China Signals That the Welcome Mat’s Still Out
For the past two weeks, Chinese authorities have been going to unusual lengths to reassure foreigners, especially businessmen, that they are welcome and well protected here.
Peking authorities assigned a heavy contingent of police to stand on duty outside a Pierre Cardin fashion show. The state-owned People’s Insurance Co. has paid off claims of damage to foreigners’ cars in record time. China’s Olympic stars have urged the Chinese people to show good sportsmanship toward foreigners.
All of these actions are aimed at counteracting the effects of China’s May 19 soccer riot, in which thousands of Peking fans, angered by China’s loss to Hong Kong in the World Cup qualifying competition, went on a rampage after the game ended.
The rioters, most of them young and at least some of them intoxicated, threw rocks and bottles at cars, overturned a taxi and battled with police. By the time police managed to gain control, after arresting 127 people, the streets outside Peking’s Workers’ Stadium were covered with glass. Four police officers were seriously injured and several foreigners had been attacked.
To some extent, China’s soccer riot was similar to those in European or Latin American countries. Indeed, one group of Chinese students recently explained to an American teacher that the riot occurred precisely because China has opened its doors to the West and is learning what happens in other countries. Last weekend, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang went out of his way to point out that “this sort of thing has happened in some other countries recently.”
Yet there was one way in which the soccer riot in China was unusual: Foreigners were singled out for attack. Those in the crowd outside the Peking soccer stadium pointed out foreigners to one another, spat at them and stopped their cars.
The rioters were apparently indiscriminate in their anti-foreignism: They stopped or attacked the cars of a Canadian diplomat, a Soviet journalist and an overseas Chinese reporter from Singapore. They also scratched up an American journalist trying to take pictures for the French news agency Agence France Presse.
The Peking riot raises the question of whether foreign companies thinking of starting operations in China should fear a new outbreak of xenophobia. To what extent can foreign business executives expect to be subjected to harassment in China?
Since 1979, when China began to open its doors to foreign investment, more than 1,000 companies have set up representative offices in the country. This figure includes more than 200 Japanese firms, more than 200 from Hong Kong and Macao and at least 120 from the United States.
About 550 of these foreign business offices are in Peking, 150 are in Canton and 120 are in Shanghai.
Over the past six years, the amount of personal contact between foreigners and Chinese has gradually increased. Ordinary Chinese no longer appear fearful to talk with a foreigner on the street, and a few of the more adventurous are willing to occasionally invite foreigners into their homes.
Kept at a Distance
Nevertheless, the regime still keeps foreigners at an extraordinary distance from the mainstream of Chinese society. Foreign business executives live in hotels or special apartment complexes, while diplomats and journalists live in high-walled compounds guarded at all hours by uniformed police.
Foreigners drive cars with special license plates, shop for groceries in special stores and sleep in special hotels. If they go to a soccer game, they sit in a special bloc of seats set aside for them.
Virtually every Chinese organization or work unit, no matter how tiny, has a waiban-- or “foreign affairs office"--and it is to this office that foreigners are immediately referred. Chinese themselves sometimes refer to the people who work in these offices as “the barbarian handlers.”
The official Chinese explanation is that all of these things are designed to help or protect foreigners. Yet there are many times when the Chinese seem to be utterly obsessed with the perceptions of foreigners and with the distinction between foreigners and themselves.
When a foreigner inquired whether he might attend screenings of new films by a local film group, a Chinese friend politely declined and then confessed, “It would make people feel uncomfortable to have a foreigner there.”
When foreigners walk down the streets of Peking, Chinese parents and children frequently point out to one another, “waiguoren (foreigner).” Recently, some foreigners here say they have also heard the more derogatory yangguizi (foreign devil).
Chinese authorities, who are trying to attract foreign investment here and are also hoping to bring the Olympic Games to Peking in the year 2000, were clearly distressed by the soccer riot. Peking municipal officials and newspapers said the incident had tarnished the image of the city and the entire nation.
Yet by striving to separate foreigners from Chinese society and by repeatedly warning the public about the dangers of improper or “decadent " foreign influences, the Chinese regime helps to perpetuate the climate of suspicion of foreigners in which the soccer riot took place.
For now, there is no sign that the May 19 riot is crimping foreign business operations here.
At the moment, executives of foreign companies stationed in Peking are voicing greater concern about Chinese taxes and about the ever-increasing costs of doing business here than they are about the riot and manifestations of xenophobia. The eagerness to gain access to China’s huge market remains as great as it ever was.
There were no serious injuries to foreigners during the riot. Those companies which have decided to put up with the political and economic risks of doing business here are not likely to pull up stakes because of that single brief incident.
But if there are other, similar outbursts against foreigners, the business climate in China could change very quickly.