Xenophobic China?

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

December was an interesting month for me in that I had several run ins with locals here in Shanghai. I wrote about one of these already in my earlier post on queue jumpers. Run ins like these are a rare thing for me. I guess that on average they occur only a couple of times a year. For some reason though, I had three such encounters during December. This was remarkable not only for the frequency of said events, but also because it got me thinking about Chinese culture. You see, in every one of these recent encounters the Chinese responded by bringing a racist, xenophobic, or ‘international’ dimension to the incident. It seems difficult for Chinese to treat foreigners simply as people.

Regular readers will remember that the queue jumping woman I encountered in early December said that the fact that I ‘had a big nose’ (i.e. was a westerner) gave me no right to tell her what to do. An everyday disagreement about queue jumping thus became a racial confrontation.

A week or so later a pimp grabbed me in Nanjing Road. Nanjing Road is a major shopping street, but the large numbers of tourists in the area mean there are also aggressive pimps who target single male foreigners. After he grabbed me I told him to get lost in English (‘fuck off’ to be accurate), he took offense and started to gather a crowd to support him. In his own words “Chinese law protects Chinese people! A foreigner cannot speak like that to a Chinese person in China! A foreigner in China has no rights because China belongs to Chinese people!” I called the police to see what would happen. Pimping is (surprise surprise) illegal in China, so it was difficult to understand his astonishment when ‘the law’, which after all exists “to protect Chinese people” took him down to the station while the foreigner was left free to continue on his way. Happily in this instance some of the crowd were quite supportive of me. I think some locals also get fed up with the numerous scam artists that make a nuisance of themselves on Nanjing Rd. It could have gone differently though had his two pimp friends, who were originally being quite threatening, not had the good sense to vanish after I made the phone call.

Then last Wednesday night I was crossing Nanjing Rd. at Xikang Rd. and ran into another incident. I had the green pedestrian light and a car was coming along Nanjing Rd. about to turn into Xikang Rd., and showing no signs of giving way to me. I decided to cross anyway. He was forced to choose between stopping and hitting me and decided to stop, but stuck his head out the window to call me a ‘sha bi’ (stupid cunt). I ask him what his problem is (I do have the right to cross the road on the pedestrian signal after all) and the conversation ran a predictably fruitless course. I was careful not to swear at him though and stuck to explaining traffic law. He made to get out of the car, and since he had four friends in there with him I decided to back off. He got out of the car anyway, and punched me in the head from behind as I walked away, screaming “How dare you disrespect a Chinese person in China!” along with other racist abuse. He landed a couple of ineffective punches before I grabbed his hand and held it. I wasn’t at all hurt and stayed perfectly calm. As he hit me he was screaming at passers by to support him in beating this ‘western (white) person’. Nobody seemed very interested in ‘beating the western (white) person’, but people were curious and a crowd gradually developed. I asked him if he was done, let go of his hand, called the police, and moved in front of his car to stop him from leaving.

The police quickly arrived and started asking questions. Despite the large crowd of people only one local was prepared to stand as a witness to the unprovoked assault on me. A passing foreigner also acted as a witness. We ended up down at the police station (just me and the five guys in the car), where proceedings were basically a waste of time. The police were relatively sympathetic but since they were not traffic police they did not want to get involved in the traffic incident side of things. Nor were they interested in charging him with assault. Instead they approached it as a matter best resolved by a mutual apology. The driver of the car lied and said I hit him first, as well as ‘swearing at him in English which he couldn’t understand’, thus provoking him to attack me. This was totally untrue but what can you do? I pointed out to the police that he was missing skin on his knuckles from hitting me while my hands were not the slightest bit red or bruised, but they weren’t interested in considering this as evidence. Maybe this was fair enough – I could have kicked him or something for all they knew. Eventually the police pressured him into apologizing (they took him into a side room, said something to him, and he came back and apologized). I wasn’t required to. Pre- and post- apology though he maintained the attitude of an arrogant and aggressive prick. Meanwhile the police were not all that helpful and carried on saying that as a foreigner I didn’t really ‘understand’ the situation. I asked them to explain to me the part of the situation I didn’t understand, or even just identify the aspect of affairs that was causing me difficulty. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t.

What was remarkable about all of this though? The remarkable feature was the discovery that in a confrontation with a foreigner, Chinese inevitably make the foreigner’s ‘foreignness’ somehow relevant, however irrelevant it may be in reality. One would think that a queue was a fairly simple concept. Chinese have no problems grasping what a queue is, how it works, and why it is desirable. However, the moment a foreigner tries to protect their place in a queue they are guilty of trying to bully Chinese people. Similarly, ordinary Chinese are ill disposed towards pimps who grab customers in busy shopping districts. However, the moment such a pimp gets called up for grabbing a foreign customer the pimp is likely to object on the grounds that the foreigner is insulting Chinese people. Finally, right of way on a pedestrian crossing seems like a simple enough affair until it is a foreigner trying to cross the road, in which case they may get beaten for disrespecting a Chinese driver. Even if the foreigner escapes without being attacked, threatened or insulted, they are likely to end up listening to a condescending explanation that the whole situation occurred because there is something about China that, as a foreigner, they simply don’t understand.

Of course there is nothing unique about these sorts of attitudes. A certain level of racism and xenophobia is probably part of human nature. China is unusual though in the prevalence of such attitudes. In most countries maybe just one in ten confrontations would inspire a xenophobic and racist reaction, while in China the ratio would be much higher, perhaps closer to nine out of ten.