Throughout its 63-year history, the People's Republic of China has had to maintain a fine balance between controlling its own people and appeasing them. Walking this line becomes even more important in years like this, as the government prepares for a national power handover, a transition that began this week, while dealing with the fallout from a number of embarrassing political incidents, including the Bo Xilai murder-and-corruption scandal, and the escape of blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest.
This governing mindset was in evidence this past May, when a video of a British man sexually assaulting a Chinese woman went viral. The government turned to nationalism, instituting a 100-day crackdown on foreigners living and working illegally in the city. What followed were over three months of random document searches, as well as raids on foreign-owned businesses. To get a sense of what it was like for foreigners to live and work in Beijing during the crackdown, as well as what it means for the expat community going forward, I spoke to two friends, Amy, currently a manager at a media company in Beijing, and Paul, who started his own Amazon-type business there, about their experiences during that time, and how it's influenced their perspective on China.
Phoenix: Can you tell me a little about what you experienced during the crackdown?
Amy: Honestly, there wasn't any difference in our day-to-day life. There were rumors of cops checking papers of foreigners living in "foreign" compounds, but I lived in one of the most prominent ones, and no one ever checked on me. Nonetheless, we carried our papers everywhere.
Work was a different story. We got two visits from the police. The first was pretty traumatic. Two officers came to the office demanding to speak to the HR manager. We didn't have an HR manager at the time, and the officers weren't too keen on that answer. When I stepped in and told them they could talk to me (as I had access to all the files), they demanded to have a list of all foreign employees and their files. I asked them to give me fifteen minutes to pull them, and they in turn accused me of trying to cheat them. I was able to keep my cool for a while, but after several rounds of accusations, I started breaking into a cold sweat.
I spent a solid hour with them arguing about whether or not interns were employees, and kept on being accused of being a liar because, "Why on earth would anyone work without compensation?" They even went so far as to antagonize the interns directly, as well as some other foreigners who came to visit the office. They spent about three hours at the office, and after collecting and reviewing all the papers they left with a stern warning that we'd better keep in line, which was ironic, because we were already doing this.
What was your initial reaction to being investigated?
I was completely frazzled that night, and went home to cry on a friend's shoulder and call my parents. I Facebooked a little about the situation and promptly received an email from my boss pointing out that all of this was par for the course, and that I shouldn't make such a big deal out of it. He told me that this kind of stuff happens whenever there is any kind of political shift, and that all you have to do is go with it, cooperate, keep smiling, and accommodate them. And he was right! A few weeks later the same officers showed up at the office to return some papers, and acted as though we were old chums, just as my boss predicted. Obviously that's not something I could have known back then, and I'm still not sure what to make of this in retrospect.
What did you make of all this, later on? What were the reactions of the people around you?
I was furious that our senior management didn't do a debrief. They'd assumed I'd been through it already and didn't need any extra help to deal with the situation. Apparently it gets easier every time, but this was my first time. I talked to a handful of other locals, and everyone who'd been working in Beijing for a long time just brushed it off, saying that it was a part of life. Just some wheels you have to jump through whenever the country is heading for a bumpy road.
But people in the company were on edge for a few days, especially the interns, who were accused of working illegally, but with a couple of debriefs from senior execs and strategic meetings, we realized that we had nothing to worry about, and life quickly returned to normal.
Have there been residual effects from the crackdown that persist today at your company?
Nope. Business went back to normal, lives went back to normal, and I haven't met anyone who has suffered any long lasting effects from the crackdown. What's interesting though is that there are always small, hidden rules that pop up alongside Chinese politics. Like Filipinos not being approved for visas due to politics. It's not on the books, but when we talked to our visa agents, they just told us to hold off on hiring them for now.
After experiencing this, what do you think of China, its politics, and your place is in Beijing?
I'm still living in China and plan on being here for the long run, so obviously, not too much has changed. But it did make me realize that my ability to live and work here is not something that I should take for granted, and ultimately, that freedom and rights are really precious. I always knew that, but I don't think I ever felt it, until the crackdown happened.
Phoenix: What was your experience like during the crackdown?
Paul: Immediately after the sexual assault, I went on Weibo [Chinese twitter], and I saw this palpable sense of anger on there that quickly turned into this hysterical hatred of foreigners in China. It then manifested itself in daily life. For instance, it was so hard to get a taxi in Beijing. So many times, the driver would pull up, see that I was a western foreigner, and then just drive away.
Then the authorities started raiding English schools and bars, and that was kind of scary, because no one could know what the consequences of that would be. Why are they raiding this place? What are they looking for? What happens to you if you're caught without the right documentation? Are you thrown in jail? Nobody knew the answer. So there was almost this panic amongst the expat community. I also can't tell you how many texts and emails I got in those first few weeks warning me to keep my passport on me, because of the possibility of random stop-and-searches.
