November 2011

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2011.

By Thomas Glucksmann-Smith

On October 15-18th 2011 during the latest Plenary Session of the 17th CPC Central Committee, China’s leaders discussed ways to make China a ‘culturally strong nation’ (文化强国) and defined strategies to enhance China’s international soft power. This meeting coincided with tax evasion charges laid against China’s world renowned artist Ai Weiwei—charges he now plans to challenge.

Ai Weiwei, recently described by Art Review as the ‘world’s most powerful artist’ would, in any other nation, be regarded as a perfect diplomat for his country’s cultural industries. But, for China’s CCP leaders Mr Ai’s political activism and provocative behaviour has gone too far. Despite being responsible for the design of the Beijing Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium he is now subject to surveillance and travel restrictions.

The heavy-handed treatment of such an influential artist hinders China’s global image as an aspiring leader in the arena of cultural and artistic production. It runs directly counter to the international agenda for the cultural initiatives proposed at the recent sixth plenary session.

Popular blogger Han Han (韩寒) exposed the contradiction in the Central Committee’s policy, writing at his blog on November 2nd 2011: “Even I, as a player in the world of culture, don’t know how to write about building a culturally strong nation. So how can the members of the Polit-bureau who block search results for Li Bai on google, devise a plan to build a culturally strong nation?” This blog post has subsequently been removed as part of the regular censorial sweep.

The plan was unveiled at the Plenary Session, which designated the cultural industries as a pillar of the national economy. China’s leaders are experimenting with various forms of ownership structure in order to advance technological and cultural innovation. They hope that market-produced cultural goods can be consumed domestically and exported abroad, while state organs will continue to have responsibility for providing essential public cultural goods and services.

To achieve their desired global cultural impact China’s leaders identified four key areas in the cultural industries sector that need to be improved: research in philosophy and social sciences, the reputation of Chinese news media, the quality of literary and artistic works, and the development of a ‘healthy’ online culture (发展健康向上的网络文化). Yet, the recent detentions of global cultural icons like Ai Weiwei and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo suggests that the CCP’s impulse will be to keep control over the content of these new, improved cultural products. Old socialist cultural work habits die hard.

And where does socialism fit in within the domestic and international soft power push?

In an opinion article in the People’s Daily, Ren Zhongping addresses the issue of promoting Chinese-style socialism in order to legitimise China’s claims to a society that endorses ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’. This point was heavily discussed at the meeting, with calls for a reintroduction of Marxist values in education and the need to disseminate Chinese socialism internationally. However, the banner of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ will certainly render China unsuccessful in its bid to exert soft power internationally and may well fall flat with domestic audiences too. Socialism as a political and cultural brand no longer carries the cache it once did to either audience.

Moreover, the notion of promoting an ideology with distinctly “Chinese characteristics” runs counter to the global operation of soft power as outlined by Joseph Nye (2004). According to Nye, success in exercising soft power involves the promotion of values and norms that have universal appeal and transcend cultural boundaries.

Yee-Kwang Heng (2010) uses this point to illustrate the disparity in soft power between China and Japan since the latter’s government has been capitalizing on the popularity of its cultural goods in the international arena. Heng explains that Japanese anime and manga appeal to many people around the world as they offer culturally neutral characters, locations and narratives. Recent widely distributed Chinese films such as Fearless (霍元甲, 2006) and Ip Man (叶问, 2008) only offer non-Chinese audiences the spectacle of kung fu, since the narratives and settings are too culturally specific, xenophobic, nationalistic and lack the requisite levels of creativity for universal appeal.

Heng also places Japan at the forefront of global environmental protection and climate change research—a sphere that has international appeal and has consequently boosted the nation’s soft power. So far China is infamous for its urban air pollution and rural environmental degradation as a result of local corruption, despite efforts by the state to promote conservation and alternative energy resources.

Regardless of these current deficiencies, Ren Zhongping celebrates the success of China’s cultural achievements, claiming that the country’s cultural sector has entered a “golden period of development” (黄金发展期). Ren cites the fact that China is the world’s third largest film producer, the number one TV producer and the largest publisher of books. But the reality is that very few Chinese movies make any significant box office gains, Chinese TV is succumbing to greater government controls on content, Chinese News Media are propaganda devices and books are frequently banned in China on political or moral grounds.

