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China Southern Airlines and China’s Ridiculous Xenophobia

I’m told that I can’t pay for my ticket change on China Southern Airlines because I’m a barbarian.

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I purchased a flight from Xiamen to Manila on China Southern Airlines. Then something came up and I needed to change the departure date. So I called the airline and arranged the change. I’d need to pay a $60 change fee and another $60 for the difference in fare. This was annoying for a round trip flight that only cost $150 to begin with — but so far, so normal. I agreed to pay the fee.

“How would you like to pay?” the airline rep asked me on the phone in English.

“Can I pay with the same card I booked the ticked with?”

I couldn’t. She said they don’t accept Visa cards or any other foreign credit or debit cards. For some context here, China Southern Airlines is the largest in China and the forth largest airline in the world in terms of passengers carried, so it was difficult for me to believe that they didn’t take Visa.

I had initially booked the flight via Vayama, but due to their piratical policy of charging $100 to change a flight on top of any airline fees, there was no way that I was going to go through them. So it was clear that I would have to pay for the change with a Chinese card. No problem, I have a Chinese card.

I informed the girl that I’d just pay with my card that was issued through a Chinese bank.

“Are you Chinese?”


“I am sorry but we can’t accept cards from foreigners.”

“What do you mean you can’t accept cards from foreigners? It’s a Chinese card from a Chinese bank for an account that’s in renminbi.”

“We can only accept cards from the Chinese people.”

“But it’s from a Chinese bank. It’s a normal Chinese bank card,” I protested.

“I am sorry but only Chinese people can pay with a card.”

I was becoming a little enraged.

“That’s racist, you can’t deny my Chinese bank card just because I’m a foreigner.”

“I’m sorry, but you need to be Chinese person to pay with a card. We cannot accept cards from the foreign people.”

“I’m sorry but I can’t transform myself into a Chinese person over the phone,” I snapped, becoming more than a little enraged. “I need to change this flight, how can I pay for it?”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t do that at this department. If you’re a foreigner you have to pay through another department.”

“Okay, could you please transfer me to that department.”

“Sorry, I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t!?! Please just tell me how I can change this ticket?”

She didn’t know, she told me to contact the agent I bought the ticket through to do it.

“It is 2014, there are nearly a million foreigners living in China,” I raged, “and you’re telling me that I can’t pay you money just because I’m not Chinese!?! That’s f’cking racist! I bought an international flight from one country to another and I can’t change it because I wasn’t born in China!?! You tell your airline that they are racist and f’cking stupid!”

I was yelling now. The girl rightfully hung up on me.

It may not have technically been racism that I was dealing with, but it was a brand of xenophobia that is rampant in China. There is a well known double standard for foreigners here — we all complain about it. There is “Chinese” and then there is “foreign,” and they both are treated very differently. The foreign is kept at a distance, it is isolated, and proverbially walled off. Oftentimes, this double standard works out to our benefit — there are many privileges here that only foreigners can experience — but often it’s a supreme detriment to us being able to do the normal daily activities that are so easily taken for granted elsewhere.

I’ve been in and out of China for years, I have a residence permit, but I still cannot even do something as inane as change my airline ticket over the phone with the airline because I’m not Chinese.

It is virtually impossible to inveigle yourself into the social/ economic matrix of China without a Chinese go-between. This probably isn’t a flaw in the country’s design, but a defacto method of keeping foreigners from being able to do such “inveigle-ing,” which seems to be the last thing the government here wants. They seem to want the entire foreign milieu to be merely puppets kept in-check by Chinese liaisons pulling the strings. So to do even very simple things we need to request help of Chinese people who, because of their race and nationality, are entitled to interact directly with the system. If I wanted to change my flight I would need to have a Chinese friend call the airline and pay with their card — that is a pathetic thing to have to do for someone who’s been here for years. There is a reason that so many foreigners who set up a long term camp here marry Chinese spouses that has nothing to do with love.

Foreigners who migrate to China live a very different existence than Chinese who emigrate abroad. While Chinese people can legally, socially, and economically become integral parts of the countries they move to, the same is never possible for foreigners coming to China. While a Chinese person who has been in the USA for decades is called an American, an American in China for the same amount of time is never more than a foreign guest living precariously from visa renewal to visa renewal.

When my nationality makes it so I can’t change an airline ticket, makes it so that I’m banned from most hotels and guesthouses, makes it so that foreign investors and business owners are permanently on an uneven playing field, makes it so that people who have been living in the country for decades and have families and businesses can’t realistically obtain the security of permanent residence status, this is a system of apartheid.

A foreigner is not only treated as another race or nationality in China, but as an invader to be marginalized and contained. It is the 21st century, we are in the belly of the globalization era, China is full of hundreds of thousands of foreigners doing business, studying, working, marrying-in, and living, but we are still nothing more than the hairy barbarians we’ve always been.

I suppose this will make it easier for the inevitable day when our services are no longer needed and we’re shown the door.


Filed under: Air Travel, China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3689 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

3 comments… add one

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  • Dylan Levi King January 26, 2016, 10:31 pm

    First, can you speak Chinese? Can you speak it well? At a pretty low level of fluency, you can smooth over a lot of bumps. Actually, you can often pass for Chinese over the phone! And apart from learning Chinese, you’ve got to learn the Chinese way of doing things, of negotiating, of slowly working toward a compromise. Who wants to slowly grind toward a compromise, right? But it’s often the only option.

    Second, if a hotel is saying no foreigners, it’s not strictly according to the law. Check into that. Most hotels that pull that either had some issue in the past with a foreigner or they’re just assholes or, more likely, they don’t want to go to the trouble of registering you in the necessary way. You really want to stay there? You could probably insist. They have a simple system nowadays in which your info is entered electronically. But it’s probably better to go somewhere else. It could be xenophobia or it could be laziness or incompetence.

    Third, yeah, sure, Chinese can be xenophobic, but even for Chinese people, the bureaucracy and everyday “We can’t do that”/”It’s not convenient now” stonewalling is frustrating. There’s a lot of everyday stuff that the average Chinese faces that’s quite similar. You think your experience is harsh, just imagine you were born outside Shanghai but have a rural hukou and can’t legally send your kids to school in the city. Imagine your wife becomes pregnant with your second child and folks come from the government to suggest, Hey, probably a good idea if she doesn’t have that baby. Or, you’ve got a nice little house built somewhere, but they really need that land to build a block of condos. The extent to which you, as a foreigner, get screwed with is pretty mild.

    Fourth, you really want to be Chinese? Get a Chinese passport and Chinese ID card. Pull a Rittenberg and stay there for a few decades. Or, you can accept the privileges of being from a Western country, having white skin and having a foreign passport.

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  • Ying Chou April 13, 2017, 5:14 pm

    I have nothing to say, other than this article is very subjective. You have a bad experience, but so does everyone else, and probably even those Chinese people here that you believe are putting you into the outgroup. Why conclude that China’s xenophobic? Yes, the low diversity rate does give you attention because you look different, and the same thing happens with an asian looking person in the middle of Illinois. The difference is, Chinese people may regard you as a foreigner refuse service due to inconvenience, and I may be the victim of blatant racism in a country where people can legally own guns.

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    • VagabondJourney April 15, 2017, 8:44 pm

      It’s a blog post, it’s supposed to be subjective.

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