Expats in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, are facing increased scrutiny and police surveillance in the aftermath of an infamous school drugs bust in July. As a foreign resident of Xuzhou, I have found the city’s response a source of interest, frustration and concern. Here are some ways in which I feel life for expats in Xuzhou has changed since that fateful day.
Photo: BMN Network
Firstly, let me say that Xuzhou is nothing special. That is to say, it’s not unique as a perfectly Chinese, mid-sized, third-tier city. Until the economic boom spread to Xuzhou it was nothing more than a dusty mining town and a regional transportation hub. Even now it has little to entice tourists or foreign investment and yet, in recent months, Xuzhou has become one of the most heavily scrutinized cities in eastern China.
In July of this year, 16 foreigners (seven teachers and nine students) were arrested in a drugs raid at an Education First facility. The story was reported internationally by CNN, The Guardian, The New York Times, and numerous others. In years past, a story like this would likely have been ignored by the foreign press. However, tensions between China and the West, in particular the US, have meant any kind of scandal involving foreigners in China is increasingly subject to closer examination. While the Xuzhou drugs bust does not appear to be politically motivated, the international press has naturally placed it within the wider political context.
I lived in Xuzhou from 2009 to 2014 and returned the same week as the drugs bust. Since then, police raids have been a constant source of rumor and worry among expats and the businesses that employ them. The school I work for has been subjected to several inspections by the local office of the Ministry of Education, and the subject comes up nearly every day among the foreign staff. Last month, we were all instructed to sign forms that declared we would obey the laws of China, which seemed to me a redundant and heavy-handed exercise. If I hadn’t signed it, would I be allowed to break the law?
Teachers who work for the school at the center of the bust must now take a drugs test every six months, according to reports. Rumors also abound about foreigners being stopped on the street or pulled out of bars and restaurants and forced to take drug tests, and I’ve been told by other expats in Xuzhou that police have the right to show up at your residence unannounced and demand a sample. Personally, I haven’t yet been subjected to any of these measures, but even the possibility of encountering something like this would be unimaginable in the unremarkable city I first arrived in 10 years ago.
Two recent interactions really exemplify how life has changed for expats in Xuzhou. Neither was very dramatic, but each was eye-opening in its own way. I recently moved to a new apartment and went to the local police station to register, as per protocol. When the officer in charge realized I was American he said, “Please don’t get in any trouble. We don’t want Trump to Tweet about us.” He was half-joking, and President Trump did not in fact Tweet about the school arrests, but it is a statement I don’t think would ever have been made this time last year. It’s not just the foreigners who are under the microscope, but the police and local government authorities, too. Everyone is just a little bit on edge.
The second incident came two weeks ago as I was returning to mainland China from Hong Kong. At customs and immigration in Shanghai, the officer said, with a raised eyebrow, “Oh, you’re going to Xuzhou.” Never before has Xuzhou been the subject of so much intrigue. Never before have people outside of the city given it much thought at all. Perhaps I’m just being paranoid and the immigration officer was just interested in my plans, but the fact that I am paranoid also tells you a lot. Even in my mind, Xuzhou is now tainted by foreign criminality.
Crackdowns on foreign workers are seemingly rising across China, with Reuters reporting in August that some law firms have seen a ten-fold increase in the number of foreign teachers seeking representation. Close to home in another city in Jiangsu province, two Americans who ran a recruiting agency were arrested last month and charged with aiding illegal immigration into China. Again, a story that until recently would not have garnered much attention has been covered by the New York Times, Al Jazeera, CBS News and many more.
I live here with my wife, who is a native of Xuzhou, and our son, who is an American citizen. We are not the only family in Xuzhou with this dynamic, but I worry that our situation is potentially problematic. Whether we continue living in Xuzhou or move somewhere else is something we have frequently discussed since the raids, such is the unstable feeling in the city. If we stay here, I and my son will continue to stand out and possibly be made to pay for the mistakes of other foreigners.
But this city is my wife’s birthplace and where I have lived for five of the past 10 years. I think of it as a second home, but now I also have to think of it as something else. I have to maintain an awareness of the international relevance of what was once a quintessentially Chinese city. The new reality is that this place that I call home, that is still so familiar, has started to feel less hospitable. I love living in Xuzhou, but I find myself wondering how much longer foreigners will feel welcome here… and in China as a whole.
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Keywords: expat in xuzhou
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Guest 15.... So it's just 'foreign suppliers and foreign buyers' is it? Do you know how many foreigners there are in Xuzhou, and what percentage of the population they make up? Probably about 0.00001%. And you think somehow they are responsible for all the drugs there? What a particulary convenient way of looking at the world. What a typically Chinese way. There are riots in Hong Kong. Oh, the CIA are behind them. There are protests in Tiananmen Square. Oh, foreign powers are stirring up the students. Taiwan wants independence. Oh, the established Western world order are trying to tear the island away from the motherland. Drugs in Xuzhou. Oh, it's those pesky foreigners again.
