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‘Preferential Treatment’ of Foreign Students in China: Top 3 Controversies This Week

A wave of sentiment against foreign students is taking over Chinese social media this week.

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The treatment of foreign students in China is a major topic of discussion this week, as various stories involving apparent favoritism of exchange students are making their rounds on Chinese social media. This is a top 3 of trending issues.

Recently, there have been many discussions on Chinese social media on the alleged preferential treatment of foreign (exchange) students in China.

Various topics popping up over the past week have triggered anger among netizens about foreign students being allowed to come and study China under favorable conditions.

Some netizens think foreign students make use of the situation and refer to these students as ‘foreign trash’ (洋垃圾).

Although there are many different stories making their rounds, these are the three main news topics of the moment relating to ‘favoritism’ of foreign students compared to Chinese students.

 

1. Arranging ‘Girlfriends’: Shandong’s Study Buddy System Sparks Outrage Online

The first story relating to foreign students that has been making news recently is that of preferential treatment of foreigners at Shandong University.

It is this story that later led to more stories coming out about supposed unequal standards for overseas students in China.

The outrage started after a registration form from Shandong University for students to apply as a “buddy” to exchange students made its rounds on Chinese social media.

The form clearly states “making a foreign friend of the opposite sex” as one of its options.

As explained by SupChina, the study buddy program (学伴制度) was established in 2016 to promote cooperation between foreign and Chinese students.

This year’s application forms show that multiple Chinese volunteers are now grouped and assigned to one foreign student to assist them with school assignments or to keep them company during other (social) activities.

One extreme case in which 25 Chinese students attended to the needs of one single exchange student stirred discussions online. The graduate student from Zimbabwe, who did not speak Chinese, was admitted to the hospital for 25 days for a broken leg and the university had arranged one volunteering student to come to the hospital every day.

The form also showed a specific focus on gender, requiring students to choose options for becoming a study buddy, including that of “making foreign friends of the opposite sex” (“结交外国异性友人”) and allowing them to indicate their preference for their matched buddy’s personality.

A notice circulating on Weibo from the university showed that 47 foreigners taking part in the program were each matched with three Chinese students, most of them female.

This led to people wondering if Shandong University was acting as an educational institute or a matchmaking company, and accused the university of arranging girlfriends for male foreign students.

Shandong University has since apologized and said it would conduct a “thorough research” of its Buddy Programme.

Not all people, however, understand what all the fuss is about. As one popular Weibo blogger noted: “Shandong University’s Buddy System is voluntary, and it is optional to choose the preferred gender of the exchange student, there is no need to fill this out.”

 

2. Lenient Laws? Foreign Student Traffic Police Incident

Another incident sparking controversy occurred on July 9 in the city of Fuzhou, where an international student from the Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University was caught breaking traffic rules on his electric scooter – he was carrying another individual.

When the traffic police stopped the man, he resisted with violence and tried to push the officer out of his way.

Yet, despite his apparent aggressive behavior, the man reportedly was only penalized for his traffic offense and did not face any other legal punishments.

The man has been identified as an Egyptian student by the name of Younes.

One Weibo thread reporting on the incident received approximately 37,000 comments and neared half a million likes.

Although Chinese social media users were angered that the man was let go so easily, the Epoch Times, a news outlet highly critical of China, stated that laws in China about carrying passengers on mopeds are loosely and often arbitrarily enforced.

Instead of reporting favoritism, the Epoch Times article suggests that the incident actually signals towards a bias against foreigners, which is allegedly part of a Chinese media campaign that “portrays Westerners inside China in an increasingly negative light.”

A bystander video of the incident shows the foreign man shouting at the traffic police and even chasing him.

“Why was he not punished for attacking the policeman?” many on Weibo wonder: “He should be expelled from school and sent back home!”

The hashtag “Foreign Student Violates Law, Then Jostles with Traffic Police” (#外籍学生违反交规推搡交警), hosted by CCTV, received 110 million views on Weibo.

On July 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also responded to these online discussions, saying that China welcomes foreign students to study in China to promote mutual understanding and friendships between China and other countries. They also stressed that foreign students should always abide by Chinese laws and regulations.

 

3. Unequal Standards: Dorm Disparity

Dorm disparity between Chinese and foreign students has been a topic of discussion for some time.

In 2018, a short movie went viral on Chinese social media exposing the big differences between the dorm conditions of Chinese students and of foreigners studying in China, causing controversy online.

Amidst all recent discussions on foreign students in China, the dorm discussion has also flared up again.

On July 19, one Chinese netizen noted that the Shandong Agriculture University was refurbishing its guesthouse facilities, where the foreign students live, while photos showed that the Chinese dorms are in abominable conditions.