Concerning soft power, Ren draws attention to the spread of Chinese culture internationally using the example of the 350 Confucius Institutes overseas and calls this the dawn of a “Chinese Cultural renaissance” (复兴曙光). Nevertheless, these Confucius Institutes require close scrutiny since some have been accused of interfering in the academic activities of universities on Taiwan and Tibet related issues. The fact that these Confucius Institutes claim to promote traditional Chinese culture under the auspices of the Communist government is not without irony, considering the anti-Confucian legacy of Mao and the Cultural Revolution (Louie, 2011).

The PRC leaders’ claims to exclusive rights to ‘represent’ Chinese culture have also been long contested. Harvard academic Tu Wei-Ming argued in 1991 that the Chinese in Taiwan, Singapore and other diaspora communities have a greater claim to represent cultural China and to uphold the dignity of Chinese civilization than the brutal Marxist-totalitarian state. Tu’s later activities in China suggest that he may be rethinking this position—although his reconciliation with China may reflect the nation’s economic might rather than the effectiveness of its soft power.

With rampant consumerism and the relentless pursuit of material wealth apparent in China today it is hard to believe that promoting Marxist values or Chinese socialism will find broad traction among domestic audiences. Moreover, the success of Chinese culture abroad will need to be assessed across many dimensions that include the consumption of market produced cultural goods, the sources of Chinese cultural production and the way in which Chinese cultural discourse evolves beyond the control of ethnically Chinese communities. Examining the number of Confucius Institutes and the statistics for foreigners learning Chinese does not indicate the current success of Chinese soft power. Instead we could start by counting the number of people who visited Ai Weiwei’s exhibit at the Tate Modern.

Nye, Joseph. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Public Affairs.

Heng, Yee-Kuang. 2010. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the softest of them all? Evaluating Japanese and Chinese strategies in the ‘soft’ power competition era. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific. Volume 10, pp. 275–304.

Louie, Kam.2011. Confucius the Chameleon: Dubious Envoy for “Brand China”. Boundary 2.Volume 38, No. 1, pp. 77-100.

Tu, Wei-Ming. 1991. Cultural China: The Periphery as the Center. Daedalus, Vol. 120, No. 2, The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today, pp. 1-32.

Thomas Glucksmann-Smith is a Hong Kong based writer and researcher. He has studied in Beijing, Hong Kong and Japan.

By Rian Dundon

He says he’s lost his city and his society. We drive past a group of demonstrators protesting land seizures. He points out the scene and the gaggle of police cruisers nearby and grins in English “this is Chi-na”, emphasizing the play-on-words between “Chi” and “Chai” (chai, or 拆 being Chinese for “dismantle” or “demolish”). He sees the city’s recent prosperity through a filter of isolation, exclusion, and greed. Tells me how the doors are all closed. How peoples’ sense of self worth is determined by the number of contacts in their cell phones. How they are drifting further apart even as they become more connected. And his city is showing growing pains. The dust and traffic from construction is unbearable but it’s the gnawing of something else that gets to him. Something darker and more sinister. M. tells me I don’t understand the real China and he’s right. He speaks of death and the loss of dignity as his country develops itself into oblivion. Into a casket. He says that for every building project and commercial housing development in the city (there are hundreds) there will be a handful of laobaixing who kill themselves over having to leave their homes. Old people who can’t just up and move to the suburbs and who would have nothing there to live for if they did. And the mingong, the migrant workers who labor at these sites day and night? Just last week one plummeted to death 100 meters from his apartment. Was it in the newspaper? Never. This is blasé, everyday stuff. He asks me how can I ever understand this as a foreigner. As an American no less. How can I relate to the violence of suppression and denial that haunt this place. His country. The new culture. And how can he put faith in a society that eats itself to death, let alone the government that watches it happen. Now the city is rushing to clean its image ahead of inspections from Beijing. But what is the price of being classified as a “civilized city”? M. laughs when he thinks about his mothers crumbling public housing complex in Hexi where only the buildings visible from the bridge are being “renovated” with a coat of white paint. “What’s the point of fixing the outside when the inside is what’s rotten?”

