Anti-foreign sentiment surges in China via social media

A push in China to crack down on foreigners who overstay their visas or entered the country illegally is being amplified through controversial videos and posts on Sina Weibo. 

Mar 3, 2020, 5:57 am*


Kevin Morris 

Kevin Morris

Anti-foreign sentiment is bubbling over in China, and the Internet’s playing a big role.

It began with a pair of videos that surfaced last week showing foreigners behaving badly. In the first, a cellist for the Beijing symphony orchestra is captured rudely berating a Chinese woman on a train. Then, a video uploaded to Chinese video-sharing site YouKu showed a foreigner getting beaten unconscious after he allegedly sexually assaulted a woman in Beijing.

Millions of Chinese have watched the videos, and their release coincided with push from the capital to crack down on foreigners who overstay their visas, work without proper papers, or entered the country illegally.

Now a prominent Chinese television host is taking to China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, Sina Weibo, to launch racist tirades against foreigners to his audience of 800,000 followers.

Yang Rui (pictured above) hosts the show Dialog on China’s all-English channel CCTV 9. It’s meant to feature serious discussions on current events and China, but often it turns into the kind of loaded-question hackery that typifies partisan talk shows on American cable news.

Like a lot of media personalities in China, Yang owns a Weibo account, where, on Wednesday, he launched the first of his paranoid, anti-foreign screeds:

“The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch [Al-Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan] and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.” (Translated by Beijing Cream.)

The post sparked outrage in the expat Twitterverse, including a thoughtful response from The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who lived in Beijing for years and appeared multiple times on Yang’s program.

Prominent Chinese blogger Charles Custer, who twice sat as a guest on his program, called for foreigners to boycott Dialog altogether.

“There are numerous other ways to interact with the Chinese media,” Custer wrote. “[T]here is no need to support the efforts of a man who so clearly has nothing but hatred for foreigners.”

That post attracted Yang’s ire, who launched another tirade, this time far more personal:

“Custer has seriously damaged my reputation, and I reserve the right to sue him. The whole affair is nothing but a malicious attempt at self-promotion and incitement of racial hatred. His eyes look filled with anti-China [Chinese] hatred to me! I hope he will abide by Chinese law. And while I’m at it I’ll just say he never deserved to be on my show in the first place. Compared with the vast majority of my outstanding western guests, such as James Fallows, he rates very poorly.” (Translation by Mac.)

On Weibo, Custer was greeted with condemnation from those who followed Yang’s lead, as well as (less common) messages of support.

Custer declined to comment on Yang’s legal threat when contacted by the China Daily. He did post to Twitter, however, where he toyed with the idea of getting a lawyer. As for dealing with Yang on social media, he settled on a level-headed response: “I’m not going to fight him. That’s just digging a deeper hole.”

Sina Weibo has changed how ordinary Chinese obtain and interact with the news, despite the ever-present threat of censorship. It should be no surprise that old-fashioned xenophobic demagoguery has migrated to China’s social media.

But does the open platform mitigate their influence, or simplify amplify it? That question will no doubt trouble the country’s foreign population in coming weeks.

Photo via Sina Weibo

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*First Published: May 21, 2012, 12:41 pm