There was one incident that I witnessed at a bar in the Gulou area. It was a Spanish bar; the music was quiet and the atmosphere was very sedate. When the police came in, the music stopped and there was complete silence. The police started asking people for their documentation, starting at the front, and actually, that night I hadn't brought my passport or my visa, and I was thinking, "Oh my God, I run a business in Beijing. I don't want to get on the wrong side of the authorities." Fortunately, I was at the back, and they only checked a few people. Nobody was arrested. But one minute after the police left, everybody went home. There was absolutely no one left inside.
Then there were reports of attacks, or altercations between foreigners and Chinese people, particularly around the Sanlitun area [most of the expat-frequented bars and restaurants are in Sanlitun]. I actually had a friend, a woman, who was harassed by a man there, and I think some of her foreign friends tried to intervene, and they were severely beaten up. In fairness though, I can't say whether this was a direct consequence of that video going viral, or whether it was a typical drunken altercation on a Saturday night, but it seemed like you would hear more reports or anecdotes from friends of that kind of thing happening during that time.
Wow. I didn't know that it was that bad.
I never felt like I was necessarily in danger. When everybody cleared out of that bar, it was strange, because Beijing isn't exactly a party city, but it usually feels quite liberal and comfortable. You don't feel like you're in danger from other people and the authorities, and that feeling changed a lot during the crackdown.
What were other expats' reactions during that time?
There was the feeling that the guy who had done this—who sexually assaulted that woman—was an absolute ass. That goes without saying. People were also mad that this man undermined perhaps months or years of relationship building that they had engaged in with their Chinese friends or colleagues.
Everybody knew that this was a very serious incident, but they thought that some of the reaction was misdirected. The perpetrator should've been made to deal with the legal consequences of his actions, of course, but people also thought that the reaction was a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are so many law-abiding and hardworking foreigners who live and work in Beijing, and they felt like they were being tarred with the same brush.
Did this incident affect any of your daily business dealings with Chinese people?
Chinese people did react with anger initially. But when that anger is portrayed in the media, it can seem a lot more permanent or serious than it actually is. I think the majority of Chinese people said to themselves, "Perhaps I should be a little more suspicious of foreigners living in my community," especially if they've never had a personal relationship with any foreigners. But it wasn't like I felt any hatred from every single Chinese person living in Beijing, and I don't think it affected our everyday business dealings with suppliers, or other partners. People still saw you as an individual, albeit a foreign British individual, so it didn't have a huge impact.
How about the business climate in general?
During the crackdown, there was a sense for expats that maybe it wasn't a good idea to go out on a Saturday night, so perhaps that extended to consumer behavior, to people buying things online. If so, I think those effects were small and indirect.
I heard anecdotally though that it was harder for people to get visas to work and study in China. And speaking more broadly than just about my business, I think a lot of businesses thought twice about hiring foreign staff, because if you apply for a visa for a foreign staff member, you bring increased scrutiny from the business administration.
But I still feel that China and Beijing offers a lot of opportunity for foreigners who want to work in business, whether they want to start their own, or consult. I've found that you can come with an idea that has been niche-d to death in your own country, but chances are, in a place like Beijing—it hasn't been done. There's a lot more opportunity to develop new ideas and take them to market, even after everything that's happened.
With everything that has happened, what do you think your place is in China as an expat?
I came to China initially with a plan to stay for 6 months [as of now, Paul has been in China for almost a year and a half], and then go back to the UK. And the original reason was to just get a sense of what China was about and to get some experience here doing business. Honestly, I would say that before I came here, I felt skeptical about China, and its culture and traditions, because in the West, we have a skewed view of what China is, so we can't really understand what it's really like.
Now though, I feel like I understand and appreciate the culture more, in terms of doing business and building personal relationships. But I feel like I will never fully understand or appreciate what it means to be Chinese. So what does that mean in the long term? It probably means that I won't stay here for the rest of my life, but for now, I'm enjoying myself.
I really liked how nuanced your answers were. In my experience, some other expats are like, "Why am I not accepted in China?" and they form really stringent views about Chinese society because of that.
I grew up with mixed parentage in a city that was very racially diverse and also racially divided, so I guess, as a kid, you almost feel like you have a divided identity. You don't necessarily belong completely to either community you're raised in. There's a little bit of that at work when you live in China too, but, because of my childhood, I was already prepared to deal with that.
In one respect, I would echo some of those comments; you never really feel that you'll be fully part of Chinese society. But is that too much for me? Is that a reason not to stay here and enjoy it while I can? I would say no, and the reason for that is because that's how I grew up. For example, my mum is a staunch Catholic, and my dad was raised as a Muslim, and it's not the only way to gain that appreciation, but it's how I came to appreciate different cultures, and even cultural clashes. In China, you see those cultural clashes all the time, but there are ways to deal with them, rather than becoming entrenched and saying, "This is what I believe about this country." I think that's perhaps how my experience is different from that of the average expat.
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Phoenix Tso lives vicariously through her friends who are still in China. Photo by Vivian Chen.