* * *

In China’s interior provinces, where the full benefits of economic growth have yet to be realized, negotiating modernity requires hustling for a place within fresh modes of individualized experience and personal redefinition. This project traces its narrative across the diverse geographies of these liminal regions to witness how divergent notions of sex, desire, image, and identity coalesce to help shape a cultural reality not found in dominant media representations of China. Its images form a visual diary chronicling the interpersonal relationships of people living on the fringes of China’s social sphere and the vulnerability I see reflected in a generation of young people coming of age in a society set on fast-forward.

Moving beyond the urban-centric/scenic/iconic structures, which dominate the current visual record of China, this project considers the cultural dynamism of smaller provincial cities and rural prefectures far removed from China’s coastal metropoles. These marginalized spaces, borderlands of China’s rural-to-urban transformation, are a crossroads for individuals finding their own place within a fluctuating and subjective cultural (and indeed physical) landscape. If economic growth has opened new avenues for expression in China so too have resultant ideological deviations affected the way people see themselves and their place in the world. This project looks to provide visual evidence of that reality by focusing on the differentiated actualities of life in an environment of sustained cultural flux.

Rian Dundon is a photographer and masters student in Social Documentation at University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is researching and preparing a forthcoming book of photographs from interior China. His work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions at New York University, The Camera Club of New York, Angkor Photo Festival, and Caochangdi PhotoSpring. Follow him on Twitter @riandundon and see his series “Behind the Scenes with Fan Bingbing” here.

A quick note to let our readers know that the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations is holding its fifth annual China Town Hall tonight. At 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time, tune into the live webcast of Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski addressing the Town Hall audience (you can also submit questions for Brzezinski online now). After the webcast, local programming will begin at 50 sites across the United States, featuring a lineup of speakers that include many contributors to and friends of China Beat. See the complete list of Town Hall locations at the link above.

Lanza, Fabio. Behind the Gate: Inventing Students in Beijing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xiii, 299 pp. $50.00 (cloth).

By Ling Shiao

By drawing our attention to the previously unexamined question of space for student activism, Fabio Lanza has successfully remapped the May Fourth Movement, despite the fact that it is perhaps the most well-travelled terrain in historical research of modern China. This is not a revisionist study that seeks to de-center May Fourth in China’s passage from tradition to modernity by looking for pre-May Fourth modern experimentations and the continuity between the late Qing and May Fourth periods. In fact, Lanza travels back to the historical site of Beijing University (hereafter Beida) and the canonical moment of the May Fourth years (1917-1923) and locates the radical new beginning of the modern Chinese student. He provocatively claims that “There were no students before 1919” (172). By this, he means that prior to May Fourth, students were little more than a sociological designation. It was during the May Fourth years that students finally emerged as a modern subject and political signifier. Refusing to take the category of students as a given, as previous scholarship on Chinese students and student activism (Israel 1966, Wasserstrom 1991) has done, this study is an intense and fruitful interrogation of the crucial process whereby “students” were transformed from a sociological category into a political category—a category that would be re-appropriated throughout the next seven decades until 1989, when the student pro-democracy movement was crushed and the “students” as a distinctive political subject ceased to be.

Like any new research covering old ground, this book revisits many established notions about Beida, its students, and their role in the May Fourth Movement. Lanza objects to the treatment of culture and politics as separate spheres of activity. Specifically, he departs from the conventional wisdom that saw May Fourth as consisting of two distinctive and incompatible movements—an enlightenment characterized by cultural critique and affirmation of individual subjectivities on the one hand and a patriotic fervor to save China on the other, and that the latter ultimately cut short the former at a time of national crisis (Li 1986, Schwarcz 1990). More significantly, he raises issues with previous scholarship for reducing social and lived experience to a reflection of intellectual and ideological convictions. He contends that previous May Fourth scholarship is too ready to see laissez-faire and eccentric individualism exhibited on the Beida campus only as manifestations or consequence of Cai Yuanpei’s—Beida’s chancellor—liberal reform and advocacy of academic freedom (28). Finally, Lanza peels away the well-cultivated myth of Beida as China’s most prestigious institute of higher education and of its students as endowed with political sensitivity, enjoying a special relationship with the state due to China’s unique scholar-official tradition (Weston 2004). Prior to Cai Yuanpei’s arrival in 1917, Beida had a tarnished reputation as a training ground for a corrupt officialdom. During the May Fourth years, Lanza observes, Beida students cultivated an image of an individualistic and eccentric genius, effectively rejecting the idea of being part of a community by steadfastly refusing to respect any external rules or rituals. In so doing, they also rejected all the elements that would typically define a conscious community. So how did Beida students become political, and where did their organizational prowess manifested during the May Fourth demonstrations come from?

