April 30, 2020·6 min read
Earlier this month, a McDonald’s restaurant in Guangzhou, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, was forced to remove a sign warning that “black people are not allowed to enter.” Upon removing it, McDonald’s told NBC News in a statement that the sign was “not representative of our inclusive values.”
That sounds like what it almost certainly is: a product of the company’s communications department, called in to do damage control. And while we can accept that the McDonald’s corporation itself is not, on the whole, racist, the sign does unfortunately represent China’s values.
As NR’s Jim Geraghty has noted, the incident is an example of the “xenophobia and racism” on display just now in China. This phenomenon is not new to the PRC, but the government has an extra incentive to lean into it now, because it helps the government’s concerted campaign to deflect blame for the global coronavirus pandemic.
There is ample evidence of this. A recent Reuters report noted that ambassadors from several African nations recently engaged the Chinese foreign ministry to raise concerns about how their citizens are being mistreated in China. Passport holders from African countries are subject to extreme stop-and-search practices. Many who are coronavirus-negative are being forced into 30-day quarantines anyway. Foreigners from a range of countries who can document clean bills of health are being denied entry to places of business and other facilities simply because they are foreigners.
Much of this is taking place in Guangzhou, known to some as “Little Africa” because it has the largest African-immigrant population in China. To some extent, African immigration to China is a by-product of Xi Jinping’s effort to build a global network of trade and infrastructure investment that gives the regime a perceived geopolitical advantage over the West in the developing world. Ghanaians, Nigerians, and other immigrants to China are all too happy to take advantage of the work and educational opportunities China offers. But many of them have learned the hard way just how limited the country’s kindness is.
In fact, China’s ill-treatment of foreign-minority populations reflects how the Chinese government treats its own citizens. Muslim minority Uighurs are being held in so-called re-education camps intended to strip them of their religious and ethnic identity, and in many cases subjected to forced labor. In Tibet, which China has oppressed since the very beginning of Communist rule in 1949, things have gotten worse under Xi: Last year, Freedom House named Tibet the second-least-free territory on Earth, behind only war-torn Syria.
It would be natural to presume that such discrimination is a regrettable result of the dominance of the Han Chinese, who are more than 90 percent of China’s population and dominate its society. (By comparison, ethnic Uighurs, for example, make up less than 1 percent of the population.) The Han Chinese, with 1.3 billion members, are the largest ethnic group not just in the PRC but in the world. Antipathy, oppression, and discrimination toward minority ethnic groups in a country with such a dominant majority is regrettable but not surprising, and not unique to the PRC.
Beijing’s response to critics who note all of this is to try to drown them out by highlighting America’s own well-documented history of racial discrimination. But that’s the point: Our historical sins are well-documented, and they inform just about every aspect of our public policy. A free press and other institutions hold up our actions for the world to see. There is no mystery about how our country continues to deal with the effects of the institutionalized discrimination that persisted for nearly two centuries after our own founding, and for a century after we fought a war to end it.
That said, there is a quality to the pattern of behavior in the PRC that transcends ethnicity. Chinese racial discrimination is horrifying in its own right, of course. But it also suggests a farther-reaching chauvinism that is emerging as the defining characteristic of the Xi era.
Han Chinese make up the same percentage of the population in Hong Kong as on the mainland, and are 97 percent of the population in Taiwan. Neither Hong Kongers nor Taiwanese have suffered any less at Xi’s hands for that. Nor, for that matter, have the 400 million mostly Han Chinese living on less than $5 a day in the country outside China’s megacities, who face vicious discrimination from urban elites.
In some ways, the gulf between the rich in China’s cities and the poor in its rural areas has been institutionalized through the longstanding “hukou” system of internal registration, which hampers movement between regions and creates what amounts to an economic caste system. While Xi has made hukou reform a priority in order to create greater opportunity for urban migration and prosperity, the system continues to reinforce the divide between urban haves and rural have-nots. As the former become wealthier and more global in their perspective, the disdain they frequently show for those who are different — whether from Africa or rural China — is becoming more pronounced.
Xi-era chauvinism is beginning to create a backlash around the world. One example is the cooling ardor toward the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s aforementioned effort to gain footholds in foreign markets. Many projects have caused host countries to take on excessive debt. In one instance, a strategic port in Sri Lanka was ceded to China when the debt burden became too high. Politicians in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and other countries have reversed earlier positions of support because of what they see as China’s discriminatory debt diplomacy.
This backlash is appearing even in European countries that once saw China as a potential counterbalance to the Trump administration. In Sweden, for instance, some cities have ended sister-city relationships with Chinese counterparts, and the country has closed its Confucius Institute schools, dealing a blow to one of Beijing’s other soft-power propaganda operations. European leaders, including NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenburg and French president Emmanuel Macron, have also called for better understanding of how Beijing handled the coronavirus pandemic and pushed back against China’s campaign to deflect blame for it.
In short, the world finally seems to be recovering from its decades-long love affair with the PRC, which peaked with the rise of Xi, who was initially viewed as a reformer who would bring China onto the world’s stage as an equal, responsible actor. The true nature of the regime is becoming more apparent, and the world doesn’t like what it sees: the dreadful treatment of ethnic minorities and the rural poor; the obvious interference in Taiwan’s recent presidential election; the belligerence toward Hong Kong as the “one country, two systems” agreement is systematically dismantled and pro-democracy leaders are arrested or just disappear; the bullying of emerging economies through debt diplomacy; and now what is very likely a global pandemic caused by Chinese negligence.
For the first time since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre 30 years ago, the world has awakened to these ugly realities, and if anything good has emerged from this chaotic geopolitical era, that might be it. Here’s hoping that more aggressive action to counter Beijing comes next.