The apparently calculated snub of US President Barack Obama and the White House press corps in Hangzhou on Saturday is sparking understandable outrage among many outside observers. But no one should be that bewildered. Actually, by not rolling out the red carpet (literally) and seeking to throttle foreign media coverage of Obama’s arrival, some in China are once again out to convince the international community that this is a New China, and that Washington and other outsiders had better get used to it.
The discourtesy shown to the American president is emblematic of what many foreigners who live and work in China face most days now. Incivility towards outsiders has been on the increase for some time, and little face is reserved for foreign residents. There's often kindness for tourists, but expats looking to work in China are routinely stiff-armed when it comes to permits and permissions. Foreign students and academics find themselves under far greater scrutiny than before, with doubts raised as to why they want to study or conduct research in China, especially when so many Chinese pupils and professionals have emigrated for better prospects elsewhere. Surely, the local gossip regularly goes, there’s something suspicious about people who actually want to be in China when they could be somewhere else. What had been curiosity and respect for foreigners years ago because they committed themselves to know China has become contempt and derision from a growing number of citizens, with local residents often disbelieving of the motives of foreigners to live and work here.
Chinese state media is responsible for a good deal of this sentiment toward foreigners, and seems to do everything to reinforce stereotypes whenever possible. (This despite the fact that many media employees have relatives who've taken up permanent residence overseas.) Foreigners are frequently cast in television series as untrustworthy, often eager to steal Chinese females from their families and rightful partners (though things turn out fine in the end, thanks to Chinese men standing up in the script for their manhood). When foreigners do appear on local Chinese television programs, it’s usually for entertainment purposes, to show that they’re trying hard to learn Chinese and understand Chinese culture, but in their failing, they’re actually quite funny and deserve to be laughed at by locals. One wishes that there were more exceptions, but they're few and far between, especially where provincial television is concerned.
News coverage here helps to cultivate disparagement and distrust, portraying the foreign policies of other countries as always—always—focused on undermining China; the governments of other countries are seen as spending all of their time and energy thinking about and planning against Beijing. It’s only through the wholly defensive measures of China that Washington’s conspiracies (and Tokyo’s, and Manila’s, and---insert your Asian country here) are thwarted, the news coverage intones daily. Arms sales to Asian countries other than China are seen as clear evidence of the perfidy of foreign governments, while Beijing’s own military buildup is cast to local audiences as the response of a responsible, peace-loving country simply looking out for its own interests, making sure that China is never again the victim of outside powers. Foreigners are routinely asked which country they are from, and then chastised for policies that were recently presented on the evening news but which have little basis in reality because they don’t exist.
Many, many matters have improved enormously in China. Regrettably, elite and public attitudes in China towards the outside world aren’t currently on that list.
At the same time, where China’s newfound animus towards outsiders is concerned, there’s blame enough to go around. There are foreigners who come to China to pad a resume or a bank account and display a wanton disregard for local culture. There are also drive-by analysts and summertime scholars who visit China and exclaim its successes or failures without much contact with actual residents or the many complexities of Chinese society, thereby undermining those who work here and wish China well, but are as conscious of its current shortcomings as many Chinese citizens. The clumsiness (to be kind) of those outsiders is unhelpful, often disgraceful.
Then there are foreigners with expertise in fields other than China and less-than-zero linguistic ability in Chinese who are sought out by China’s state media, and then primed, primped and paraded before a domestic television audience to say only sweet things in their mother tongue, as Chinese subtitles at the bottom of the screen confirm their affection and awe for China. Meanwhile Chinese commentators and scholars in their own language speak in forthright terms about the country’s challenges. But only the elites and cognoscenti pay attention to such nuances, while the bulk of local residents see only the state-approved stereotypes of foreign visitors, who either “love China” or are told to leave it.
For decades, the leading outside narrative about China was of a country working its way through economic reform so that political openness would eventually emerge. That forecast was suspect from the start (Chinese leaders never bought into it); but it comforted corporations and foundations that saw everything from open markets and ironclad contracts to civil society on the near horizon. Yet when matters here in China went sideways, these same prognosticators preached patience, and dismissed those who saw matters otherwise, continuing to funnel funds to projects and investigators who agreed with their view. Stay cool and work quietly behind the scenes for progress, these people counseled—all the while xenophobia and nationalism grew and protectionist policies convinced China’s local and national leaders that they didn’t need foreign help—in fact, it just got in the way. China’s drift to confrontation with outsiders instead of collaboration went largely unremarked on by those foreigners scrambling to protect investments and, often more importantly to them, their reputations. Suddenly they’re disappointed with a China that never existed anyway, but the myths of which they helped in large part to create.
At the end of the day, President Obama strode down the uncarpeted stairs, and the foreign press got an instructive story out. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding or poor planning, though it’s just as likely that China’s hardliners and anti-foreign types are congratulating themselves that they humiliated the naïve non-natives again. Still, it’s really nothing new on the local level here in China--but one can at least hope it’s a wakeup call: That while this might not be the China everyone welcomed, it’s the one we all have to deal with, right now and in the years to come.