Foreigners will be faced with a question of identity

Updated: 2012-05-29 02:40

By Cui Jia, He Na and Peng Yining (China Daily)

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Foreigners will be faced with a question of identity
Sanlitun, in Beijing, is a popular destination for foreigners. [Wang Jing / China Daily] 

Police campaign means proper documents must be carried at all times, Cui Jia, He Na and Peng Yining report in Beijing.

Mike Jones took his passport and rental contract to Shuangjing police station in Beijing's Chaoyang district on Sunday.

The 26-year-old US citizen, who has been in China since 2008, had not felt the need to register with the police before a 100-day crackdown was launched on May 15 to combat what's become known as the "three illegals". This refers to foreigners who have entered illegally, overstayed their visa or been employed without obtaining a work permit.

The freelance documentary producer returned from Los Angeles on Saturday and said "turning himself in" was the first thing he did.

"I heard about the crackdown when I was in the US and then remembered that I hadn't registered with the local police, as required after moving to my new apartment. I really don't want to get into trouble," he said. "I know when the Chinese authorities use the term 'crackdown', they mean business."

At a counter with a sign reading "Temporary residence registration for foreigners", a policewoman took Jones' passport and checked that his visa was in order. She then entered his passport details and current address into the computer and printed out a police registration card within five minutes.

"Make sure you carry the card and your passport with you at all times for routine stop-and-checks," she said, handing over the card. "Also, you can show the card to the taxi driver to take you home when you're drunk." She wasn't joking.

The policewoman said Shuangjing police station issues a large number of police registration cards. The area is popular with foreigners for two reasons: It is in close proximity to the central business district and also the apartments are relatively modern. "I hear that the number of foreigners registered with Nanhu police station near the Wangjing area is the highest in Beijing and the majority of them come from the Republic of Korea," she added, explaining that locals often refer to the area as "Korean Town".

Citizens of the ROK, the US, Canada, Russia and Japan were the top five nationalities involved in "three illegal" cases in 2011, according to the exit-entry administration of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.

More than 20,000 "three illegal" foreigners were dealt with nationwide last year, according to Yang Huanning, vice-minister of public security.

However, the crackdown has provoked controversy within Beijing's expatriate community and the overwhelming reaction has been one of concern.

Ismael de Pierrepont, a 29-year-old Frenchman who works for an online Chinese retail company, said some friends were recently asked by police to show their passports in the Sanlitun area of Beijing, a popular spot for foreigners. "One of my friends had to sneak out of a bar through the back door, because he didn't have his passport with him," he said. "Since then I have carried my passport with me at all times."

Having lived in Beijing for four years, De Pierrepont said he wasn't surprised by the campaign. "I've had the police knock on my door and ask to see my passport, without giving a reason. It has happened twice in the past four years," he said. "I didn't say anything. I simply showed them my passport.

"I speak Chinese, I have Chinese friends and I use Sina Weibo (China's leading micro blog service). I know what's going on in China and I know the rules," he said. "If the government asks you to do something, you do it."

What concerns him is not the policy itself, but the attitude that surrounds it. "In China, I always feel so different," he said. "People treat you differently, for good or bad, just because you are foreign."

Take the phrase laowai, the common Chinese term for foreigners: De Pierrepont said it can sometimes be used as a pejorative term rather than simply a neutral description. "The word sometimes sets the two groups, Chinese and foreigners, in opposition," he said.

Age-old enmity can also play a role, something De Pierrepont discovered when visiting Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) in Beijing, a couple of years ago. After discovering his nationality, a Chinese visitor told De Pierrepont, "I don't like French people." His prejudice stemmed from the days of the Second Opium War (1856-1860), when French expeditionary forces looted and destroyed the former royal retreat.

"I didn't say anything. I didn't know what to say," he said. "China is not a nation of immigrants. People don't know how to deal with people from different countries and cultures. I hope the situation improves as quickly as China is developing."

"His experience was very rare in China. Most Chinese treat foreigners in a very friendly way, sometimes too friendly," said Qiu Lin, a senior associate at a public relations company.

Culture barriers

Language difficulties and culture barriers have resulted in law enforcement agents showing a greater degree of tolerance when dealing with cases related to foreigners, said Liu Qinglong, professor of Sociology of Tsinghua University.

