Shanghainese youth borrow a page from Hong Kong's regionalist slurs

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2012, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2012, 2:42pm

15-year-old Zhan Haite has sparked something of a national debate online, one which has dyed-in-the-wool Shanghainese natives blasting her - and other out-of-province kids enrolled at schools in the city but lacking a local hukou - as locusts unwelcome in the city or its schools.

Zhan moved to the city with her parents when she was just four years old and went straight into the local education system, thriving academically throughout her nine years of compulsory education.

She hit her first obstacle when the better public junior middle schools in the city began refusing to accept her as a student due to based on her non-local status.

Not only that, but Zhan's hukou dictates, despite being born in Guangdong, she has to take the gaokao in Jiangxi, her ancestral home province. Doing so, however, means sharply higher test score requirements than would be asked of a Shanghai graduate for entry to the same university.

Instead of putting her into a vocational school or relocating to Jiangxi to let Zhan finish school smoothly but with significantly reduced expectations, the family chose to stay in Shanghai and challenge the system.

"I want to take my gaokao exam here," Zhan has written online, "but I don't want that to depend on my parents' job, income, taxes, assets or pensions. If that's what it takes, then what chance does that leave kids from poor families? How would they be able to change their fate through education?"

Zhan's parents found a privately-run school which agreed to take her, but Shanghai authorities wouldn't budge and Zhan dropped out of junior high the same day all her classmates took their senior high placement exams - many of them going on to top-tier schools, Chinese media have reported.

Zhan has been home-schooling ever since, but now finds herself at the centre of a debate in the city as explosive as it has proven divisive.

When Zhan tried earlier this year to deliver her demand to be allowed to continue with school in the city, in person, to local education authorities, other parents showed up and blocked her from getting close.

When she followed that up with a call to her young and adult interlocutors to debate her in public, police showed up at Zhan's door with the concern that a larger-than-expected turnout would spin out of control.

She told police that not a single person had signed up for her debate, but when she and several supporters - young and old - showed up on October 25, so too did a number of "local" Shanghainese. There to protest the presence of Zhan and other "locusts" in their city, the crowd dispersed with little incident.

Zhan and her father, Zhan Quanxi

Zhan has kept her activism mostly confined to her Sina Weibo microblog since then, during which time her story has blown up online and across the media spectrum.

She has also taken to calling her harshest critics 'skinheads', the neo-nazi sort, which has prompted reactions ranging from constant age-inappropriate harassment online and even at her home, to threats of Rwandan-style 'genocide' on local forums targetting Shanghai residents with origins outside the city, although no incidents of violence have been reported.

"No Shanghainese would want to see the streets flow with locust blood," wrote an editor with one local finance news website yesterday, "and have their filth contaminate our sacred home." 

Even media based outside the city have received threats for covering the issue.

One argument Zhan is putting to her critics is that in the same way that access to education is her right as a citizen, it's also her civic duty to push for it.

"If education doesn't fill gaps but instead increases them," Zhan said in an interview published yesterday by The Beijing Times, "that just compounds the injustice."

The issue of regional discrimination in assigning gaokao seats has come to a head recently due to the Chinese State Council's decision to begin phasing out the practice in major coastal cities in 2013.

Blogging this past weekend on use by Shanghainese of the word locust, borrowed directly from Hong Kong's xenophobic protests of its own, Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University staffer Sun Haigang wrote:

Some Shanghainese need to understand people aren't locusts that want only eat all your leaves and crops, but are intelligent creatures that actually create wealth and provide services, and deserve respect.