Beijing’s ban on gatherings of foreigners in restaurants raises eyebrows, and questions
Philip J. Cunningham says Beijing’s ban on foreigners congregating in restaurants may be rooted in the fear that they could be a terrorist target, but clampdowns based on racial differences come across as intolerant
The pride of foreigners living in Beijing has been injured by the prejudiced policy of restricting foreign entry to certain bars and eateries for the duration of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. The question remains whether the clumsy policy, geographically isolated and not widely enforced, is a misunderstanding misconstrued as prejudice, or an act of prejudice wrapped in talk of security concerns. Either way, the mini crackdown has touched a raw nerve, and for good reason. If what appears to be happening is for real, it does not bode well for China’s future, even if it is only a temporary measure.
Any time authorities start setting up roadblocks to free movement and association based on racial identity, or just “differentness”, alarm bells start ringing, especially to Westerners who cannot and should not forget the horror of the master lesson provided by Nazi Germany. Growing up in a largely Jewish area of New York, I learned to be vigilant in the face of prejudice and intolerance, even in petty acts, and even in isolation. Working in China and Japan taught me that prejudice is real, but also imagined. It gets magnified by one’s minority status. Sometimes it is malevolent, sometimes inadvertent and unintended.
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“Pizza-gate” is about as petty as a potentially disturbing crackdown can get. Only a handful of Beijing bar owners posted signs limiting foreigners and it was made clear it was for a short, designated time frame. But the damage was done, because foreigners in China, like elsewhere, are hypersensitive to exclusion. Foreigners in China often feel excluded, even under the most welcoming circumstances, if only because of the yawning gap of language, culture and social differences with the host country.
The clumsy edict proscribing attendance of “more than 10 foreigners” is the crux of problem. What is a foreigner in this context? Is the “security” measure directed primarily at Caucasians? Asians? Chinese holders of foreign passports? Why 10? Who’s counting? Who defines what foreign means?
The irony of this public relations disaster is that the measure may have been well intended, based on police intelligence. During the politically sensitive Two Sessions period, all sorts of restrictions are in place and ordinary Chinese citizens bear the brunt. For most Beijingers, it is like a bout of bad weather, you shrug it off knowing it will not last. Annual meetings are part of the pattern, so are big holidays and international events, such as the Olympics.
This sort of cyclical self-policing has a long history in China, but it might seem irrational or offensive to observers who see the law as a constant, not something that is over- or under-enforced according to whim.
The unspoken fear in the current context is terror. Singling out innocent foreigners to maximise global media coverage is a tactic that has been the hallmark of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups. The bars singled out have a long history of being popular with foreigners. In the eyes of the perhaps too-cautious police, such venues are also potential targets. The fear is not of what happens when more than 10 “conspiratorial” foreign students get together, but of a lone wolf attacker intent on sowing confusion and hate to get maximum publicity.
Even so, it’s not a good idea to single out foreigners without explanation. It is better to close the entire venue for the duration of the threat than to ban entry by race or appearance.
The temporary ban is hopefully not a sign of more prejudicial things to come. Beijing expats have responded with humour and sarcasm, but the move has raised eyebrows in foreign capitals. Given the current mainstream media mood that sees every little dispute between China and the West as a clash of civilisations, it is possible for something inadvertent and petty to be misconstrued as evidence of growing fascism. A kerfuffle it might be, but it has already lent weight to the litany of more serious complaints about China in the world media.
Philip J. Cunningham is the author of Tiananmen Moon