“Why can’t they live together with Chinese students?” many commenters wonder: “Are Chinese students of a lower rank?”

On July 12, the Shandong Finance & Economics University dorms also became a topic of discussion on Weibo after management required Chinese students to move to another dorm twenty minutes further away so that they could let foreign students live in their dorms instead.

Following online protests, the management decided to halt the dorm move.

Another story getting big this week involves the different electricity quota for foreign students at a Shandong University dorm, where ‘exchange students’ as a separate category are allowed to freely use 30 kWh per month, more than double of what (Chinese) graduate students are allowed to use.

“This is a disgrace to our country,” some commenters said.

Depending on the university, Chinese students often do not have the option to live in foreign dorms, while foreigners often also do not have the option to live in Chinese dorms. In some universities, however, students live together.

At present, just as in the discussions in 2018, there are also commenters noting that foreign students often pay much more for their dorms; exchange students often pay daily fees whereas Chinese students pay per semester. Price differences can be as much as 8 to 10 times more for foreign students’ dormitories.

University Swimming Pool ‘Only for Foreigners’

While more and more people are now calling for more equal standards between Chinese and foreign dormitories, “Capital Normal University discriminates against Chinese” is the statement that is now making its rounds on Chinese social media – further heightening discussions on unequal dorm situations.

On July 17, one netizen posted photos of the regulations at the swimming pool of the Capital Normal University in Beijing.

According to the sign, teachers and staff are allowed to enter the swimming pool for 60 yuan ($8,7), exchange students can enter for 30 yuan ($4,3),  and Chinese students cannot enter at all.

Many people on social media responded to the issue with anger, saying that Chinese students were being “treated like dogs.”

The university issued a response to the controversy on July 18, stating that the swimming pool in question is located in the university’s Grand Building and is part of its facilities.

Because the pool is small (25 x 12.5 meters), it is only meant to be used by those teachers, staff, and students, who are living or working within the Grand Building, with staff paying full price and students paying half.

The statement says that the sign as posted on social media contained “an error” which was already adjusted in January of 2019.

The hashtag “Normal University Responds to Swimming Pool Issue” (#首师大回应游泳馆问题#) received 160 million views at the time of writing. Many people among the thousands who reacted still think the sign is unforgivable.

 

Although all these controversies led to some people negatively expressing themselves about foreign students, there are also many who note that it is not about foreign students per se, but about their selective treatment by universities and/or authorities.

In response to these controversies, state media outlet Global Times published an ‘opinion piece’ on July 17 which stated that offering foreigners certain special treatment has been the norm in China for a long time, as only a small number of foreigners would come to China, and Chinese were eager to show courtesy to every guest.

But, “times have changed,” the author argues: “With more expats [sic] living in China, some people’s obsequiousness for foreigners might lead to resentment and social unease.”

The author notes that some foreigners receive preferential treatment in China while being outlawed in their own countries.

“We should be neither xenophobic nor xenocentric,” the conclusion says: “As a rising power that is looking at opening up wider, fair and equal treatment of foreigners is a lesson we ought to learn.”

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

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‘Divorce Day’: Queuing Up to Get Divorced after Chinese Spring Festival Holiday

The first day after the Spring Festival holiday is a busy one at the Bureau of Civil Affairs as couples are lining up to register a divorce.

Manya Koetse

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On the first day after the Chinese Spring Festival holiday (Jan. 21-27), there are long lines at the Civil Affairs Bureau in several places across China.

In Jiangxi, one resident shared how couples were queuing up to file for divorce on the first day the local Bureau of Civil Affairs reopened its doors. The lines were allegedly so long that people had to wait outside. Another video showed similar scenes at a local bureau in Anhui province. A third video showed crowded scenes of people lining up to register a divorce in Henan.

Chinese media accounts such as Toutiao News (@头条新闻), Vista (@Vista看天下), and Phoenix News (@凤凰周刊) all posted about the long divorce lines on Jan. 29, with one post about the topic receiving 70,000 likes.

“I thought they were lining up to get married, then I watched the news and saw they were actually lining up to get divorced..,” one commenter wrote. Others wondered if the busy lines for the divorce registration office might have something to do with the Covid outbreak over the past weeks, with some couples finding out that their partner actually is not very sympathetic when they are sick (also read this article).

The Chinese media outlets posting about the divorce registration lines mentioned how the ones who suffer the most in a divorce are the children, but many commenters did not agree with this statement, arguing that children suffer the most when parents stay together for the sake of the children and then continue fighting.

The divorce trend after the Chinese Lunar New Year has also been discussed in Chinese media and on social media in previous years (“春节后离婚潮”).

