Stigmatised and ostracised

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2006, 12:00am

The crook in the television drama is shifty, sleazy and would merrily sell his mother to the devil for a handful of change. Speaking in a heavy Henan province dialect, he is a villainous and malevolent sort, with nastiness oozing from every greasy pore.

In another show, migrant workers in Beijing who earn the bulk of their income by stealing bicycles and picking pockets, also have the Henan twang, and refer to crime partners in Zhengzhou , the provincial capital.

Just as Shanghainese are considered mean, Beijingers snooty and those from northeastern Harbin rough and tough, Henanese are stereotyped as thieves and fraudsters. Many from the central province are finding it increasingly difficult to shake off the stigma.

The negative references are common in the media. At some job fairs, employers have put up signs saying Henanese need not apply. One Beijing restaurateur said that while she would not explicitly state in a job ad that Henanese were not welcome, she would not be inclined to hire one. 'I know it's a generalisation, but I've been cheated by them before, so if I have several people applying for jobs, I will normally pick people from other provinces,' she said. The only other place that had such a negative image was the mostly Muslim autonomous region of Xinjiang , in the northwest, she noted. 'But they are a different ethnic group with a totally different language and culture. Henanese are Han Chinese, but there's a different feeling.' Just why this discrimination exists is unclear. Books and dissertations have tried to find its roots, and one theory is that poverty in the province of 100 million people forces many into the big cities, where some turn to crime and tarnish the image for all. But in provinces like Anhui and Sichuan - with similar demographics and economic problems - people are not stigmatised like the Henanese.

Some fraud cases have worsened the image, and it took a further bashing a few years ago when media reports warned of syringe attacks by angry, HIV-infected Henanese. The reports were exaggerated and the hysteria dissipated, but the negative perception has lingered.

The discrimination came to the fore recently. Two Henanese natives sued a Shenzhen police station after officers put up a large banner - 'Resolutely strike at Henan racketeering gangs' - and offered rewards. Incensed at the official slur, the pair claimed the banner infringed the rights of the Henanese, damaged their reputation and caused mental trauma. In their defence, the police said that in the three months before the banner appeared, they had arrested 17 members from five racketeering gangs, and all came from Henan.

But the Zhengzhou court was not convinced. The banner was taken down, police made a public apology, and also personally apologised to any Henanese in their district.

But Henan natives say their daily lives have not been helped by legal victories and expressions of remorse. A businessman who has lived in Beijing for more than 10 years lies about his origin. He was born and raised in Henan, but he tells people he is from Jiangsu , his mother's native province.

'I lost my Henan accent when I came to Beijing,' he said. 'I now try to speak like a local. Beijing people often look down on anyone from the countryside, but being from Henan is the worst. There's a lack of trust straight away. In the United States, the blacks and the Hispanics are discriminated against. We don't have many blacks or Hispanics in China, but there's plenty of discrimination against people from Henan.'

Peter Goff is a Beijing-based journalist