Rachel Brown is a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
China ranks first in many things – population, greenhouse gas emissions, foreign treasury holdings – but openness toward refugees is one arena in which it has not traditionally been considered a leader. It therefore came as surprise when China ranked first in Amnesty International’s recently released “Refugees Welcome Index,” a survey that polled over 27,000 people in twenty-seven nations on their attitudes toward refugees. This put it ahead of nations such as Germany and Canada that have already taken in thousands of Syrian refugees. China also topped the list in citizens’ reported willingness to accept a refugee into their homes, with a whopping 46 percent of respondents willing to do so. (In the next highest nation, the United Kingdom, the share was just 29 percent.) While the Chinese data may not be fully representative as it was collected from just 1,055 respondents in eighteen major cities, the survey nonetheless caught people off guard. The results fly in the face of multiple aspects of China’s past policies and attitudes toward refugees, namely:
- The Chinese government provides little financial support for international refugees. In 2015, the Chinese government ranked just fifty-first among both private and national donors to the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), giving only $941,841, less than one-eighth the amount given by private Chinese donors. (The Chinese government has also provided other humanitarian assistance to Middle Eastern countries resettling refugees and donated ten thousand tons of food for Syrian refugees in February 2016).
- The government also has not shown particular tolerance toward those fleeing to China’s own borders. China is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture, but as of December 2015, UNHCR reported just 727 displaced "persons of concern" in China. The same month, the UN Committee Against Torture criticized China’s policy of deeming North Korean defectors economic migrants not refugees and forcibly deporting them. This behavior violates China’s international treaty obligations since North Korean defectors may face “persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases, sexual violence” after repatriation. And just two weeks ago, a report indicated that China planned to send home Kokang refugees, an ethnic Chinese population from Myanmar, who had been living in Yunnan province.
- Officials don’t respect refugee status abroad much either. Last year, multiple Chinese dissidents were returned from Thailand despite receiving arrangements for resettlement as asylees and being granted a UNHCR letter of protection.
- Chinese citizens may not actually be so enthusiastic about taking in refugees. In a poll by China’s state-run Global Times shortly after the Amnesty report’s release, 90.3 percent of respondents said they didn’t want “to receive refugees in their own homes,” and 79.6 percent opposed having them in their own city or as a neighbor. Popular comments on the survey echoed this less tolerant attitude and called on Western nations to bear full responsibility. One user wrote, “I’m only willing to accept a refugee from a natural disaster, and will absolutely not accept a refugee from a civil war because conflict refugees are of America’s own making and all of the consequences should be assumed by America. We absolutely cannot pay the bill for America’s homicidal maniacs!” Another wrote, “America, the ‘model for global citizens,’ can come do patrols in the South China Sea, why can’t they be a model for housing refugees????”
So which survey is more accurate? Most likely neither entirely reflects national sentiments. The Global Times survey was open to anyone online, but the paper is known for its nationalistic readership and controversial positions; meanwhile GlobeScan, who conducted Amnesty’s survey, held phone interviews with members of urban, adult populations, who may be more tolerant of refugees. Linguistic confusion could also have skewed Amnesty’s results. A Quartz article noted that the word used for refugee in the survey, nanmin (难民), can refer either to someone fleeing across international borders or to someone internally displaced due to a natural disaster or other cause. In China, the authors observe, people might be more willing to host the latter. Indeed, China placed highly on questions including just the term nanmin but ranked nineteenth on a question that specifically referenced being “able to take refuge in other countries to escape war or persecution.” (Interestingly, the Global Times poll also only used nanmin, but did reference the Amnesty survey).
Despite the Amnesty survey’s potential flaws, reasons for optimism remain. In the study, Chinese respondents placed first in one last category: the belief that their government should be doing “more to help refugees fleeing war or persecution.” 86 percent of respondents supported this statement. China has successfully integrated refugees before and could do so again. Most of the approximately three hundred thousand refugees resettled during the Vietnam War now enjoy full rights. If anywhere close to 86 percent of Chinese citizens truly believe their government should do more, it’s time for them to start advocating for policy changes, including potential resettlement.