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China's evolving relationship with 'barbarians'

China, which used to officially refer to foreigners as 'barbarians,' has a long history of xenophobia. The issue is at the forefront again after two high-profile incidents with foreigners. 

By Staff writer / May 25, 2012

A Chinese girl (l.) looks at a foreign tourist at Tiananmen gate in Beijing, China, May 22. First, videos of rude foreigners went viral in Chinese cyberspace. Then, a Beijing police crackdown on visitors without valid visas drew fervent applause. And finally, a state TV host urged his countrymen to toss out the "foreign trash."

Ng Han Guan/AP

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Beijing

The question of how the Chinese view outsiders has been a vexed one for centuries, dating back well before 1858 when, under the Treaty of Tianjin, the victorious British forbade the Chinese government to refer to foreigners in its official documents as “barbarians.”

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And the issue has raised its head here again in recent days, in the wake of two ugly incidents in which foreigners behaved like, well, barbarians.

Both were filmed by witnesses with camera-phones, and the videos went viral on the Chinese web (they were also aired on state-run TV), sparking widespread outrage. In the first, a drunken young Englishman appears to sexually molest a Chinese woman and is then beaten and kicked by bystanders; in the second a Russian man on a train puts his bare feet on the top of the seat in front of him, and responds to complaints from the woman occupying the seat with a torrent of abuse.

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Not long after these videos came to light the Beijing police launched a “strike hard campaign” to expel foreigners without the correct visas, work permits, or residence permits, urging Chinese citizens to inform on suspected illegals. Matters got really out of hand when a prominent talk show host on state-run TV posted a vitriolic xenophobic rant on Sina Weibo, a popular Twitter-like social media platform.

Supporting the police campaign, Yang Rui said he hoped it would “clean out the foreign trash,” urging the authorities to “cut off foreign snake heads.” Foreign spies “seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage” he charged, and he crowed that “we kicked out that foreign [expletive]” Melissa Chan, the Al Jazeera correspondent expelled from China last month. “We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing,” he concluded.

This sort of sentiment is not uncommon amongst a certain segment of Chinese public opinion – Mr. Yang’s post drew some criticism in subsequent comments by bloggers but it also attracted considerable support – and the government is not above stirring up such feelings on occasion; Yang has not been publicly reprimanded, let alone fired.

At the same time, Westerners and Western products are sometimes presented and esteemed here as bigger, better, and more admirable. Not long ago a young American photographed sharing his McDonald's fries with an old beggar woman prompted much soul searching about Americans' greater sense of social solidarity. 

Changing attitudes 

But some observers see signs that as more and more foreigners come to live and work in China, and as more and more Chinese travel abroad or follow Western sports and film stars, an increasing number of people here are taking less extreme views of those once derided and feared as “foreign devils” or idolized as exemplars of modernity.

“There is no single strain of thought any more,” says Yu Hua, a prominent writer. “Some people may think foreigners are superior, some may not, but China is becoming a more mature society.”

That is partly because Chinese are becoming more familiar with foreigners, who were an exotic rarity only 20 years ago but can be found today in almost any city of any size. The number of foreigners entering China leaped from 740,000 in 1980 to more than 27 million last year, according to official figures.

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