Jan 01, 2020 21:30 Report Abuse
Foreigners, no matter where they are from, should NEVER do illegal things in a foreign country. If you want to do those things, then go to a country where it is legal. I'm glad that the police are finally cracking down on all the drugs. There were too many drugs being sold in the nightclubs for too long..... foreign suppliers and foreign buyers...... they are both guilty. Teachers are supposed to be of good moral character...... these fake backpacker teachers ruin it for actual real career teachers.....
Dec 31, 2019 00:34 Report Abuse
....Does the Xuzhou drugs bust have a political angle? I've no idea. Maybe Fred didn't pay the right people. I know that getting working visas has become hell. Why, when there's such a huge demand for foreign teachers, is the government making it tough -and extremely costly -to get them? Because it doesn't really like foreigners. It would rather they weren't in China, but they are a tollerated necessary evil.
Dec 30, 2019 19:16 Report Abuse
....Bill Bishop has probably the most accurate assessment: China, rather than softening and becoming friendlier as it grows richer, is actually going to become more authoritarian as it develops more advanced technology that will facilitate this. This is bad for the world. This is especially bad for foreigners trying to carve a life out for themselves in China. The government's approach will make it increasingly a moral pariah internationally, foreign governments will continue to collide with it, and more anti-foreign sentiment will grow as the government pushes nationalism as an alternative to freedom.
Dec 30, 2019 19:11 Report Abuse
Xuzhou is a fantastic place -arguably much more interesting than first tier cities like Shanghai. I had so many fantastic students and met some lovely people. Taking into account how much anti-Western propaganda the government feeds the people, it's surprising local folk don't hate foreigners more. Even so, having complete control of the media, the government can turn anti-foreign sentiment on and off like a tap. It does not bode well for foreigners in China that the government is more than happy to stoke resentment against them when it serves a purpose. I see this trend getting worse in recent years.
Dec 30, 2019 19:03 Report Abuse
.....The Party has promoted an anti-foreign narrative to secure its position. It's pushed 'The Century of Humiliation' to promote itself as 'the saviour of China against foreign foes that seek to undermine the country and its rightful position in the world'. That was fine when China was developing, and the government needed to use every tactic to retain control. Now, China is a super-power and it still relies on fabricating anti-foreign lies, which is not behaviour befitting of such an advanced nation.
Dec 30, 2019 18:57 Report Abuse
About five years ago I saw posters advertising a Chinese versus foreigners kick-boxing competition at one of the sports halls by Yunlong Lake. I got myself a ticket and to my horror watched a vulgar display of nationalism unfold. The foreign 'fighters' were mainly Americans, with a Russian, a Thai, and possibly an Australian. They weren't fighters at all, but people who looked as if they'd been selected from a gym because their physiques were good. It wasn't a competition. It was obvious none of the foreigners could fight, and they were throwing the rounds. The audience cheered as each successive foreigner was roundly 'beaten', giving them the sense that their countrymen were the toughest in the world. A couple of years later I saw a similar competition at the new sports centre -this time a boxing one. It was the same Chinese versus foreigner set-up with the same predictable result.
Dec 30, 2019 18:48 Report Abuse
The sad truth is, the current Chinese government has always stoked anti-foreign sentiment, but it's certainly on the increase since the Honey Monster took the helm. I moved to Xuzhou in 2004 and stayed there for a number of years. I lost count of the number of conversations I had which went like this: 'Where are you from?' 'England.' 'England? Ah, England is great. All Englishmen are gentlemen. I don't like Americans'. Since all such conversations took place in Xuzhou, it was unlikely any of the people I was talking to had ever actually met an American. The information had just come from the CCP, via the Chinese media. T.B.C......
Dec 30, 2019 18:37 Report Abuse
Avoid " Expert International Education" with jobs in Xiamen/ Fuzhou .hiogh schools and colleges. Innumerable problems my wife had with this company and I ended up having to spend a lot of time and money getting her out of there and back to UK. Avoid. China seems to be getting less and less hospitable. Sad,
Dec 29, 2019 17:04 Report Abuse
Sorry to hear that. I guess you are too much emotional about that, and the picture doesn't look so desperate. I can say that I am living quite normal life in Jiangsu province (very close to Xuzhou) and having a work visa, although I am a non-native. I also know many non-natives close to Xuzhou living a normal life here, although they do not have a Chinese family. Please, do not let your emotions put you on a wrong path and spoil your life.
Dec 27, 2019 15:44 Report Abuse
Actually the writer is using clear non-'emotional' language. When you say you are 'non-native' do you mean a 'non-native English teacher'? If this is the case, you have missed how un-emotional the piece is. Just because you are not impacted by what is happening in Xuzhou, you are not in a position to understand the difficult position that non-Chinese men (Americans particularly) who are married to Chinese women are in. The writer is showing insight to the dilemma faced by those who are married as to how they are torn between wanting to stay for their wive;s sake, and the uncertainty they face due to the actions of a few.
Dec 28, 2019 04:01 Report Abuse