No dogs or foreigners allowed.
“The xenophobia in China is getting worse by the day,” tweeted Paul Mozur, a journalist for the NY Times who’s about to be tossed out of China as part of the tit-for-tat squabble between Beijing and Washington that’s seeing the arbitrary expulsion of media on both sides. Two days later Mozur later gave a clear example of what he was talking about:
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world and relations between the world’s two superpowers fall to ruins, the situation for foreigners and foreign businesses on the ground in China has become overtly precarious. First hand reports are coming out about how foreigners are being refused admittance to hotels, how entire sections of cities have barred their residency, and how, even after quarantine, some firms and even entire office buildings have simply told all foreign staff to keep out. It has now become a common sight for restaurants and shops to have signs hanging on their doors that say something to effect of: “People with temperature over 38 degrees and foreigners forbidden.” One foreign couple in Beijing were refused service at a restaurant they often frequented pre-pandemic, as the waiter informed them, ‘My boss told me not to allow black people.’
Length of stay in China and travel history doesn’t seem to have much bearing on many of these new restrictions, which seem to be coming down from higher authorities:
Note foreigners are being given at a bar in Beijing:
“Just as many Asian-looking people have experienced xenophobia in other countries, the opposite is happening in China,” explained Mark Tanner of the Shanghai-based consumer research firm China Skinny. “I have heard COVID-19 referred to as the ‘Italian Flu.’ I have a number of European colleagues who have been turned away from restaurants and have been questioned at the apartment complexes that they have been long resident due to their ethnicity. Similarly, a friend’s landlord put his rent up 15%. When he contacted agents about finding another apartment, many of the agents said that landlords weren’t allowing foreigners.”
Thiago Bessimo, a Brazilian national who has been studying and working in Beijing for the past four years, experienced this first hand. After returning home one night he had his entry barred by the guards at the gate of his complex. They refused to accept his police registration document as proof that he lived there.
“They’re just looking at the document and they were like, ‘No, this is not true. You cannot enter.’ And I was like, ‘I live here,’” he recollected.
Bessimo ended up enduring an hour and a half long ordeal which only ended when he called the police. When the police arrived they confirmed the authenticity of his registration document and permitted him to enter the apartment complex where he’s been living in since 2018.
It is now being widely reported in the Chinese media that all new cases of COVID-19 are being brought in by foreigners — a message that’s partially being drummed up due to a terse political climate with the USA. What is often missing in these reports is that 90% of China’s 595 imported coronavirus cases were actually from Chinese nationals returning home.
“They are viewing foreigners and potential vectors for disease at a time when everybody is incredibly concerned about not having another outbreak,” said James Palmer, the author of The Death of Mao. “Letting a foreigner in is just considered too risky. There’s no upside for you. If you let a foreigner in and the foreigner has the virus … that’s now become something that’s truly politically dangerous for you.”
In no uncertain terms, Palmer, who was based in Beijing for many years, urged foreigners to consider leaving the country altogether:
But now it may be too late.
How the tables have turned
When the Covid-19 outbreak was mostly localized to Wuhan and the world began restricting travel from China, Beijing raged about the injustice, making claims that they were “creating panic” and accusations of racism and xenophobia.
But now that the pandemic is under control in China but is spreading rapidly elsewhere in the world, Beijing performed 180 degree turn in policy and effectively quarantined the country off from the rest of the disease-stricken world. Driven by the fear that people coming in from abroad could lead to a second wave of infections, as of March 28th, China has banned all foreigners from entering the country, including those who operate businesses or otherwise live there, with exceptions only being made for diplomats and essential visitors.
China has also limited all foreign airlines to just one flight per week and each Chinese airline to one flight per week, per country. On top of that, these flights can only fly at 75% capacity.
Essentially, China just issued a global travel ban — which even includes PRC citizens fleeing the outbreak in other countries due to the lack of flights — which is far beyond the measures that any other nation has taken.
“I expect the decision to ban foreigners is as much about lowering imported cases as keeping the public happy who are clearly concerned about foreigners infecting them,” Tanner said.
There are nearly a million foreigners who live in mainland China, many of whom run businesses, manage factories, or otherwise working at companies who keep China’s GDP pumping. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China issued a statement claiming that the ban on foreigners would result in an “unprecedented challenge for companies” who rely on foreign workers and added that it will keep many families separated.
Life in China for foreigners has become a little too reminiscent of the situation in the 1950s when the Communist Party had just come to power and the old expat communities of Shanghai and Beijing were being broken up and their residents demonized.
“That whole sort of expulsion of foreign-ness in the 1950s in a country that really looked to foreigners for cultural influence, trying for renewal, for reform,” Palmer explained. “The last English language newspapers in Shanghai is where you can see the end of this community. Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic but I feel like the [current] expat magazines are going to look like that in a couple of years or so. There will be like one left and it will be full of ads for people leaving.”
Is history repeating itself?
“There’s going to be fewer foreigners as a result,” Palmer lamented, “and because they are seen as convenient political targets, foreigners are going to be more demonized in media. Everything is going to be harder after coronavirus as a whole.”
This is just something else to add to the long list of new concerns that foreign firms in China are now facing. For many, sticking around just isn’t worth it anymore.