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Is China's crackdown on foreigners about crime or illegal immigration?

China's Public Security Bureau

China's Public Security Bureau's graphic announcement about the crackdown on illegal immigrants in Beijing. The Chinese characters say: 'Illegal immigrants, illegal residence, illegal work' and the fist graphically spells out the crackdown.

BEIJING – China has launched a 100-day crackdown against illegal immigration and illegal employment in the wake of a high-profile sexual assault case involving a British national who was videotaped allegedly attempting to force himself on a Chinese woman.

The disturbing three-minute video surfaced on the Internet last week and has been viewed more than 8 million times on the Chinese video-sharing website youku.com, provoking outrage across China’s web-sphere.

The clip of the May 8 incident shows the 25-year-old British man standing over a sobbing  Chinese woman on a street median before a Good Samaritan came to her rescueFollowing a brief scuffle, the attacker was then shown lying unconscious on the street before he is suddenly kicked by another nearby bystander – much to the approval of netizens who commented online.

Police arrived soon afterward and detained the man, who was reportedly intoxicated, for sexual assault. He is allegedly still in detention, pending an investigation.   

Officials from China’s Public Security Bureau told NBC News that their summer-long campaign against illegal immigration and illegal employment is simply an enforcement of procedures already in place and wouldn’t comment on whether this crackdown was the result of the attack.

The tactics the Public Security Bureau announced they would use are similar to the ones employed in 2007 and during the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Namely, spot checks of foreigners in Beijing neighborhoods frequented by expatriates, like the Sanlitun bar district and the university district of Haidian.

Police will also create a special hotline so the public can report suspicious foreigners. Security officials will also conduct door-to-door checks of homes owned or rented by foreigners to check visas and housing permits. Chinese state television, CCTV, also quoted Professor Xiang Dang of the Chinese People's Public Security University as saying that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee was also considering creating special detention centers to hold foreigners found without valid visas.

‘Foreigner vs. Chinese’
All of this is part of a multi-prong campaign ostensibly to rein in immigrants who commit crimes, have over-stayed their visas or work illegally in the mainland.

Despite the claims that this was merely a step-up of routine procedures, the tone of the announcement of the campaign – posted on China’s Twitter-like service Weibo – suggests a renewed urgency on the part of Chinese police.  In the announcement, a fist is seen smashing down on three words: Illegal immigrants, illegal residence, illegal work.

News of the campaign was unfortunately greeted with some anti-foreigner stereotyping – a common “foreigner versus Chinese” practice lamented in a column in the Chinese newspaper Global Times

But the police crackdown was generally seen as a positive development online. On Weibo one user wrote: “[The campaign] should have happened earlier! If we don’t do this, there will be more cases of foreigners raping Chinese girls!”

Another user, however, noted, “In fact, we don’t need this campaign now. Any foreigner who has seen the video or heard about this incident will behave. That’s the best lesson.”

Throughout the day on Tuesday, “illegal foreigner” was a Top 10 trending topic on Weibo.

But missing from much of the public discussion online was the fact that the Briton believed to have sparked this new campaign was in China on a valid tourist visa.

Growing issue: illegal immigration
Though the timing of the Public Security Bureau’s campaign suggests a desire to associate the video with a toughening-up on street crime committed by foreigners, the focus of the campaign –checking documentation of foreigners – seems to be centered more on dealing with illegal immigration.

A Global Times article on the crackdown noted that China rounded-up about 20,000 illegal immigrants last year and – just like the United States – had no idea just how many were still in the country.

“It's very difficult for China to deal with the problem,” the Global Times wrote. “China lacks experience, hasn't made full preparations, and does not even know the exact number of illegal immigrants right now.”  

The Global Times – typically a nationalistic leaning paper – appeared to be using the crackdown as an occasion to acknowledge the country’s need for immigration reform.

“China should create favorable and legal conditions for foreigners to live and work in the country,” the article states. “On the other hand, China should be decisive in cracking down on illegal immigrants. It cannot afford to be an immigrant destination at this early stage.”  

If the tenet about citizens of poor countries chasing opportunity in richer nations holds true, the 20,000 illegal immigrants China dealt with this year will very soon pale in comparison to the number of illegal immigrants in the United States as of 2011: 11.5 million.



Correction: May 17, 2012

An earlier version of this post noted that a member of the National People's Congress Standing Committee told CCTV that it was considering creating special detention centers to hold foreigners without valid visas. It was Professor Xiang Dang of the Chinese People's Public Security University, not a member of the National People's Standing Committee who made that comment.