In Western countries, it is a known fact that divorce rates increase after Christmas time; the Monday after Christmas break is also dubbed “Divorce Day.” Some sources claim this is often due to quarrels that occur during Christmas and the financial pressures that come with the festive season.

It is arguably not much different for the Chinese New Year, when incidents taking place during family gatherings could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“The Spring Festival is like a big marriage minefield,” one commenter wrote: “When you return to your family home, it doesn’t just mean reuniting with your close relatives, there are also various tests of human relations and etiquette. A careless moment can cause conflicts between a married couple, leading to quarrels or even divorce. Is your marriage good or not? You will know during the Chinese New Year. After the New Year, there will be a wave of divorces.”

But the pandemic situation of the past years, in including the lockdowns, mental stress and financial difficulties, inescapably also play a role in the recent divorce wave.

In December of 2022, this Chinese blog article already predicted that more people would file for divorce after the Chinese New Year since the end of the holiday would coincide with the end of the Covid peak. In times of lockdown, and especially in times of sickness, couples easily get annoyed with each other and their love is put to the test.

Earlier this month, some Chinese media also reported that three years after the pandemic began, cities were already seeing a “divorce wave” (#疫情后一线城市离婚预约爆满#).

Some netizens comment that the ‘cool-off’ period that was introduced to allow couples a month’s time to think and revoke their divorce does not seem to have much effect.

Some people sympathize with those standing in line: “Celebrating the New Year can bring about a war in some families. The divorce season has started.”

By Manya Koetse 

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Less Education, More Babies? Discussions Surrounding China’s Falling Birth Rate

Another year, another drop in birth rates: according to the latest statistics, China’s 2022 saw more deaths than births.

Manya Koetse

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China’s falling birth rates have been a topic of discussion for years. With the latest statistics marking another record low in birth rates, Chinese experts look for ways to motivate couples to have (more) children at an earlier age.

Official yearbook data, released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics (国家统计局) on Jan. 17, 2023, shows that the total Chinese mainland population was 1.4118 billion by late 2022. Last year, 9.56 million people were born, while 10.41 million people died. The population in 2022 fell by 850,000 from 2021.

As reported by The New York Times, according to the latest data, 2022 was not just the first time deaths outnumbered births in China since the Great Leap Forward in 1960s, it was also one of the worst performance years for the Chinese economy since 1976.

China’s dropping birth rates have been a topic of discussion for years. The annual statistics that were published three years ago, in January 2020, showed that China’s birth rate in 2019 had fallen to its lowest since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In that year, the birth rate was 10.48 per thousand, and 14.65 million babies were born in mainland China.

The data from later years showed that just 12 million babies were born in 2020 (8.5 births per thousand) and that only 10.6 million babies were born in 2021 – a rate of 7.52 births per thousand. The latest number is another record low.

Over recent years, various trends in Chinese (online) media have highlighted the social issues behind China’s dropping marriage and birth rates. The rising costs of living and the fact that Chinese younger generations “prefer to marry late,” are often mentioned as an explanation for China’s decline in marriage rates and the interrelated lowering birth rates.

But China’s so-called ‘leftover’ single men have also been pointed out as a “crisis,” with China having millions of more men than women of marriageable age – partly a consequence of the one-child policy combined with a traditional preference for baby boys.

For years, China’s ‘leftover women’ were also mentioned as a reason for the country’s declining marriage rates; China’s well-educated, career-oriented, urban single women were singled out for making it harder for China’s unmarried men to find a wife because of their ‘choice’ to postpone marriage and family life. This increased the pressure on China’s single women to get married, including facing an associated social stigma, which has become a recurring topic of debate on Chinese social media.

Chinese couples are allowed to have two children since 2015, three children since 2021, and it was later widely reported that parents with more than three children would also no longer receive fines according to a draft law amendment.

Celebrating the ‘three child policy’ (image via Weibo.com).

But the new regulations have not had the desired effect, with many couples simply not wanting a second child or being unable to afford it. The pandemic and zero Covid policy also haven’t exactly helped to boost China’s birth rates.

On social media, official media put out the two hashtags “9.56 Million People born in China in 2022” and “In 2022, China’s Population Decreased by 850,000 people” (#2022中国全年出生人口956万人#, #2022年中国人口减少85万人#). Among commenters, the latest data have led to various discussions.

Some are about the costs of living:

  • There’s so much to consider if you want to have a child, the costs are just too high, and I wouldn’t be able to support it.”

Others are about increasing social pressure:

  • These days there’s too much pressure on men to get married, they’re not confident and at ease anymore.”

