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The Three Illegals, or The Crackdown on Foreigners in China

On May 15th the city of Beijing announced a 100 day crackdown on foreign residents living in the city. Under the banner of smashing the “Three Illegals” of immigration — illegal entry, overstayed visas, and working without a permit — the police began setting up passport checkpoints in areas popular with foreigners, going into Western [...]

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On May 15th the city of Beijing announced a 100 day crackdown on foreign residents living in the city. Under the banner of smashing the “Three Illegals” of immigration — illegal entry, overstayed visas, and working without a permit — the police began setting up passport checkpoints in areas popular with foreigners, going into Western oriented bars to document check everyone with a foreign face, began doing door to door checks in areas where many foreign residents reside, and, in general, began searching for foreigners who may have violated the terms of their immigration. A special hot-line has even been set up so that the public can report on illegal or otherwise suspicious foreigners. Other cities, such as Chengdu and Yanbian have joined the crackdown, and it’s possible that the movement may spread nation-wide.

I find nothing wrong with this, in and of itself. It’s annoying, but document checks of foreign looking people are common throughout the world. They happen in Guatemala, they happen in Germany. When they are done in the USA the public cries racism, but this sentiment is not shared on a global scale. If I’m in a foreign country and the police ask to see my passport I show it to them. When you go abroad you put yourself on another legal plane, and you give up a few of the rights that you may have in your home country. This is part of the modern world travel experience, and is not something to whine about.

But how do the Chinese police know who’s a foreigner? That’s simple: foreigners are people who look like foreigners. Political correctness is an American phenomenon, the rest of the world has no difficulty calling a spade a spade, a gringo a gringo, a laowai a laowai. Unless it degrades into harassment requesting foreigners to show their immigration documents is not a sign of xenophobia — it’s normal police behavior the world over.

There are over 600,000 foreigners reported as living in China. That’s nearly double the population of Iceland. Thousands are English teachers, many are students, a handful are university professors, an ever growing number are chemistry/ pharmaceutical researchers, many are quality control personnel, others are business people, while a relatively large number are Africans working in miscellaneous labor sectors. In point, there’s an entire nation of expats living across China. The population is so large that it’s beginning to have an impact on broader Chinese society — 600 thousand foreigners don’t live in a country without changing it. But China’s opening up to foreign residents has not come without ripples, and signs of age old reactionary, xenophobic, and nationalistic tendencies do rear their heads every once in a while.

My wife and some of her coworkers were called to a meeting with the police yesterday in Taizhou. It was also Children’s Day — a Chinese holiday — and the police requested that my wife bring our daughter. The police showered my kid with cake, praise, smiles, and she left with a big bag of candy. They also gave my wife and her compatriots a talk about security. “We don’t want what happened in Beijing to happen here,” one of the police officers said.

What happened in Beijing?


On the night of May 8th a young British tourist reputedly sexually assaulted a Chinese girl in the street. This video went viral on Chinese television and social media sites, was watched millions and millions of times, and was the spark which ignited a flame for the expression of anti-foreign sentiments within the country. The crackdown on illegal foreigners in Beijing started six days after this incident occurred, and although the government denies there is a connection, it is a very thinly veiled denial.

The ensuing reaction to this video in China and the subsequent counter-reaction in the Western media has caused a whirlwind of hell fire on an international scale. On one side some Chinese netizens have vented their rage and both the British guy and at all foreigners in general — even bringing into the fray such remote seeming topics as the Huangyan Island debate and the mistreatment of Chinese workers on the railroads in 1800’s America. This video released the valve on a social pressure cooker, and many Chinese people used it as an excuse to bash all foreigners living in China. The pinnacle of these anti-foreigner rants came from an unlikely direction: Yang Rui, the host of a talk show on China’s English language channel. Rui’s audience is almost solely foreigners living in China, and he had this to say about them:

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 and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

It sounded like satire but the guy was serious. A whole slew of other very agro anti-foreign statements have also surfaced in Chinese media, and “Illegal foreigners” was the top hash-tag on China’s version of Twitter for a few days. A spark had ignited a small fire in China, but instead of trying to smother it the Western media — and governments to a small degree — have decided to fan the flames with retaliations. They have taken a relatively minor inter-cultural media skirmish and have made it out to be an all out “us against them” battle.

Foreigners targeted in China crackdown by CNN_International

Fox News reported that “Foreigner-bashing rises amid China’s domestic woes.”

CNN claimed that the “Mood darkens in Beijing,” and did a video segment that focused on an American girl named “Emily” who was crying about how she thinks China is not going to let her renew her student visa.

The New York Times reported on how a “wave of nationalism” has swept across China and how “Sentiments against foreigners have flared.”

From reading the Western media’s reporting of the fallout from the attempted rape incident you may think that foreigners are being beaten in the streets of China, that we’re the target of xenophobic slurs and police harassment, but this could not be further from the truth.

The practical impact of the incident

Chinese society has a very thick insider/ outsider dichotomy. When a foreigner does something here it serves as an example of all foreigners. An American who gave French fries to a beggar lady in front of a McDonalds was made into a national news item which reflected favorably on all Westerners, while the alleged attempted rape incident by the Brit reflects poorly on every foreigner in the country. Every individual in China represents the cultural entity they are affiliated with, and this is as true of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Hui as it is for Americans, Russians, and Europeans. There is no way around this. But how much of this cultural uniform wearing actually filters down to actual inter-personal conflict is questionable, as the Han Chinese often want foreigners to think highly of them, and even if they hold very obtuse sentiments about a particular cultural group, they will very rarely voice it to the person of this group directly.

