For a growing number of the world’s emigrants, China—not the United States—is the land where opportunities are endless, individual enterprise is rewarded and tolerance is universal.
While China doesn’t officially encourage immigration, it has made it increasingly easy—especially for businesspeople or those with entrepreneurial dreams and the cash to back them up—to get long-term visas. Usually, all it takes is getting an invitation letter from a local company or paying a broker $500 to write one for you.
There are now more than 450,000 people in China with one- to five-year renewable residence permits, almost double the 230,000 who had such permits in 2003. An additional 700 foreigners carry the highly coveted green cards introduced under a system that went into effect in 2004.
China’s openness to foreigners is evident in the reemergence of ethnic enclaves, a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Larger and more permanent than those frequented by expatriate businessmen on temporary assignment, the new enclaves evoke pre-revolutionary China, where cities such as Shanghai bustled with concessions dominated by French, British and Japanese.
The Wangjing area of northern Beijing is a massive Koreatown, complete with groceries, schools, churches, karaoke bars and its own daily newspapers. A few miles away, in the city’s Ritan Park, signs in Cyrillic script and vendors speaking Russian welcome people from the former Soviet republics. In Yiwu, a city in the eastern province of Zhejiang that is the home of the world’s largest wholesale market, “Exotic Street” lights up at night with stands filled with smoking kebabs, colorful hookahs and strong sugared tea for the almost exclusively Arab clientele.
As part of this campaign, China has sought to portray itself as more open to Islam than other non-Muslim nations.
Over the past 20 years, the government has gradually allowed its own Muslim minority to rebuild institutions that were devastated by state-sponsored attacks on Islam during the Cultural Revolution. Islamic schools have opened, and scholars of Islam are being encouraged to go abroad to pursue their studies. Unlike Christians, China’s estimated 20 million Muslims are considered an ethnic minority, a status that confers certain protections and privileges.
Mosques in areas such as Yiwu, where foreigners are concentrated, have been given more freedom than some others, which are under strict state control. Officials at the mosque here estimate that more than 20,000 Muslim immigrants, about 1,000 of them from Iraq, have settled in the area over the past five years.
One prong of China’s efforts to strengthen ties with the developing world is scholarships, a program that began in 1949 when the People’s Republic was founded but that has been ramped up aggressively in recent years. In 1996, China offered about 4,200 scholarships. Last year, the number was 8,500.
Among the recipients are children of the elites in countries where China hopes to forge friendships. Salissou’s father, for instance, works in Niger’s presidential protocol office; Niger is rich in uranium, which China needs for its nuclear plants.
But there are limits to China’s welcome.
It’s nearly impossible for foreigners who don’t have Chinese ancestry to obtain citizenship, and like anywhere else, China has had its share of racial misunderstandings and clashes with foreigners.
The most infamous took place in the city of Nanjing in 1988, when a dispute between a campus security guard and two African students degenerated into a fistfight and ended with African students seeking refuge at their embassies after fleeing a mob that was shouting “Kill the black devils!”
Tensions within China’s black community rose again recently after police arrested about 30 African and Caribbean men in an anti-drug operation in Beijing on Sept. 22. Some witnesses accused China of racial profiling and claimed that some men were beaten. Beijing’s Public Security Bureau has denied race was a factor in the operation.
In Yiwu, there was anger in the Iraqi community after an Iraqi man, Mostafa Ahmed Alazawi, was found dead in his rented home on March 30. His family wanted him to be buried in China and applied to the city for a piece of land. The city ruled that foreigners could not be buried in China, forcing the family to ship the body back to Iraq. The decision fueled outrage among the Iraqis. Through a friend, the family declined to be interviewed.
Anwar [an immigrant] said that despite the tensions he’s happier to be in China than elsewhere in the world.
“My brother lived in the Netherlands for nine years,” he said. “There, if you are a foreigner, you are below them. When he came to China, everything was different. Here, if you are a foreigner, you are treated better than Chinese.”