Central to Lanza’s project is the insight that political activism is neither caused simply by previous exposure to radical ideas nor premised on the existence of a well-defined community with a shared identity (11). Instead, Chinese students became political and communitarian precisely because the proper definition of the “student” and the position of Beida vis-à-vis the state had been intensely and continuously contested during the May Fourth years. Drawing on the work of Henri Lefevbre, Alan Badiu, and others, Lanza sees political struggles as struggles to “produce a space in which a new everyday can be experienced, new relationships formed, and alternative lives can be lived” (7). This study focuses on what Lanza refers to as the “transformed everyday” at Beida, of which Cai’s reform was only the tip of the iceberg, and reveals the seamless connection between the seemingly unrelated quotidian practices of the Beida students and their political activism during turbulent May and June of 1919.

Lanza expertly navigates the “transformed everydayness” of Beida during the May Fourth years. He begins with the porous institutional and physical boundaries, which allowed little distinction between officially registered students and auditors as well as freedom of its students to move between the campus and the rest of city with ease. This uniquely open space shaped the way in which the refashioning of a “new life” (xinshenghuo) at Beida took place. He then takes pains to demonstrate that seemingly small details of life at Beida predisposed the students to be at a distance from, and potentially in opposition to, the state. Beida students’ celebrated image of untidy long gowns during the May Fourth years, for example, was in fact “their effort to unsettle the position of students vis-à-vis the disciplining state” that endorsed and promoted modern attire and physical fitness as part of its program to build strong citizens in service of the modern nation-state (61). Other distancing acts in the “lived practices” of Beida students included their resistance to school’s curriculum, rules, and rituals to the extent that there were calls for abolishing anything that represented external authority. All these helped each student to “define one’s self as an independent political subject” (50). Lanza argues that Cai Yuanpei’s reform created the parallel tensions between Beida and the students on the one hand, and between Beida and the state on the other. Cai’s advocacy for academic freedom and embracing of universal values vis-à-vis state-defined knowledge and a China-specific curriculum helped to disconnect Beida, academic pursuits, and education from the goals of the state and the nation.

In Lanza’s reinterpretation, the student demonstrations of May and June 1919 were the culmination of a struggle over political boundaries. May Fourth Beida witnessed fervent student organizational activities in the form of study societies devoted to the discussion of politics. The very transformation of the everyday and associational behaviors at Beida served to redefine politics and create a space for politics beyond the sphere of the government. Immediately before and after the 1919 protest movement, Beida students pushed the physical and sociological boundaries of “students” by organizing lectures and teaching programs for the university’s staff and Beijing’s residents on and off campus. In a moment of national crisis caused by news of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, it was only natural that the students extended their action to the broader public space with explosive force. Anticipating the argument for the presence of pre-May Fourth student organizations and protests, Lanza points out the fundamental difference between the late Qing and May Fourth students in their identities and practices. While the former were preoccupied with changing the function of the state, the latter’s organizational activities were removed from state-centered concerns. Furthermore, in their protests, the former tried to appeal only to the government, while the latter not only directly confronted the state but also claimed a new public space and public audience. There were no students as political signifiers before 1919 precisely because the public space for student activism had not yet been appropriated. It was only in stormy 1919 that Chinese students became visible as a category of political activism by remapping the city with their radical footsteps and speeches addressing the people of Beijing and beyond.

