For eight days in the summer of 1938, representatives from 32 countries met in the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains to discuss the refugee crisis unfolding in Europe.
The outflow was the result of Nazi Germany’s intensifying persecution of the Jewish people, and the Evian Conference hoped to reach an agreement on assisting the large numbers of people seeking asylum. But the conference was a failure, given that 31 of the 32 attending countries refused to accept more refugees.
The Republic of China was one of the governments refusing to provide further assistance. But fortunately for a small group of the Jewish population of Austria, the ROC’s Consul-General in Vienna, Ho Feng-Shan, disagreed with the decision. He issued about 2,000 China visas, effectively allowing a small group of Jews to cross the border out of Austria and escape the Nazis.
Ho was later admonished by his superiors. And the signs are that the Chinese authorities will be similarly unmoved by the plight of thousands of migrants currently seeking sanctuary from conflicts ongoing in the Middle East.
On Thursday last week images of China’s military prowess flooded the media, as Beijing paraded its latest, entirely domestically-produced, arsenal. The day before, however, the global media coverage had concentrated less on the hubris of war, and more on its harrowing consequences, with the awful image of three year-old Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi, who had drowned as his family fled the Middle East, heading for Europe.
The picture sparked calls for European governments to do more to assist the refugees arriving on their borders. And at the same time, newspapers in China took to social media to ask if its government should accept refugees from the continuing crisis.
The answer was a resounding no, although there were different reasons given for the refusal. Some were more technical, like Phoenix New Media, which blamed the inadequacies of China’s legal system for making little provision for housing or feeding asylum seekers. Rather than accepting more newcomers, would it not be better to improve the legislation first, it asked.
But the most popular responses – posted by Chinese netizens – argued that China should do more to help its own people before helping foreigners.
A typical post commented: “China’s rural migrants suffer so many restrictions on food, clothing, shelter, mobility, education and everything. How can we take refugees?”
In addition there was a strong sentiment that China isn’t responsible for the situation that has been creating the human exodus. Plenty of weibo users agreed with the view that “Whoever started it should deal with it” and there are no prizes for guessing that – for many people in China – the guilty party in this particular crisis is America.
Hence Hu Yao, a commentator for Xinhua news agency, argued that Washington’s interventionist policies in the Middle East have led to increased instability in the region, triggering the current crisis sweeping across Europe.
An editorial in China Daily went further in demanding that Washington accept responsibility for the crisis as a consequence of its political and military intervention in the region. (It was headlined: “The US has unshirkable role in addressing refugee crisis”.)
This same conclusion was espoused by Russian president and friend of China, Vladimir Putin, who, told a press conference last Friday that Russia has warned repeatedly that “mistaken foreign policy” by Western states in the Middle East would lead to humanitarian disasters.
Of course, Russia and China, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, have vetoed resolutions allowing for intervention in Syria, with the Chinese citing their non-interventionist stance in the domestic affairs of other nations.
FTChinese journalist, Wei Cheng, initiated discussion on this theme on his weibo page, where netizens discussed whether the efforts to topple “big devils” including Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad had unwittingly unleashed a legion of “little devils”, including militant groups like Islamic State (ISIS).
A number of responses opined that US-led intervention in the Middle East was typical of the West’s strategy of forcibly imposing its own ideals on other countries, even if these countries aren’t ready to accept them.
These sentiments once again tout the central ideology that has seen China resist foreign intervention on issues such as human rights abuses, asserting that Western ideals are not truly universal ideals and that democracy for China must be an organic and, most importantly, distinctly Chinese evolution.
This desire to maintain “Chinese characteristics” is prevalent in Chinese policy. China exerts strict control over religious and cultural expression within its borders. Nor – it would seem from the voluble and volumous opinions being aired on the internet – do many Chinese disagree with this aspect of government policy. One weibo user, for example, commented that the EU countries currently accepting Muslim asylum seekers will regret it in years to come, when Islamic cultures so subvert their own that they “can’t eat pork or drink beer”. Other netizens went further, speculating that “in two years, Europe will be entirely Muslim” and warning that “women won’t be allowed to dress revealingly”.
The majority of China’s people are Han Chinese (they are estimated to make up 92% of mainland China’s population) and the defensive tone of those netizen remarks just cited reveal a particular fear among the Han about what happens when their cultural homogeneity (based on 5,000 years of Chinese civilisation) clashes with outside forces like Islam.
For instance, in Xinjiang, a region of China that’s home to the Uighur Muslim minority, there has been a persistent push to “harmonise” the cultural identity of the area and its people.
As we reported in WiC290 these can inflame relations overseas too. In July a Turkish nationalist group called the Grey Wolves began burning Chinese restaurants in Ankara and attacking Chinese tourists, as a means to show sympathy with the Uighurs – who also speak a Turkic tongue. These acts occurred after news reports claimed that China had prevented the holy month of Ramadan being observed in Xinjiang. Chinese state media retorted angrily that this report was based on a fake online rumour, but the religious violence it sparked in Turkey only reinforced prejudices within China’s Han community about the dangers posed by Xinjiang’s religious extremists.
According to a census study from 2013, Han Chinese accounted for 40.6% of Xinjiang’s total population. The Han began to emigrate to this western region of China in substantial numbers after 1949 (see our description of the process in WiC192). As a result many disgruntled Uighurs claim their own culture is gradually being diluted by Han arrivals as well as their policy measures (see WiC252 for more on efforts to promote marriage between the two groups as well).
In response Uighur ethnic extremists have launched a series of brutal attacks in Xinjiang and in other parts of China, stirring greater antipathy towards the Uighurs among the public at large (Beijing views these groups as Islamic terrorists).
Hence some of the predictions from netizens about an apocalyptic future in which the Muslim migrants from the Middle East will erode the values of tolerance European nations claim to hold so dearly.
A typically bleak assessment: “Wait until the theft and murder rates increase, and refugees seize the country’s finance and welfare, and then start talking of equality and human rights, ultimately forcing them all to believe in Islam.”
Of course, away from the more contentious commentary there were also some alternate insights, including the acceptance that few of the refugees making the journey to Europe had expressed any interest in heading east to start new lives in China.
“Don’t overworry yourself, even if we say yes, they wouldn’t want to come,” one person predicted on Tianya, a popular online forum.
Most of the newcomers would prefer to settle in the “welfare states of the West”, China’s netizens acknowledged.
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