Visa Scrutiny Does Not Imply Xenophobia

Visa Scrutiny Does Not Imply Xenophobia


BEIJING Municipal Public Security Bureau announced in May a crackdown on foreigners illegally entering, residing or working in the capital. The 100-day campaign lasted to the end of August.

Legal campaigns to root out illegal aliens are routine procedure throughout the world. This is by no means a first in China; similar programs having been rolled out in major cities such as Guangzhou and Chongqing where foreigners converge. Certain foreign media reporting on this latest drive interpret it as a xenophobic expression of renewed nationalism. One American magazine made the dramatic observation that, “A new wave of ‘xenophobic’ sentiment is sweeping across China.”

 A foreigner is granted the Permanent Residence of Aliens, or Chinese “green card.” CFP

Swathes of Illegal Aliens

“High-speed economic development has made China a new destination for ‘illegal aliens,’” according to State Council counselor Ma Li. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal confirms that China is a relatively easy place for foreigners to live and work, especially with its buoyant demand for language teachers.

The past decade has seen a yearly 10 percent increase in China’s expatriate population. In 2011 it hit 27.11 million.

This influx includes a criminal element. The Ministry of Public Security recently revealed that in 1995, unregistered foreigners in China exceeded 10,000 – a number which by 2011 stood at 20,000. Statistics show that a certain proportion of the foreigners that have come under scrutiny smuggled themselves into the country, worked illegally or overstayed their visas. Some also entered with specific criminal intent.

The reason why foreigners overstay is often because they misconstrue the wording on their visas. Many, however, know exactly how the system works. Foreigners illegally entering China are generally from neighboring countries. Many of those who find employment as language teachers, entertainers or domestic helpers working illegally on tourist or student visas.

Not Exclusivism

Despite being a standard public security procedure, the most recent visa scrutiny campaign has prompted an outraged response. Some regard it as a “Sino-foreign confrontation.” Others compare it with the so-called Boxer Rebellion – a xenophobic reaction to Western encroachments on China more than a century ago. Both ignore the fact that such scrutiny merely roots out foreigners illegally entering and working in China and overstaying their visas, and does not amount to indiscriminate deportation.

Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Hong Lei recently reiterated that China is maintaining its opening-up policy and that Chinese civil society advocates tolerance and harmony. He emphasized that the central government welcomes foreign people from all walks of life, guarantees to protect their legitimate rights and interests, and tries to make their living, work and accommodation arrangements as straightforward as possible.

“This is not a xenophobic campaign. The recent convergence of foreigners on China has brought with it a surge in crime that necessitates visa scrutiny,” Professor Zhou Yongsheng of the Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University, said. “The Chinese government acts strictly in accordance with the law. Calling this campaign an expression of anti-foreign sentiment is simply inappropriate. Similar courses of action are periodically carried out in most other countries, including in the West. Why should China be singled out as xenophobic?”

Director of the Beijing Beiyuan Law Firm Professor Zhang Yong sees the campaign as a “sign that Chinese society has integrated into the international community and become more internationalized.”

“I don’t think it’s an anti-foreign movement,” is the view of Tanzanian diplomat Ali Ahmada Sufiani. “China has the right to make sure all foreigners within its borders are legally residing in the country. The campaign is hence of benefit to foreigners as well as to China.”

“China is just administrating the affairs of people living in the country and preventing illegal entry,” French student in Beijing Sara Lebrun said. “I don’t think this drive is in any way xenophobic.”

Change in Administrative Mechanism

Zhou Yongsheng sees the foreign over-reaction to the recent visa scrutiny as rooted in dissatisfaction at the loss of privileges in China. “China used to regard foreigners as first-class citizens,” Professor Zhou pointed out. “In cases of disputes between Chinese and foreigners, if a local resident was in the wrong he or she would be more heavily penalized than if the reverse were true. This inevitably nurtured in foreigners a sense of privilege.”

In recent years, the super-national treatment originally accorded foreign companies has been gradually phased out. A major change took place this year in the Code of Criminal Procedure, whereby jurisdiction over a case involving foreigners can now be dealt with at county-level public security bureaus rather than at the prefectural level. This constitutes the Chinese government’s pilot expatriate administrative mechanism.

The recent tide of emigration has highlighted the knotty problem of illegal aliens and the continuing absence of a solution to the problem due to China’s lack of experience and precedents. “As a country of origin, China is unprepared for the recent foreign influx,” said Nailene Chou Wiest, a distinguished international fellow in residence at the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University and former journalist at Knight Ridder Newspaper USA, Reuters and South China Morning Post.

The present laws and regulations on foreigner exit and entry that were mostly promulgated in the 1980s clearly no longer fit the bill. Consequently China is working on new laws to regulate more closely the entry, exit, stay and employment of foreigners in China.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted on June 30, 2012 the Law on Entry and Exit Administration. The law combines the original two laws regulating respectively the entry/exit of Chinese citizens and foreigners, and includes specific provisions on foreigners’ employment in China. It has stepped up penalties for illegal entry and employment and increased fines for visa overstays. It also provides for the establishment of detention centers and of reinforced visa scrutiny and repatriation procedures.