This week has seen an outburst of anti-foreign ranting on the internet in China. Recent events seem to have formed a "perfect storm" for this kind of thing: China and the Philippines are in a spat over an island in the South China Sea; video clips of a Brit molesting a Chinese woman on the street and of a Russian cellist being rude to a woman on a train have gone viral; and the city's very public campaign to "clean up" illegal foreigners is asking Chinese to call a hot-line to report suspicious behavior on the part of foreigners.
Some local websites are getting in on the act, urging netizens have their camera phones ever at the ready to film misbehaving foreigners. A famous CCTV anchor even chimed in on his microblog declaring his hope that all the 'foreign scum' would be kicked out. Ouch!
I've seen quite a few of these outbursts come and go in my nearly three decades here. They are no fun, but they do (so far) tend to blow over.
The diciest outbreak I experienced was in 1999, following the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, which killed 3 Chinese journalists. I remember waking up that Saturday morning and listening to the news (listening to VOA and the BBC on short-wave radio was our main source of news back then), and thinking "oh no…..this isn't going to be good….."
By the afternoon an angry crowd "had formed" in front of the US embassy throwing rocks and hurling paint at the building. I say "had formed" because the crowds were made up of students who were being transported to the embassy on buses provided by their schools. This went on all weekend, and the embassy sent out emails to Americans warning us to stay off the streets.
Later in the week a colleague and I ventured to the Starbucks in the Friendship store (which was down the street from the US embassy at the time) to see for ourselves what was going on, and sat all morning watching as students showed up to the checkpoint in the street, signed their names, picked up a rock from the desk, then went marching off to the embassy.
It was also very disconcerting to see red banners suddenly appear all over town with "Death to the Foreign Devils" written all over them. "Is is suddenly the 1960s?", I wondered; I told a driver friend of mine that the signs made me feel very uncomfortable. "Oh don't worry he said," they're not referring to you. You're not a foreign devil. You are a foreign friend." That was nice to hear but didn't offer me too much reassurance since I wondered how someone on the street with a brick in his hand would be able to immediately make that distinction. I told the driver that the signs hurt my feelings. He looked at me funny.
The following weekend, the government went on TV (no text messaging yet) and told the students that the best way to show their patriotism was to go back to class and focus on their studies. Just like that, it was over.
A week after that I and a colleague were in the Liu Li Chang area of Beijing doing some shopping. As we were trying to catch a cab at the end of the day, a man with a three-wheeled rickshaw came over and asked us if we would like a ride. We told him that we lived too far away. Then the conversation proceeded something like this:
Him: Wah! You speak really good Chinese. Where are your from ?
Me: (not wanting to tell him we were Americans) I would rather not tell you.
Him. Why not?
Me: Because if I tell you then you will stop being nice and friendly to us.
Him: Why would I do that?
Me: Because we are Americans!
Him: (slapping his leg and laughing out loud) AIYA!!!! THAT WAS LAST WEEK!!
My hunch (and hope) is that, like previous such outbursts, this too shall pass. I am also fairly sure that as soon as many netizens finish posting their anti-foreign rants, they will head on over to KFC or MacDonalds or Starbucks to finish working on their visa applications to go abroad.
And I, as an outsider trying to live well where I don't belong, will take this as a reminder that everything I do is seen or noticed (even if it's not filmed) and seek to live my life accordingly.