How China can best help in Mideast refugee crisis

Beijing has been under international pressure to accept refugees fleeing civil war in Syria, yet cultural and social differences make this unlikely; instead, China’s role is best suited to being a key peace mediator and provider of humanitarian help and development aid

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 July, 2017, 12:39am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 July, 2017, 12:39am

China is under growing international pressure to shoulder a greater responsibility for the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s civil war. The hundreds of millions of dollars it has pledged for aid and relief is not seen by some as being enough; as an influential power with large economic resources, there is also an expectation that it take thousands of the 5.5 million people who have fled to other countries and are languishing in often squalid camps. But while Chinese are sympathetic to the plight of those made homeless, there is a reluctance to welcome them as migrants or asylum-seekers. Until there is a marked shift in the popular mood, Beijing should only be expected to widen and strengthen existing policies.

Mainland state media marked World Refugee Day last week with coverage of the work among displaced Syrians of actress Yao Chen, a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The reports sparked speculation on social media that a shift of policy was in the offing and that China would soon be putting out the welcome mat. There has since been heated online discussion, with most commentators vehemently against the idea for social, political and economic reasons. There has been no official suggestion of such a shift, though.

Chinese internet users say ‘no’ to refugees from Middle East

Chinese see numerous flaws in arguments to take in or help the refugees. Some worry about the spread of Muslim extremism, pointing to terrorist attacks that have taken place in Europe and elsewhere that were at times carried out by Syrian asylum-seekers. Decades of the one-child policy, which has only in recent years been relaxed, gives others cause to ask why migrants should be allowed so freely in to boost the population when families were for so long restricted in how many children they could have. Then there are those who contend that the crisis and instability in the Middle East is the result of military misadventures by the United States and its allies and that it is their responsibility, not China’s, to help the victims.

Such arguments ignore China’s large land area, 1.38 billion population and rising wealth and influence. That brings international expectations and Beijing has been meeting those through ever-greater contributions to UN aid and peacekeeping operations. The “Belt and Road Initiative” will also benefit troubled areas by bringing development and jobs through infrastructure, trade and investment.

China has taken in large numbers of refugees before, most prominently during the Sino-Vietnam war in 1979. Public sentiment for Syrians is another matter, though, and it will take time before they are accepted. For now, China’s role is best suited to being a key peace mediator and provider of humanitarian help and development aid.