A Graduate in China - Xenophobia Exposes Flaws in an Unjust Society

04/07/2012 16:56 BST | Updated 03/09/2012 10:12 BST

What a visitor sees in a foreign country is not necessarily representative of reality. In my last blog post I took a tolerant line on racism in China pointing out that visitors shouldn't confuse Oriental curiosity with prejudice.

Days after my words hit The HuffPost UK a story broke suggesting that many Chinese people have major problems with the presence of foreigners in their country, particularly black foreigners. You can read the story on China Smack. It is about the death of a black man in police custody after he had been arrested for getting into an argument with a motorcycle taxi driver.

The police arrested both him and the taxi driver and took them for questioning. Four hours after the arrest the police were forced to call for emergency medical care because after he complained of feeling ill, the African lost consciousness. Resuscitation failed, the man was pronounced dead and an investigation launched.

Next day, 19 June, a large group of black foreigners gathered in an area in Guangzhou protesting that their questions were not being answered. Chinese riot police were forced in move in and disperse the crowd.

Although the protestors clearly believed the man was beaten to death, some of the comments that followed said more about Chinese society than the incident itself, horrific though it was. While sympathy was expressed, there were also references to "black devils", comments that "Guangzhou definitely has too many black people!" and, even worse, "Guangzhou has too many black people now. Most of them are all illegal immigrants... When night falls, they just wander around. All you can see is two rows of teeth. This needs to be dealt with."

Other comments suggested that the police will be in trouble as they are "finally treating locals and foreigners equally now" or that dying in police custody is "respecting Chinese law."

Certainly there are pockets of severe xenophobia in Chinese society. There is also a perception that foreigners generally get special treatment compared to the locals. I am currently reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang and she discusses how foreigners were given very beneficial treatment when they were first alowed into China following Nixon's visit.

Now as a foreigner working in China I earn more than my colleagues, despite having less experience. I also can travel easily; I have a passport and can pop to Hong Kong for the weekend without a visa, which Chinese people cannot do and visas are difficult to obtain.

Many Chinese teachers sought my advice, despite the fact they have been teaching for years. If anything happened to me it would probably be investigated. Neil Heywood's suspicious death even helped bring about the downfall of a very important character involved with the Chinese power structure.

China Smack suggests that many Chinese people feel their leaders, and the wealthy elite, have little regard for ordinary individuals. Stories of hedonistic lifestyles, corruption and government cover-ups abound. They have a point. Take the huge wealth gap between the parents of my students and the cleaners who work in the school. It is hard to imagine that a street sweeper eking out a living collecting plastic bottles from bins is cared for more by the Chinese government than the owner of an imported German car who owns a factory.

The principals of my school are called leaders. When I needed to see one before I started teaching at 0830, when all the teachers had been at school for 40 minutes, I was told by my foreign co-ordinator that the leader would still be in bed and should not be disturbed. I have been silenced mid conversation, in the presence of leaders, for a telephone to be answered. Good lessons by Chinese teachers have been torn to shreds by leaders who felt the educational emphasis was wrong.

These examples are tiny microcosms of a vast and complex society. Certainly people should protest if one of their race dies in police custody. But why shouldn't Chinese workers be able to protest at similar maltreatments?

Only last year there were some internationally newsworthy riots in Xintang, my neighbouring town, sparked by the beating up of a pregnant woman selling fruit on the street. She was from the Sichuan province and the whole of the local Sichuanese population rose in anger.

But the protestors were fiercely quelled by the authorities rather than being "dispersed in the constitutional manner". While many Americans now believe that the 'American Dream' is dead, in China the equivalent 'Chinese Dream' doesn't exist and never will.