At times extremely dense, this book is theoretically sophisticated, prodigiously researched, and eloquently written. In bringing the theory of urban space and the everyday to bear on our understanding of the birth of modern students in China, Lanza makes a major breakthrough in both the scholarship on the May Fourth Movement and the study of political activism. His work further challenges us to move away from causal reasoning and to think about modern political subjectivities and categories in modern China in a brand new way.

Works Cited:

Israel, John. Student Nationalism in China 1927-1937. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966.

Li Zehou. “Qimeng yu jiuwang de shuangchong bianzou.” Zouxiang weilai. 1 (1986): 18-38.

Schwarcz, Vera. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Wasserstrom, Jeffrey. Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Weston, Timothy. The Power of Position: Beijing University, Intellectuals and Chinese Political Culture, 1898-1929. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Ling Shiao is Assistant Professor in the History Department at Southern Methodist University. She is currently working on a manuscript on printing, culture, and politics in Republican China.

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

By M.E. Strickland

When the first results for China’s 2010 census were released at the end of April, media attention duly fell on two trends: one, the surprisingly low growth in the national population, suggesting a lower than expected fertility rate; and two, the uptick in the number of elderly and an even sharper drop in people under the age of 14, indicating the rapid aging of the population. But there was another little piece of data in the reports that caught my eye, despite being largely passed over: according to the census, at the end of 2010 there were approximately 594,000 foreigners residing in China. What are we to make of this?

At first blush, this is just one more number in a litany of census statistics. And yet, if we stop to think about it for a moment, the figure of 594,000 becomes something of a curiosity. When mixed into the population of more than 1.34 billion people in mainland China, these 594,000 foreigners represent less than 0.05% of the total population. Judging from UN figures compiled on international migration for 2009, this would mean China has the lowest percentage of foreign immigrants of any country in the world. Or to put it another way, the city of New York alone has a population of foreign born residents several times larger than does the whole of China.

This simple statistic now looks a little odd, maybe even something of an anomaly. Why would China’s foreign population be so small? There are no immediately obvious explanations for this. Proportionally, it is lower than that of India, which has a similarly large native population; lower than in poor countries like Bangladesh, economically troubled ones like Zimbabwe, or unstable ones like Afghanistan; and lower even than for countries with famously restrictive immigration policies, like Japan.

Yet this state of affairs appears at odds with China’s transformation over the last thirty-some years. Today, China seems to occupy a permanent position on the front page of the news, where there are almost daily reports remarking on its various superlatives: world’s second largest economy, fastest rising power, largest consumer of various commodities from iron ore to soybeans, home of some of the world’s largest engineering projects, and an all-around dominating force in global trade. And with its fast-charging economy and the perpetual buzz about its ascension in world affairs, China has attracted foreigners of all kinds: workers and businesspeople, academics and researchers, students, teachers, pilgrims, artists, travelers, adventurers, and too many others to name. All else being equal, one might assume that a country that has sought and achieved some measure of global preeminence, and that now has such widespread international connections, would have a foreign population at least a little bit larger than it this.

The 594,000 figure begins to raise a number of questions, and the problem of why it is so low is only one of them. But more fundamentally, does it matter that it is “only” 594,000? Does it mean anything for China, for its development, or for its relationship with the rest of the world that its foreign population is still so small—and if so, what? This is a surprisingly complex problem with multiple dimensions, and I do not presume to offer a definitive answer for it here. Instead, all I wish to do is draw attention to the question itself, and show why it may deserve more thought and discussion by those who live in, work in, and study China.

Admittedly, the size of China’s foreign population does not have nearly the significance of the other results highlighted by the census report. The demographic trends of falling fertility and rapid aging are likely to make their impacts felt throughout Chinese society for decades to come, affecting everything from employment to family structure. By comparison, the number of foreigners who happen to be living in the country is, frankly, trivial. China’s foreign population is barely visible, rarely heard, and little thought of. And yet it is precisely that apparent lack of significance that should make us wonder. After all, in many countries, both wealthy and impoverished, immigration is a major subject of public discourse, fraught with political, social, economic, and cultural importance. Why should China seemingly be an exception?