And then there are those who see no problem in a population drop:

  • It’s only natural for the population to decline, how can you expect it to be like the old days when people would have five or six kids; the people like my grandma in my hometown all come from families with at least four kids.”
  • This country of 1,5 billion people is constantly worried about going extinct, people are crazy!
  • The Information Age doesn’t need so many people anyway.”

 

HOW TO BOOST BIRTH RATES?

 

But while netizens’ opinions on the matter vary, experts, politicians, and media outlets focus on the topic of how China’s birth rates can be boosted.

Various places across China have already announced policies to encourage families to raise more than one child, including prolonged maternity leave, increased maternity allowances, and support for home purchases.

One hashtag that was popular on Weibo this week was about a statement made by the billionaire businessman Zong Qinghou (宗庆后), CEO of leading beverage company Wahaha Group (哇哈哈).

Zong is a proponent of offering affordable housing to young people. In a video that has since gone viral – and which was a segment from a CCTV interview, – Zong talks about his low-cost housing project and also called on China’s young people to find a partner, get married earlier and have children sooner to “contribute” to the country’s birth rates (#宗庆后希望年轻人早点结婚生娃#).

The hashtag triggered many replies. Most of them criticized Zong’s remarks, and many commenters expressed that they did not like being told to marry and have kids. Some also remarked how Zong’s own forty-something daughter allegedly is not married herself.

It is not the first time for an opinion leader or expert to frame marriage and childbirth as a “contribution” to the country.  In 2015, the Chinese scholar Yang Zao (杨早) wrote an essay in which he explained China’s falling birth rates as “a clash between individualist and collectivist values.” At the time, he wrote: “For the country, for society, for parents, can’t you let go a bit of personal happiness? After all, isn’t marriage key to solving China’s present-day problems?”

Another hashtag that went viral this week is “Could Shortening Education Time Increase Birth Rates?” (#缩短教育时间能提高生育率吗#).

The topic relates to an article published by Zhejiang News on Jan. 16, 2023, about China’s Education and Population Report (中国教育和人口报告). In this report, James Jianzhang Liang (梁建章, a demographer who is better known as the Ctrip CEO) and other authors suggest that shortening the duration of education might help boost the country’s birth rates. The authors suggest that the middle and elementary education time could be cut down by two years by eliminating the Senior High School Entrance Examination (Zhongkao 中考).

There are two ways in which this idea might benefit China’s birth rates. On the one hand, the authors argue, China’s highly competitive education system puts a lot of pressure on children and financial strain on their parents, who struggle to invest as much time and money into their children’s education as they can. The pressure is real: the exam results during the last year of junior high school are of crucial importance regarding admission to the preferred senior high school, which also profoundly influences education after high school and students’ future careers. So the reasoning is that couples are more likely to have children if the financial burdens on parents are alleviated.

Should we have kids or not? Cartoon posted on Weibo.com.

On the other hand, the authors argue that when people finish school two years earlier, this will give them more time to start their life after graduation, making it more likely for women to have children at an earlier age.

One post about this topic, in which netizens were asked how they felt about the idea, received over 225,000 likes and nearly 13,000 comments.

A typical reply suggested that all these ‘experts’ should have more children themselves, reiterating a widespread criticism of opinion makers and experts who often do not practice what they preach.

Others expressed that they did not think that China’s lower birth rates were related to education, while others felt that a shortened education time would be a step back for China.

Some also criticized Zhejiang News. The media outlet itself indicated that the idea of shortening school years to boost fertility rates was like treating people as “tools.” But some commenters said: “The sad thing is not that people are treated as tools, the sad thing is that it took you this long to realize it.”

There are more Weibo bloggers and commenters suggesting that people paid a heavy price for the One Child policy that was implemented between 1980-2015, and that its effects will have a significant impact on society for a long time to come. After decades of only allowing couples to have one child, the shift to now introducing policies to encourage people to have more children is a strange reality.

One popular blogger (@峰哥亡命天涯) posted a photo that showed an old One Child Policy slogan on a building [少生优生,幸福一生 ‘Have fewer but healthier babies and a happier life‘], and he wrote: “The effects of family planning have contributed to contemporary times and bring benefits for future centuries!”

Another poster said they felt bad for the one-child generation born in the 1980s:

I really feel sorry for those born in the 1980s. They’ve always dealt with problems in attending school from young to old, then when they were all grown up faced problems with the job [market], then the issue of marrying and the bride price, and most importantly the high price of housing and caring for the elderly – the 1980s generation is carrying the burden. Those born in the 1970s can no longer have children, and those born after ’95 or 2000 are not giving birth. So we can only squeeze the post-1980s (..) Let them finally take a breather.”

By Manya Koetse 
with contributions by Zilan Qian

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

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