Demonstrators hold the Ukrainian flag during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Sofia, Bulgaria, on May 9. The country, which has historically close ties with Russia, is now split between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine supporters. Photo: AFP
Deng Jing-Yuan
Deng Jing-Yuan

Backlash against Russians living abroad is all too familiar for anxious Chinese expats

  • The war in Ukraine has prompted a rejection of all things Russian in the US and Europe, with expats now primary targets
  • Such sentiment is sure to ring alarm bells among Chinese living overseas, for whom the racism endured during the pandemic remains a constant threat
Beijing is widely assumed to be closely observing the effects of Western sanctions on Moscow. Less discussed is that the overseas Chinese community is watching how their Russian counterparts are faring.
Russian expats have had their hands full since their home country invaded Ukraine. The first major nuisance came through their wallets. After both Visa and Mastercard suspended services in Russia, news emerged of Russian tourists suddenly becoming cash-strapped. Flight cancellations then left them stranded.

Those who have permanently made their home abroad suffered more. Once seen as part of their host country’s community, they became stigmatised as the domestic appendage of a foreign enemy.

Russian children in Germany were bullied by their schoolmates, some Russian doctoral applicants claimed to have lost their offers, and private Russian establishments were vandalised in Europe and the US. Anti-Russian incidents surged across the West, along with online abuse.

A demonstrator holds a poster calling for Russia to be cut off from the Swift international payment system, during a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on February 26 in Vienna, Austria. Photo: AFP

In response, some Russians living abroad quietly hid their nationality. A Russian friend, now living in Canada, dropped a distinctive Slavic suffix in his surname. Even in Bulgaria, perhaps the most pro-Russian country in the European Union, a restaurateur told me of Russian customers only revealing their origins in hushed voices after their accents gave them away.

All these events should ring a bell among Chinese abroad. As Covid-19 spread across the globe and official Sino-Western ties began deteriorating rapidly in the early months of 2020, it was Chinese expats who suddenly found themselves expunged from their local communities and singled out as a suspect group.

Unlike Caucasian Russians, the East Asian features of overseas Chinese left them with nowhere to hide, and only brought in other Asians as further collateral damage.

In a morbid turn of fortune, the focus on Russia seems to have taken some heat off the embattled Chinese expats. Yet, from where the overseas Chinese stand, all is not well. Western sanctions on Russia are not only a tour de force of how far sanctions on states can go, but a demonstration of how they can affect the lives of ordinary individuals.

If international payments can suddenly grind to a halt, Chinese students abroad, numbering in the millions, can lose their livelihoods. Business operators and workers would no longer be able to send remittances home. The closure of airspace would effectively cut off all travel to and from home. Securing a visa for work or travel could become near-impossible. Any one of these outcomes would lead many Chinese expats to think twice about living in the West.


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Some Western governments went further than others. The UK Foreign Office imposed a limit on the amount of funds Russian nationals can deposit in British banks. Ostensibly to push out oligarch money, that limit is set at a paltry £50,000 (US$60,950).

One former Russian colleague in the UK was forced to pay the rent a year in advance to stay below the limit. Such a policy is not only radical; it is an assault on the security of property and discrimination on the basis of nationality. Even British banks were taken aback.

Most disturbing is that Russians are suffering irrespective of their views on the war. Though polls on Russian expats are hard to find, anecdotes suggest a large number are opposed to the war. Those who fled Russia in its wake almost certainly are.
A member of the Russian diaspora holds a sign during a march in Warsaw, Poland, to protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin, on June 12. Photo: EPA-EFE

Yet the reaction in Western societies appears to take aim at an abstract “Russia”. Anything Russian becomes poignant. The Boston Marathon in the US barred runners from Russia and Belarus. The Cardiff Philharmonic in the UK removed Tchaikovsky from its programme, though the composer died more than a century before the ongoing war started. Germany ceased all academic collaborations with Russia.

In times of national rivalry, the line between a country’s regime and its people become blurred. The expressly discriminatory actions targeting Russian nationals are muted by the Western public.

It would be hard for Chinese expats not to draw parallels, not least because a conflict between China and Western-aligned powers no longer seems an absurd impossibility. If the West’s own principle of liberalism, hingeing fundamentally on viewing a person not merely as part of a collective, but as an individual, cannot protect Russian expats, what will become of Chinese expats?

Ukraine war: Pro-Russia protesters rally in Germany

The lesson from Russia’s war appears to be that nationality alone can leave one’s personal and financial security exposed to political risks. More concerning still, if the Covid-19 pandemic is any guide, simply being ethnic Chinese or of East Asian race is sufficient to put one at risk. There is no forum to put oneself in the clear, and no place to hide from a potentially hostile society.

It is only natural, then, that some Chinese are thinking twice about whether to pursue a life abroad. A friend sent by a Chinese company to France cited this precise reason for no longer wanting an overseas career.

Yet, for many more, what first brought them to the West is still reason enough to stay. China’s draconian response to the pandemic also brings little solace. For those who do stay, the Western treatment of Russian nationals leaves a trail of anxiety and a distant, rumbling fear for the future.

Deng Jing-Yuan is a consultant at the World Bank’s Office of the Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa. These are solely the author’s opinions and do not reflect the views of any affiliated organisations