When the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR began working with the actress Yao Chen the idea was that she would raise awareness of displaced people in a country that accepts almost no refugees itself.
Yao travelled to Ethiopia, Lebanon and Pakistan in her role and quickly earned the nickname “China’s Angelina Jolie” for her work. “Her unique voice has helped [Chinese people] to look beyond the numbers and see refugees as real people seeking to find some normalcy when their lives have fallen apart,” said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, early last month in Beijing.
But then came June 20 – World Refugee Day – and enhanced coverage of the event in the state media. This seems to have spooked netizens who thought it was a signal that Beijing was about to loosen its policy on accepting refugees. “We didn’t endure family planning restrictions for 30 years to make way for foreigners,” said one furious weibo user. “Refugees equals Muslims equals terrorists,” said another.
Yao had to put out a statement saying that she had never called for China to accept refugees, only that she wanted to draw attention to their plight.
Even the foreign minister Wang Yi got involved saying that China will do everything it can to help refugees return home – i.e. a reiteration of the status quo.
China signed the UN convention on refugees in 1982 and has, in the past, accepted displaced people – most notably 260,000 ethnic Han fleeing Vietnam during the 1979 border war.
Right now, there are some 20,000 refugees living in camps along the border with Myanmar, where the Burmese government is fighting rebels.
But China has no legal definition of a refugee and it has not passed the domestic legislation required to support the UN convention.
It also classifies all North Korean escapees as economic migrants and sends them back. In 2015 the United Nations Committee Against Torture called on Beijing to end this practice, saying repatriated defectors “face torture, arbitrary detention, rape, [and] forced labour”.
Yet China’s position on refugees in general seems unlikely to change – although it did allow safe passage for one group of North Koreans to South Korea last year.
In March at the National People Congress, one official reminded the international media that refugees weren’t really China’s problem.
“Over the past few years, there have been so many conflicts and wars in the world, resulting in a large number of casualties, property losses and so many refugees displaced. Which of these was caused by China? China has never caused any harm to any country,” Fu Ying, director of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, claimed.
Yet at the same time, China likes to say that it shoulders its international responsibilities. In September last year Premier Li Keqiang pledged an additional $100 million to help with the refugee crisis in the Middle East and said it was setting up another fund worth $1 billion.
Beijing is also proud of the fact it contributes personnel to UN peace keeping missions and says that its Belt and Road investment plan will address some of the underlying causes of refugee flows by increasing prosperity around the world.
However, none of that gets to the root of the disquiet expressed after June 20. Part of it is concern about radical Islam, which has taken greater hold of the general public over the last year. Many Han Chinese are angry at what they see as creeping Islamisation, including food and beauty products carrying the halal symbol and the proliferation of halal restaurants. They also look to Europe and note the rise in terrorism. “I want to help people but I am afraid,” one person said on weibo when the refugee question was being debated online.
Others used the discussion to make a point about conditions in China. “Dear refugees, we are a horrible country with a dictatorial regime, stinky smog, poisonous food, nasty human rights and absolutely no democracy and freedom. We can’t let you suffer this. Please don’t come here,” another netizen warned.
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