The panda in the room: China’s absence from discussions of refugee responsibility



The global refuge crisis remains a key area of focus for the world’s most significant state actors, with one clear exception: China. Sharing its border with 14 nations (more than any other country), and occupying a large portion of the conflict-ridden Eurasian landmass, there is a strong case to be made that China should be a suitable location for displaced persons.

When nations like the United States and Australia fall short of global expectations, strident criticism ensues. But China remains virtually non-existent in discussion and assistance efforts.

In 2017, an informal poll created on the Chinese social media site Weibo asked netizens whether the Chinese government should accept a greater number of Middle Eastern refugees. Of the 150,000 that responded to the survey, a mere 2.5 per cent (3,798) voted ‘yes’ to the proposition, pointing to an overwhelming majority that would not like to see increased rates of refugee intake from the region.

Conversely, a global survey of 27,000 individuals from 27 countries conducted by Amnesty International in 2016 found China to be the most welcoming nation on their refugee welcome index, with a staggering 46% willing to house refugees in their home. Admittedly there is a major difference in the form and function of these two separate data sets, as although Amnesty’s survey clearly stands on more legitimate foundation, it does account for only 1,000 Chinese citizens, whereas the Weibo poll drew on a much larger audience, but only considered refugees from the Middle East.

Attaining accurate data on public opinion is difficult at the best of times. And given the nature of Chinese society in relation to freedom of expression and tolerance of human rights groups such as Amnesty International, it is perhaps not surprising that such conflicting results are available to those of us looking from the outside in.The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reach of power makes this possible, however this power cannot hide the the state’s staunch position on external matters as seen in its handling of refugee policy in several instances.

Technically, China is party to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, and the 1967 Protocol which relates to the status of refugees. Despite this, domestic law concerning refugees and asylum seekers is still being developed in China. This paints a troubling image of the amount of consideration that has been given to the issue.

According to data collected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were just over 301,000 refugees in China as of 2015. Of these, 300,000 are understood to be Indochinese. In the late 1970’s, the huge numbers of Indochinese (many of whom were ethnic Chinese) fled the conflict in Vietnam. That leaves a mere 1,000 non-Indochinese refugees in China over several decades, as the government has preferred to remain a transit destination rather than a refuge for non-ethnic individuals.

Unlike the expectations heaped upon many European states in relation to refugee responsibility, China appears able to simply shift the blame. The ongoing civil conflict in Syria is a clear example of this manoeuvring. Over five million people have been displaced as a result of the turmoil in Syria, yet the most recent reports indicate only nine have been granted access to China.

A consistent position held by the CCP is that refugee crises in the Middle East are a product of western attempts to democratise the region, and therefore the responsibility of the west. In real terms, the greatest burden has been shared by Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbours, with Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt absorbing more than four million refugees.

Whilst China’s assertions of western responsibility remain contentious, there is no questioning the reality; that lesser equipped nations are being burdened with the true costs of conflict-forced displacement. The basic geographical distance between China and Syria is, of course, a factor relating to the lack of refugee intake, but given China’s near identical reluctance in instances closer to home, it is certainly not the defining one.

China’s neighbours North Korea and Myanmar have had their own domestic issues causing an outpouring of individuals fleeing persecution. Ethnic violence has marred Myanmar in recent years, forcing minority groups such as the Kokangs to flee into China’s Yunnan Province. The Chinese government refuses to recognise these individuals as refugees, and denies them humanitarian assistance, classifying them as ‘border residents’.

A similar attitude is adopted for North Korean defectors, although the preferred nomenclature in this instance is ‘economic migrant’. Chinese border protocol in the north specifies that any identified North Koreans are to be repatriated, even as South Korea is willing to accept these displaced people. This protocol exists despite assurances by Human Rights Watch that repatriated North Koreans will likely face direct, at times fatal consequences for their attempted escape.

It appears refugee intake is not a cause for concern for the Chinese government or its people. With a clear domestic majority fearful of the impact of an influx of refugees, and a dearth of international criticism, Xi’s government can focus on the myriad of other concerns facing the state for the time being.

But if China is to be taken seriously as a state capable of global leadership, then it should remain mindful of the ever-shifting tides of moral responsibility that come with such a position.

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