Jun 12, 2012 12:05 PM

Of 'Sanfei,' Boxers and a Broken System


In recent months, China has hogged the global media limelight. First, there was the dramatic fall from power of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and his wife's alleged involvement in the murder of a British businessman. Then there was the saga over a blind human rights advocate seeking protection in the U.S. embassy. Now, so media reports say, China is waging a war on foreigners within its borders.

On May 15, Beijing public security officials launched a 100-day campaign known as sanfei, or "three illegals," to ferret out foreigners illegally entering, staying and working in China. This move to make sure that foreign residents comply with immigration rules triggered dire warnings from the hypersensitive type. "A wave of anti-foreign sentiment is washing over China," one U.S. magazine says. Others have chimed in, detecting the specter of the bloodthirsty and xenophobic Boxers, who were patronized by the imperial court at the turn of the 20th century.

The most widely believed explanation had to do with two events caught on camera and posted on social media sites. The first involved a British man trying to molest a Chinese woman in Beijing and the second had to do with a Russian cellist taunting a female passenger on a train. In the popular imagination, public security authorities must rise to the occasion and protect Chinese womenfolk from loutish foreigners. In fact, neither the Briton nor the Russian was in China illegally.

The campaign took on a sinister tone after CCTV talk show host Yang Rui labeled it "cleaning up foreign trash". In his microblog, Yang rooted for the crackdown on illegal immigrants to cut off "snake heads" (agents for trafficking illegal immigrants), accused foreign residents of spying, attacked former Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan with an offensive epithet, and said those who demonize China should be sent packing. This tirade stirred the pot and prompted a foreigner living in China to demand Yang be fired.

As host of the English-language program Dialogue, Yang is better known in Beijing's foreign community than among Chinese. In the eyes of the foreign audience, he is the mouthpiece of the Chinese government, on or off the camera. The vitriol of his post was unfortunate and he later admitted the language was too strong, but stopped short of apologizing. In a follow-up microblog, he underscored the necessity of cleaning up "foreign trash" and ironically warned that China should be on guard against the return of the Boxers – precisely the kind of rabid anti-foreign sentiment his first blog post churned up.

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