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Xenophobia, Patriarchy, and China’s Immigration Problem

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Xenophobia, Patriarchy, and China’s Immigration Problem

The patriarchal aspect of China’s nationalism is an intractable problem.

Xenophobia, Patriarchy, and China’s Immigration Problem
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

The new immigration guidelines drafted by China’s Ministry of Justice sparked xenophobic backlash online soon after their publication. As Chauncey Jung has written for The Diplomat, the conditions for obtaining permanent residence are relatively stringent, and the new guidelines appear to be more like a global talent attraction plan rather than a government ploy to import international migrant workers en masse. It’s observable that opposition to the Chinese government’s immigration proposals is, by and large, “not because of the potential impacts of the policies, but rather because of racial biases and prejudices.”

The leading factor behind the backlash is the guiding ethnocentric nationalism that has instilled a binary “us vs. them” mentality in the minds of many Chinese. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has seemingly acknowledged the pervasive ethnocentrism problem, republishing Li Anshan’s view that “Ignorance is persistent, and some Chinese harbor prejudices toward not just Africans but people from other continents as well.”

It would be a lesser problem if ignorance alone was the leading cause of the China-centric world view that propels racism. With the Chinese government’s firm grip on educational materials and curriculum, newer generations born in a more globalized world may be more tolerant of a multiethnic society.

Nationalism can run two ways. The pride in history in which China’s nationalism is rooted identifies the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 CE) as the heyday of Chinese power. Notably, this was a time when the rulers of China were of mixed ancestry; foreign subjects, in awe of Tang prestige, frequented China and blended with the locals. The concept of “China” has also been a somewhat pliable concept that managed to assimilate different ethnic groups throughout history. Therefore, the patriotism driving the nation toward fulfilling “the Chinese Dream” could also propel an embrace of foreign talents to aid China’s businesses and technological development.

Given the Chinese leadership’s dependence on the economy and their pursuit of a powerful nation, the government should be incentivized to act and propel the masses to embrace a multiethnic and multicultural view of the nation. In addressing the issue, the state media have pushed official narratives arguing that “providing foreign talents with permanent residence is an international practice, it’s a necessary path to achieve a ‘great nation with an abundance of talents.’” If so, then xenophobia in China – especially against blacks and Muslims – and popular discontent about the privileges of foreign nationals should be solvable through calibrated maneuvering of public discourse and policies.

Yet the more inextricable aspect of the issue is the patriarchal aspect of China’s nationalism, which has virtually gone unmentioned. It’s notable that in China, acute cases of xenophobia are mostly driven by Chinese men’s frustration over the relationship between local women and foreign men. As early as 1988, thousands of Chinese gathered in protest after two African students at Hehai University brought Chinese girls into their dorms. The notion that the “the body and sexuality of a nation’s women are properties of the nation’s men, and should not be claimed by foreign men” was one of the main reasons instigating the public to berate Shandong University’s “Buddy Program,” which paired international students with multiple students of the opposite sex to exchange culture and language.

The patriarchal mindset and its resentment of women “marrying down” to a foreign man is prevalent in many parts of the world. In the case of China, James Farrer pointed out that marriage with foreign men is interpreted as “a failure of Chinese masculinity,” and women have been constantly harassed for doing so. The mindset explains why there are so few, if any, xenophobic movements against bride trafficking and “mail-order brides” from Southeast Asia and Central Asia – places Chinese often deem as poverty-stricken. Most xenophobic incidents seem to gain public attention when they involve local women’s interracial relationships with foreign men.

The patriarchal aspect of China’s nationalism is an intractable problem. Not only are authorities indifferent toward the issue, but over 40 percent of the rural population still largely adheres to a traditional patriarchal mindset. The traditional social structure and lack of social discourse on patriarchy hold back female empowerment movements in China.

As China’s global outreach increases and its ties and interpersonal exchanges grow more intricate through its Belt and Road Initiative, more exchanges between Chinese women and foreign men (and vice versa) should be expected. Under this backdrop, China may find its xenophobia, fueled by a patriarchal nationalism, to be a major source of conflict with its Asian-African-Latin American partners, especially given that anti-Chinese sentiments also exist in these countries.