The Grand Spin: How China Makes Sense of the Syrian Refugee Crisis to Itself


When radio broadcaster and columnist Lu Jin posted her friend’s first-hand account of how Germany coped with the Syrian refugee crisis, she did not expect the vitriolic comments that flooded her Weibo wall. She was dubbed a “Holy Mother Bitch” (shengmubiao), a coinage of Chinese netizens to describe those who occupy moral high grounds through cheap and naive posturing.

Lu’s friend is a Chinese German citizen who lives in Munich. What her post tries to convey is the calmness and dignity with which the German society welcomes the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees trudging their way into Europe’s strongest economy. One particular thing she takes note of is the almost complete absence of national pride in the whole affair: “there is no attack on the refugees, no media singing praise of Germany the country, and no politicians venting emotions.” It seems to her that the whole society is discussing rationally about solutions to the problem, and is ready to give the refugees an equal opportunity to have a life in the country. She claims this experience to be the “most thorough education about humanitarianism” that she has ever received, and marvels about “not seeing a single article in the German media that implies any self-elevation of Germany as a country.”

Germany’s post-war aversion to the collective expression of nationalism should not be too surprising for anyone with a basic understanding of its historical trauma. Its suppression of even the spontaneous surfacing of national pride is a perfect example of how deep-seated that aversion has become. The fact that a Chinese observer highlights this particular aspect of Germany’s response to the refugee situation speaks more about the Chinese mindset than that of Germany. There is a subtle intention of contrast in the blog. For a moderately well-informed Chinese reader, the nationalism innuendo would ring a bell of China’s recent efforts to evacuate its own civilians from conflict stricken countries such as Yemen and Lybia using its navy, an act that came with a considerable amount of national pride.

The intended contrast and the discernible air of admiration in the blog explain why some Chinese readers get stung and agitated. For them, the exaltation of German selflessness is nothing more than a symptom of political naïveté and wishful misrepresentation. They were quick to pull out media reports in Germany that sound alarm of the deteriorating security situation in the streets of German cities, particularly a (dubious) story about a 7 year old girl got raped, as evidence that the German response to the crisis was far less “dignified” than what the author of the blog led people into believing. They went further by questioning the wisdom of the Merkel government’s decision, seeing it as misguided by liberal sentimentality rather than based on rational political calculation. Ironically this line of questioning was itself fueled by not-so-subtle Islamophobia and bigotry, which is no more reasonable than the “liberal sentimentalities” that they derided. In many such comments, the refugees were referred to as future terrorists, lazy idlers and sneaky free riders that would quickly take over the entire Europe.

To be clear, a large part of that anxiety-filled commentary on the Chinese internet comes from the Chinese community living INSIDE Europe, who has as much a stake in the problem as the Europeans themselves. But it is still interesting to note how narratives dominant in a Chinese domestic context are projected onto a crisis that is happening thousands of miles away from home, which in some cases results in bizarre interpretations on the verge of sheer fantasy.

If the nationalism lens adopted by the author of the above mentioned blog is still a legitimate and valuable perspective, other analytical frameworks used by Chinese authors would seem a bit too idiosyncratic. For example, a popular article that popped up in many people’s social network accounts these few days tries to (partially) attribute the refugee crisis to the political insensitivity of the “Syrian middle class” itself. It first states in a matter-of-fact way that the majority of the Syrian refugees are former lawyers, doctors and engineers, who used to be the pillar of the Syrian middle class. Then it launches into an eloquent line of reasoning that those white-collars are partly to be blamed for their own plights because of their cynical acquiesce to Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule: “They considered themselves the elites and the future of the Syrian society… Indifferent to the suffering of the lower classes, they believed that as long as they closely followed the ruling Assad regime, their life will get better… Even though they had witnessed the cruelty of the regime and its rampant corruption, they saw them as problems that can be solved through development.” At one point, you can’t tell if the author is writing about the troubles of the Syrian society or an allegory of contemporary China aiming at the Chinese middle class.

On the other end of the spectrum, commentators are spinning the Syrian crisis to a completely opposite direction. Zhanhao (占豪), a prominent left-leaning account on both Weibo and WeChat, prescribes its own medicine to the Syrian refugee crisis: Return the control of Syria to the Assad regime. To achieve that, Western countries should abandon their support to the rebels. The logic can’t be any simpler: it is the West’s continued support of the rebels to overthrow the “legitimate” government of Syria that is the origin of all the mess. To solve the exacerbating problem of the massive exodus of refugees, Syria needs to be returned to a state of “tranquility” maintained by its original government. The simplification in this line of argument is glaring. It refers to all the Syrian rebel groups as “terrorists”, ignoring their highly complicated composition and the fact that some of those groups were formed out of secular protestors. The notion that the Assad regime (“the legitimate government”) can somehow regain control over the country and rule Syria happily ever after as long as the West withdraws its support to the rebels is also close to wishful thinking completely overlooking the sectarian strife that has almost irreversibly torn apart the country politically, ideologically and geographically.

Its anti-West sentiments aside, the article epitomizes the kind of mental framework through which China’s conservative elites view the Syrian situation. In that framework, the state/society dichotomy is the dominant relationship trumping any other relationships. And within that relationship, the non-state forces are viewed with undisguised hostility (rebels equal terrorists), while the state, no matter how flawed it may be, is seen as the proctor of stability, and should be granted legitimacy for the sake of that. The complexity of the entangled Syrian situation, the Sunnis, the Alawites, the Kurds, the secular rebels, together with Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Turkey, are all reduced to that simple equation with only two variables: the state and the rest of the country which is messy and dangerous.

So when a Foreign Policy commentary rebuts a People’s Daily op-ed for its double standard of accusing U.S. meddling while turning a blind eye to Iran’s deep intervention into that same country, it misses the key point: from a Chinese perspective, shoring up the “legitimate government” of Syria is in itself a politically justifiable thing, while supporting rebels is not.

Following the same logic, a Global Times editorial brings the argument to a new height of absurdity by openly musing about a hypothetical Chinese refugee crisis: “In the past century, most Chinese emigrants to the outside world were of economic nature. Large scale Chinese refugee outflow has almost never happened despite China’s internal turmoil in early 20th century. In the future if any unexpected developments were to occur, the external world would not allow large scale influx of Chinese refugees. This is not surprising, as an exodus of refugees from China would be in the millions or tens of millions. Western countries of course would not stomach that.” The editorial goes on to remind people what a big contribution China has made to “world humanitarianism” by reducing poverty and keeping peace domestically. “Only in a society enjoying a sustained period of peace can TV entertainment shows such as Voice become prosperous. The fact that they are the most talked about shows in today’s China is just awesome.”

It would be interesting to hear how a Syrian refugee at a European train station would respond to her personal tragedy being juxtaposed with a singing competition show as a way to justify a “stable” status quo that probably only exists in certain Chinese elites’ imagination.

More informed Chinese opinions do exist. Prominent Phoenix TV journalist Lvqiu Luwei points her readers to an article written by a researcher from one of China’s leading international relations think tank that provides a decently accurate summary of the current Syrian situation.  One commentator compares the refugee crisis with the annual influx of rural migrant workers into big Chinese cities and considers the current refugee situation in Europe to be much more manageable than many would perceive. He also cautions against the Islamophobic view that sees the refugees as potential extremists, arguing that those who fled from ISIS persecutions are less likely to be jihadist fellow-travelers, and could inject new labor forces into an aging Europe. But lacking the potency of domestic anxiety and imagination, such views are quickly buried by the moving dunes of online opinions that are eager to score points using someone else’s misfortune.