I’ve traveled to four or five different cities in Jiangsu province since this rampant “outbreak of anti-foreigner sentiment” supposedly began. How many xenophobic outpourings have I been the victim of? None. I’ve experienced nothing but the generally friendly, helpful, and curious people of China — along with those who just stare at me funny. Business as usual.

I did not even know that China was in a “xenophobic uproar” until well after the fallout from the attempted rape incident had settled. Nobody — none of my Chinese friends, my Mandarin teacher, taxi drivers, hotel workers, the doorman of my apartment, my wife’s Chinese coworkers, the crowd at the bar I go to — not one single Chinese person has even brought up anything about this incident or anything about the social flair up that had ensued. I’m not out in the hinterlands of the country either, I’m smack in the middle of Han China, right around Shanghai. If I have not experienced any sort of racist sentiment here I seriously doubt I would feel it anywhere.

In point, if masses of Chinese people are spouting off xenophobic statements on their social media accounts they are doing a good job of keeping them to themselves in person.


It is my impression that this entire situation — the xenophobic ravings and the immigration crackdown — have been blown out of proportion on all sides. Life in China continues as usual for foreign residents. Despite some conservative sects of Chinese society using this attempted rape incident to fuel nationalism prior to the once in a decade national election and the West using the fallout as a crutch to further prop up their media cold war, living in China is still very good for us laowais.

Though we all seem to know how volatile this country can be. At any time China could flip the switch and send all of us foreigners packing. Deep down, I think many of us expect this to happen some time soon. Things have perhaps been too good for too long. With each incident of a foreigner getting caught on video being a jackass, with each laowai who commits a crime, with each inter-cultural conflict, with every East vs. West political battle the expat communities of China shudder — for we know that the tide could quickly be turned against us, and a “crackdown” on illegal residents could easily turn into big boot in the ass for all of us.

It has happened all throughout history here: China opens up to foreign influence, investment, immigration just to close back up again.

As I spend my days in Taizhou and traveling around Jiangsu province, studying Mandarin, talking with people in the streets, drinking with friends, I report that there are very little anti-foreign sentiments being aired loudly. China is as friendly as I’ve always known it to be. I just hope that it remains this way.


Filed under: China, Expatriots

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 3683 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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6 comments… add one

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  • Steve-O June 2, 2012, 7:01 am

    Yang Rui sounds like the Chinese version of Glen Beck, stirring up anti Muslim sentiments in the US.
    Jackasses will be Jackasses…

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    • Wade Shepard June 2, 2012, 8:42 am

      Very true. Just funny that guy would insult his audience like that. Pretty much nobody else in China watches his show but English speaking foreigners. Man, I use to watch him talk in his gargled English as I ate dinner haha. But it’s good to know that the guy is as much of a jackass as he looks.

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  • Andy Graham June 3, 2012, 4:37 pm

    Very good Wade, and I appreciate you explaining that it is not a big deal to have your passport checked in a country. I was amused today, in Fort Wayne there is WOWO Radio and it has Glen Beck and he says bad things about Democrats. I was driving close to Chicago and there was a Liberal type radio station saying bad things about Republicans.

    Generally the world is petty, the world enjoys sniping at each other. I try my best to accept, and look at it just as weird dysfunctional entertainment, and say to myself to be grateful I do not side with Democrats or Republicans but try to find what is good.

    I hope your family is enjoying China, I need to go there an hang around to see what is up.

    I am having trouble listening to Americans now, but am learning to find cool things inside the USA to video.

    It is sad how many people want to critisize others with no reason other than they can.
    Your friend, Andy Graham

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    • Wade Shepard June 5, 2012, 8:15 am

      Right on, people enjoy the stimulation of fighting — or at least bickering with each other. For some, it seems to be what keeps their wheels turning. What would people talk about if they didn’t have enemies, if there weren’t good guys and bad guys, us and them? The weather hahaha.

      I know how it is traveling around the USA. It is aggravating listening to people tell you how the world is when they’ve never even experienced the places and cultures they speak of. I have to say at this juncture that I enjoy conversing more with the humbler people of the globe who know that they don’t know what’s going on over the next hill.

      Yes, I highly recommend coming to China. Things to provoke The WTF? response are everywhere — good fuel for the curious traveler. Most say that this is still my favorite country in the world to be in.

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  • mik June 5, 2012, 7:55 pm

    I don’t see any attempted rape on this video at all, why didn’t the girl just walk off instead of throwing a fit? Also I never heard of a “attempted rape” on the side of busy street. The thing that is most outrageous is these chinamen attacking the English guy. The ones who attacked him and then did Kung Fu kicks to his head while he was on the ground unconcious should be in prison and China should be paying the white guy’s pain and suffering and medical bills.

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    • Wade Shepard June 5, 2012, 7:59 pm

      That is a very common sentiment. I had an entire article about what I felt about this — as well as a very critical perspective on the predominant online reaction from the expat community which automatically condemns the guy without knowing anything about what had really happened — that I have not published. This article was really about the fallout from the event rather than the event itself. Simply put, we really need to see what happened before the video began rolling to know what was really going on. But I will say this, the streets of Beijing are full of people at 11:30 at night, and it would have been extremely strange for a foreigner to attempt to rape someone in the middle of the street in such a setting. The guy would have had to of been deranged or completely mad on alcohol to have completely regarded his situation like that. The term “set up” has been thrown around a lot. But, ultimately, nobody on any side of the issue can say anything about this without knowing what transpired before the video started.

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