Granted, this not an easy subject to discuss. The question of China’s foreign population may unavoidably spill over into other, thornier problems regarding current and past state policy and immigration laws, the complicated imbalances in visa rules between countries, the subtle privileges that foreigners from developed countries enjoy when traveling to less developed parts of the world—all to say nothing of Chinese popular and governmental attitudes towards foreigners, the pained memories of Western colonialism, the unbalanced economics of globalization and international migration, and so much else besides. Nevertheless, this is a potentially important topic, both for foreign residents in China and for China scholars, and little could be served by shying away from it.

But first, what do we know about these 594,000 people? The 2010 China census was the first ever to include foreigners in its count; if the Chinese government had any precise statistics on the foreign population residing in the country before this, it was not very forthcoming with them, leaving a great deal of uncertainty as to just how many foreigners were actually present. Indeed, the United Nations, in its annual reports on international migration, previously had to rely on imputing the numbers for China, rather than drawing on officially published figures as it does for nearly all other countries (incidentally, the latest such report from the UN apparently overestimated China’s foreigner population at 686,000).

This makes the recent census report from the National Bureau of Statistics a very welcome change, but it must be considered with a few caveats. First, as with any population statistics there may always be some level of error; some foreigners were no doubt missed in the census count, meaning that the real number could very well be higher than 594,000. But China’s foreign population is already so low that, even if we were to assume it is fully twice as large as reported, it would still rank among the smallest in the world.

Second, like all such data collection, the census could only capture a given moment in time. The 594,000 figure cited was the number of foreigners who happened to be living in China in a brief period at the end of 2010. What is important to know, however, is how long these foreigners had actually been in the country—in other words, how stable the foreign population is. The census report does provide numbers on this, although they are combined with those on people from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan who were also living on the mainland at the time. Needless to say, the legal status of someone from Hong Kong and someone from, say, Germany, is not exactly the same in the eyes of the Chinese government, and so we cannot assume the two groups (foreigners and ostensible Chinese nationals from outside the mainland) are necessarily similar on any given measure. Still, if we go by the data presented, then roughly half of the foreigners in China at the time of the census had been in the country for less than two years, and only a quarter of them for more than five. In other words, of the already small number of foreigners living in China, an even tinier fraction has been living in the country on a long-term basis. This implies a high rate of turnover, with many foreigners coming for perhaps only a few months or a year or two before leaving.

The report does not mention how many foreigners hold permanent residency, though it would seem to be extremely rare. Most, of course, depend on visas that have to be renewed at least once per year. As this news report from Xinhua points out, the city of Beijing itself awarded a total of only 311 “green cards” in the five years between 2004 and 2009. A more recent report from this year claims that, nationwide, there have only been about 1000 permanent residency cards issued in the last seven years.

In Beijing or Shanghai, with foreigners seemingly to be found on every street, it may be hard to believe that there are only 594,000 in all of China. We should remember, though, that the distribution of foreigners is not even across the country. They are disproportionately located in the major cities, with minimal presence in lower-tier cities and the countryside. The census data itself demonstrates this, showing that a majority are concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong province (primarily in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, most likely), with the remainder strewn throughout the other provinces and regions.

These numbers and statistics together give a rough portrait of the foreign population in China: it is small, in both relative and absolute terms, largely relegated to wealthier urban areas, and generally transitory. And if that were all there were to it, then it would be only a matter of light interest. But these figures are not mere abstractions; they reference stark, concrete realities about the place of foreigners in China and just how deeply (or not) they are embedded in Chinese society.

Beginning in 2008, I lived in the central town of a rural county in Shandong province for two years—not a city, by any means, but not a village, either, with a population totaling in the tens of thousands. And yet in the two years I lived there, I never once saw another foreigner. There were rumors about a South African man who taught English at one of the local high schools, though I never ran into him, and I half suspect that he had long since left and that talk about him simply persisted long after he was gone. It would not be surprising. Intermittent glimpses of foreigners passing through the area as tourists or on business at one of the local factories tended to become items of gossip. Once every few months I would hear something along the lines of “there was a Canadian over in the other town last week,” or “there were two Germans who were seen at the hospital the other day.” The very fact that these sightings were commented on speaks to how rare and memorable they were for locals. But more to the point, I encountered many people over the years who told me, sometimes excitedly, that I was the first foreigner they had ever met. Such experiences as these are surely familiar to foreigners who have spent any amount of time in China’s more rural areas. Yet something about all this is at odds with the image, now increasingly common, of a more globalized and open China. For all the changes that have taken place since the start of the Reform and Opening Period, and a certain cosmopolitanism that can now be found in Beijing, Shanghai, and the other upper-tier cities, it is important to remember that there are still broad swathes of the country where many Chinese have never had any personal contact with someone from another country.