"Law enforcement staff need to improve their work practices, such as learning some basic English and becoming familiar with the regulations and laws on the management of foreigners," he said.

Jones believes that foreigners and Chinese should be treated on an equal footing. "I've found that Chinese authorities are afraid of handling cases involving foreigners," he said. "One of my friends was stopped for speeding on his motorcycle, but as soon as he removed his helmet and the police found out he was a foreigner, they just let him go."

He also said that employers are key to tackling the issue of foreigners working illegally. "When I worked part time as an English teacher on a tourist visa, the school simply wasn't bothered about getting me a work visa. They told me that most teachers don't have work visas and it wouldn't be a problem."

"It is an open secret that many foreign teachers in China's English institutes are holding tourist visas while working. The institutes like to employ them, because they only need to pay wages and don't have to worry about paying for insurance or providing other benefits." Liu said. "They need to be blamed."

Jones said one of his friends was fined 1,000 yuan ($160) a couple of days ago, because he was working as an English teacher without a work visa. "He told me he was pretty relieved because the penalty was really not much."

"Foreigners enjoy many privileges in China and they are treated much better. They have been spoiled," said Qiu Lin. "Apart from the ability to speak English, most of these people lack other skills. They hold tourist visas when teaching in private institutes."

Qiu lives close to the Sanlitun area and said she is afraid to walk home at night after being harassed by drunken foreigners several times. "China's management of foreigners is too loose. That gives many of them the feeling that they're free to do anything. The government needs to tighten the supervision and controls."

Growing problems

"China has a growing problem with illegal immigrants, and such problems are not usually resolved by governmental dictate. They require support from employers and the authorities at all levels," said Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor specializing in immigration policy at Columbia University in New York.

He said if illegal immigrants are displacing Chinese citizens in the workplace, the authorities may be able to use that fact to influence public opinion. However, if foreigners are valuable to a certain business sector, that sector will lobby against implementing crackdowns. He believes that the recent crackdown is actually aimed at assessing the extent of the problem: how many people have overstayed their visas? who is complaining? and who benefits from their presence? Once the authorities have some answers, they will be able to develop better policy options.

Meanwhile, De la Garza questioned why the issue has become such a hot potato. Some expats believe there is a bigger picture behind the crackdown and say the government is responding to the case of a British man who allegedly sexually assaulted a Chinese woman in public in Beijing. Moreover, Oleg Vedernikov, a Russian cellist with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, was filmed while apparently verbally assaulting a woman on a train. However, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau insisted that the crackdown has nothing to do with these incidents.

Yang Rui, an anchor on the English-language channel of Central China Television, showed his support for the crackdown on his Weibo account. Yang wrote that it is necessary to take out the "foreign trash", whom he labeled traffickers, spies or people without jobs. Many foreigners were outraged by Yang's comments, called for a boycott of his show and demanded he be fired for discriminating against foreigners.

Yang later apologized and told the UK's Guardian newspaper: "My wording was very strong and incompatible with my image as host of a professional talk show, and I can say for sure I am sorry for hurting those who respect my profession."

Yang turned down China Daily's request for an interview, saying he'd rather remain silent at the moment.

Following Yang's Weibo post, the expat community has been abuzz with rumors of an increasing number of attacks, both verbal and physical, against foreigners, but Beijing police denied that there has been an upsurge in such cases.

"Obviously, more foreigners will arrive in the years to come, because of China's economic development and the increasing number of business and cultural exchanges. Also more foreigners will come to seek business opportunities and work as their home economies deteriorate," said Xu Guangjian, deputy director of the School of Public Administration and Policy at Renmin University of China in Beijing. "However, as more foreigners arrive, the problems concerning their presence will also gradually appear."

China has very clear rules governing the influx of overseas students in the country, but hasn't the same level of expertise when it comes to those who come here for work. It is still a weak link in the management chain, he said.

Xu added that with the increasing numbers of foreigners, Beijing and other cities will need to establish transparent and updated regulations, under which the rights of both foreigners and Chinese can be better protected.

"We need to admit that the majority of foreigners in China are good people and that those who misbehave only account for a small proportion. We should use other countries' experience of immigration as a guide, and draw up new rules on the presence of foreigners. Meanwhile, we should also establish a long-term inspection mechanism and not resort to campaign such as this," said Xu.

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