect for other cultures around the world.

In 2018, a short program show on China’s CCTV Chinese Spring Festival Gala had an actress dressed in blackface. Ironically designed to demonstrate China’s positive influence in Africa, the skit featured several disturbing scenes that sparked controversies. In addition to having a Chinese actress in blackface and wearing fake buttocks, the program also made cast members of African descent dress in animal costumes to perform “African dances.”

China Central Television, also known as CCTV, is one of the most important propaganda outlets in China. Its annual Spring Festival Gala is recognized as an essential channel to set out the country’s core propaganda messages of the year.

This was not the only occasion where the Chinese government found its representations to be endorsing racism. In July 2019, Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian made inappropriate comments about black and Hispanic communities in the United States on Twitter: “If you’re in Washington, D.C., you know the white never go” to certain a part of the city “because it’s an area for the black & Latin.” Zhao later deleted the tweet after getting called out for his racist remarks. Instead of getting fired or receiving any kind of disciplinary measures, Zhao was later promoted by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now serves as the ministry’s new spokesperson.

From greenlighting a show that featured blackface and enhanced biases on national state media to promoting a diplomatic official who openly propagates hatred against other ethnic groups, it is evident that the Chinese government is fueling the country’s propaganda message with a narrow-minded nationalism at the cost of respecting equality and justice. It should not be a surprise, then, that many Chinese are outraged at the idea of allowing foreigners of different races and ethnicities to become permanent residents in China.

Through years of promoting nationalism and unity, Chinese propaganda has in fact put up a significant barrier for its government to implement effective immigration policies to attract foreign talents to reside and work in the country. While China often praises its own political system for being efficient and effective, its propaganda strategies are now, ironically, impeding the government’s own legislative agenda.

Chauncey Jung is a China internet specialist who previously worked for various Chinese internet companies in Beijing.