Published daily by the Lowy Institute

How China views the plight of refugees

The Chinese position is that its most valuable contribution to the global humanitarian good is the development and stability of China itself.

Photo: Flickr/UN Geneva
Photo: Flickr/UN Geneva

With assistance from Zixin Wang, an intern with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program.

Following World Refugee Day on 20 June, Chinese netizens have been heatedly debating whether China should accept refugees.

'Debating' may be too strong a word – social media users are for the most part heatedly agreeing with each other that China is in no position to take refugees. While many in China feel that the country should (and does) have a role in global peace and security, the vast majority support the official view that the 'problem' of refugees, particularly from the Middle East, is not China's responsibility to solve. They feel that the best way to contribute to global humanitarian issues is to continue to build a prosperous and stable China.

Chinese official media has been reporting on China's positive role in international humanitarian issues for several months. For example, Xinhua covered World Refugee Week with evocative images of refugees in need of help, and CCTV New has provided consistent reporting of the situation of refugees since at least April. The People's Daily Chinese-language International Edition has reported on China's ongoing willingness to contribute to international humanitarian issues.

While this coverage represents both refugees as needing help and China as a responsible global actor on international humanitarian issues, there is no suggestion that China should accept more refugees. This sentiment appears to be broadly shared by Chinese netizens. Some surveys show that the vast majority of Chinese strongly oppose the idea of accepting Middle Eastern refugees and especially Muslim refugees.

Counter to this finding, a 2016 Amnesty International report found that Chinese people, at least theoretically, were some of the most welcoming to refugees in the world. As another report notes, these findings are very different from government policy. This does raise questions over the extent to which opinions expressed on Chinese social media are shaped by the government. However, it also raises questions about the wording of the survey.

In the recent online discussions in China, there are three main themes as to why China should not take in refugees.

Firstly, many Chinese netizens argue that accepting refugees will cause social tension in China. Comments included '难民随便去哪一个地方都是灾难不要圣母心啊' ('Wherever refugees go, there will be a disaster. Don't try to be a god now'); and '之前报道了跟几个欧洲国家收留难民,抢劫强奸的事层出不穷,虽然跟同情,但还是不希望他们来到中国' ('There are always reports related to refugees raping someone or refugees robbing someone. Even though I feel sorry for them, I don't want them in China.') Another netizen argues:'别来我们国家祸害。我们国家以前也是这样,谁同情过我们?是我们的先辈浴血奋战换来今天,不是某神赐予的!他们不为自己国家而战,难道是等他们的神去赈救他们?' ('Don't come to my country to mess around. My country is like this before, and who showed their sympathies to us? Our ancestors fought for today's China, not gods. They don't fight for their countries, but wait for their god to help them?')

These views mirror a recent article in the Global Times, which argued that 'an excessive influx of refugees will have a huge impact on social order' in China. In a society that places a very high value on stability, anything that could pose a threat to that stability is immediately seen as extremely undesirable.

The second theme is the notion that as China is not responsible for the problems that have caused refugees to leave their homes, it is not China's responsibility to accept them. For example, '冤有头,债有主,前面左拐美帝府。' ('No debts without creditors. Go find the US.') and '肆年-鹤顶红:难民交给欧洲人就好,千万别放到中国来。' ('Leave them with the Europeans. Don't come to China.') These views become particularly resonant when combined with the perceived risk refugees pose to social order. They also reflect broader notions of responsibility in China, and ideas of who is obliged to whom. As I have written elsewhere, cosmopolitan obligation is not a strong feature of current Chinese social patterns.

The third theme is that as China is still a developing country, it cannot be expected to take on the burden of helping others, particularly when combined with perceptions that the problem causing the refugee outflows was nothing to do with China, and that accepting refugees poses a risk to Chinese society. Celebrities who publicly welcomed refugees to China such as the actress Yao Chen were criticised for being out of touch with the situation of most Chinese people. One social media user put it very bluntly: '比你妈的嘴吧。 你站在道德制高点因为你有钱,中国还有那么多穷人呢,你咋不想着先帮帮他们,捐点你的钱呢?闭嘴吧您。' ('Shut the f*** up. You guys have money to stand on the moral high ground, but there are many Chinese people still live in poverty. What about donating your money to them first, otherwise just f*** off.') Netizens also attacked academics who argued that accepting refugees could improve China's global image as being unrealistic: '你觉得中国有这个能力去接受那么多难民吗?你是中国的学者,不是搞慈善的,好好想想吧' ('Do you think China has the capability to deal with refugees? You are scholars, not philanthropists. Try harder.') Despite some non-Chinese commentators arguing that accepting refugees would have a positive impact on China's economy, refugees are equated with an economic burden China cannot afford to shoulder. The notion that China is still a developing country and does not have the capacity to help others again reflects Chinese notions of obligation. It is a theme that also comes up in the sensitive issue of communicating Chinese foreign aid to its domestic population.

So where does China stand officially on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers? China is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. However, its Exit-Entry Law did not mention the right to apply for asylum until 2012. It now includes provisions for persons to apply for refugee status and remain in the country during the screening of their applications. As China does not have a refugee status determination procedure, the UNHCR currently manages all applications for refugee status. According to the UNHCR, the total population of refugees and asylum seekers in China is currently around 300,000. Of those, the majority came from neighbouring countries several decades ago. From 1978-1979, China settled 260,000 Indochinese refugees (mostly from Vietnam), and in the early 1980s, China accepted around 2500 refugees from camps in Thailand, mostly from Laos, as well as some Cambodians. Since then, the number of people seeking refugee status in China has dropped dramatically. In 2015, UNHCR reported the number at around 200. As of mid-2016, China had accepted fewer than 30 Syrian refugees.

The emphasis in China is that refugees can be helped just as well outside of China. As the Global Times explained it, '解决难民问题的根本之道是确保难民本国的发展和稳定,帮助他们回到自己的国家' ('The true way out to solve the refugee problem is to achieve stability and development in refugees' own countries and help them return to their own homes.') According to Xinhua, Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted in a recent visit to Lebanon that '难民不是移民,国际社会应该通过解决首要问题,为难民回归创造必要条件' ('Refugees are not migrants, and the international community should strive to create appropriate conditions, through seeking a swifter solution to hot-button issues, for the refugees to return to their homes.') President Xi Jinping announced at the UN Office at Geneva in January that China would allocate an additional 200 million yuan (US$29.26 million) in humanitarian aid to help refugees in the Syrian crisis – but this is not for supporting refugees in China. According to a report in the People's Daily, this money is for the World Food Program.

It may seem difficult to reconcile China's reluctance to accept refugees with China's view that it is a responsible global stakeholder and good global citizen. However, the Chinese position is that its most valuable contribution to the global humanitarian good is the development and stability of China itself, and the lifting of the Chinese population out of poverty. In other words, China is doing its share if it isn't adding to the world's problems.

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