But as the census report’s numbers hint, it is not just that foreigners are few or unevenly scattered, but that there are even fewer who seem to be firmly rooted in the country. It should be noted that even in the urban centers, there are almost no well-defined, stable foreign communities. The only major example might be the “Little Africa” of Guangzhou, though by some accounts this community and its members have been put under strain from ever more stringent visa rules and police crackdowns in recent years. Alternatively, one can point to the personal and social networks of Western expats in Beijing and Shanghai, but these do not seem to cohere into focused or localized communities in quite the same way as do, say, the various Chinatowns and other Chinese enclaves in cities elsewhere in the world.

Bizarrely, there are streets, districts, and even whole villages in China built in mimicry of foreign communities—almost like immigrant enclaves, but without the actual people, such as, famously, the Thames Town near Shanghai, or the recently revealed (and mildly controversial) replication of Hallstatt, an Austrian village. Some of these places have been built with the aid of foreign developers, some not, but in all cases they are intentionally exoticized constructs built for local Chinese homebuyers and tourists, and are not the organic products of a living immigrant community.

But can we even envision a future China with real foreign communities, fully visible and integrated into the country’s greater social and cultural landscape? For that matter, can we imagine eventually seeing (odd as they may sound) the emergence of officially recognized hybrid categories, such as “Canadian-Chinese” or “Indian-Chinese,” within China itself? It is not really a matter of whether or not we find these scenarios likely or even desirable. The question is simpler: do they even seem feasible?

There are several sides to that issue, the first being Chinese visa and immigration policy. But another is the foreign population itself, and if and how foreigners residing in China can, or want, to see themselves that involved and integrated. Granted, it would be impossible, not to mention inappropriate, to group all foreigners in China under the same umbrella; they are diverse in their own cultural backgrounds, personal circumstances, and, no doubt, their expectations and intentions about living in China. But it is entirely fair to ask if they should even be concerned with the dearth of their own numbers, or the lack of definite immigrant communities. Many foreigners would be understandably indifferent to such things, and have neither the need nor the desire to change them. And, to put it bluntly, many others may simply have no desire to settle permanently in China, and expect to reside there only a few years at the most. It has to be asked if the foreigners of China even hold any particular interest in their own collective status in Chinese society.

But even if the foreign population were disinterested in its own status, what of the Chinese state and general public? Although the foreign population ostensibly brings with it valuable skilled workers and investment funds, the central government may still believe it has an interest, for whatever reasons, to limit their numbers. And though many Chinese are open and friendly to foreigners, China nonetheless has, as many countries do, a small contingent of those who are hostile to outsiders. Yet if it is important, as so many now believe, for the rest of the world to engage with China, then it is surely just as important for China to engage with the outside world, including at the grassroots level. The benefits of social interaction between people of differing nationalities and cultures are difficult to quantify, or even name, but they are no less real for that. It could be argued, as China moves forward onto the world stage and broadens its global connections, that the lack of a sizable and stable foreign resident population could be detrimental in any number of respects, whether for international business opportunities, advancing diplomacy, or simply for the sake of basic, everyday cross-cultural communication. And if we believe that diversity is its own virtue, then perhaps such low numbers of foreign nationals in the world’s most populous country, a country with ever more presence and sway in international affairs, should give us pause.

Answering these questions—what are the implications of China’s foreign population being so small and transient; what does the foreign population matter for China at large; how do foreigners see their own place and role in Chinese society—is no easy task. But they are worthwhile questions, and perhaps, with the final release of the first ever official data on the foreign population, and with China’s ascension in the world, it is a fitting time to start asking them.

M.E. Strickland is a doctoral student in Anthropology at UCLA. His current work focuses on Chinese youth of the 80’s generation.

« Older entries