By Anca-Elena Ursu

Anca-Elena Ursu analyzes the disconnect between Chinese popular opinion and China’s refugee policies.

Between August 6-8 over four hundred high school students from all over China gathered in Beijing for the finals of the National High School Debate League. This year, the topic was whether countries have an obligation to accept refugees fleeing from war zones. And what better place to discuss the refugee crisis if not China, the country that excelled in Amnesty’s “Refugees Welcome Index”?

Young Chinese students had a burdensome task. Coming from an altruistic society where the concept of individualism does not find a particularly fertile ground, the participants had to take into consideration the interest of the state, the impact of refugees on the societal fabric, the risks and benefits of their integration in society, and of course, the global trends around these issues.

After two days of close observation, it was easy to see that, despite ranking high in Amnesty’s index, Chinese students were far more passionate when arguing against the obligation to accept refugees. The pro arguments appealed to moral standings and humanitarian principles. The con arguments were supported by economic claims about the arrival of refugees that forecast disastrous outcomes, disruptions of public order, and increased criminality. With these considerations in mind, what explains these contradictory impulses among Chinese citizens? More specifically, if the people want to take in more refugees, is the Chinese government ready to act?

A Brief History of Refugees in China

Over the past three decades, 300,895 Indochinese refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have arrived in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but their status has remained unchanged pending regularization. One of the major obstacles to the normalization of their status is the absence of domestic regulations and laws on the matter. While from 1978 onward, China has welcomed Indochinese refugees, and offered them substantial protection under the policy of “equal treatment, non-discrimination, equal remuneration for equal work”, the government is not ready yet to normalize their status.

China acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in September 1982. Despite the formal accession to these instruments, the domestic laws on refugees and asylum froze at an underdeveloped stage. Currently, there are only two relevant legal provisions that regulate the statuses of refugees and asylum-seeker claimants, yet none of them provide adequate responses to the current crisis or sufficient guidance for the administration of asylum procedures. As a matter of fact, the PRC remains the only UN Permanent Member of the Security Council that does not have any asylum procedure in place.

The last paragraph of Article 32 of the Chinese Constitution states that “The People’s Republic of China may grant asylum to foreigners who request it for political reasons.” The wording indicates the possibility of requesting asylum, but does not explain the procedure, or the conditions under which a foreigner can claim asylum. Article 46 of the Exit and Entry Administration Law specifies that “Foreigners applying for refugee status may, during the screening process, stay in China on the strength of temporary identity certificates issued by public security organs; foreigners who are recognized as refugees may stay or reside in China on the strength of refugee identity certificates issued by public security organs.” This latter provision does not clarify or add much to the constitutional provision . A comprehensive refugee law that allegedly will cover a wider range of issues about refugees and asylum procedures is under consideration: “China is drafting national refugee legislation in consultation with UNHCR, and we hope a national refugee law will enable the Indo-Chinese refugees to finally make China officially their home since they have spent more than 25 years in this country” said Veerapon Vongvarotai, former UNHCR’s regional representative to China.

As of November 2016, UNHCR Beijing currently administers 781 individuals from 42 countries of origin – 147 refugees, 634 asylum seekers.They are the ones to experience first-hand the effect of the vacuum of legal provisions. As Carlotta Clivio, Junior Researcher at the Torino World Affairs Institute explains, Indochinese refugees were deemed as “people coming back to the motherland,” rather than “asylum seekers/ refugees”, on a purely ethnic/political basis”. With regards to other countries of origin, there are no fixed state-run implementation panels, and no clear regulations on what steps to take once an asylum seeker or refugee reaches China. For instance, in Yunnan Province, China’s southern province bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, refugees fall under the jurisdiction of the Civil Affairs Bureau. However, they often are also screened by the Public Security Bureau, which decides upon the granting of ID cards.

Double standards also contribute to this fragmentation. Ethnically Chinese Indochinese wait for the normalization of their status as citizens of the PRC, but refugees coming from other parts of the world can only count on the UNHCR and its instruments. The fragmentation in the decision-making process affects the lives of many and mirrors Beijing’s difficulties in effectively resolving a thirty-year-long predicament.

Is China a Magnanimous Country?

Given China’s difficulties in processing migrants and refugees, Amnesty International’s “Refugees Welcome Index” ranking of China as one of the most magnanimous countries, comes as a surprise. By Amnesty International’s estimate, 85% of Chinese people were willing to accept refugees. Francis Teoh, Senior Protection Officer at the UNHCR office in Beijing, says he was “pleased to learn of the positive public opinion in China towards refugees whereas in some countries, sadly, the trend is sometimes worrisome with anti-immigration and xenophobic attitudes.” That said, Amnesty’s report does not contextualize the behavioral inclinations of individuals within the societal norms or legal system of their countries. Based on interviews with 27,000 people in 27 countries, the report measures people’s willingness to let refugees live in their countries, towns, neighbourhoods and homes. In China, about 46% of the respondents were inclined to help refugees settle down in their own homes. Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty declared that the index “exposes the shameful way governments have played short term politics with the lives of people fleeing war and repression.” She believes that “people seem to be more committed to principles set down in international law than many of their governments.”

The PRC remains one of the few examples of racial monoculture, with over 90% of the population belonging to the Han ethnicity. Many claim that Chinese citizens are not ready yet to live in a pluralistic society, where different people from around the globe share a nationality. Then the question is: did the survey respondents really understood the question they were asked? The electronic version of the survey used the word 难民 (nànmín) “refugees.” Nànmín literally means person in difficulty, without taking into consideration the person’s nationality. The Chinese terminology was intended to refer to both internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees fleeing conflicts. On a general basis, Chinese media distinguished between the two categories by using two terms. Unfortunately, GlobalScan lacked awareness of the linguistic barrier and thus might have had biased the outcome.

Dr. Lili Song, lecturer at the University of South Pacific and an expert in refugee law and forced migration argues that “the term “refugee” still sounds unfamiliar and remote to most Chinese people. In China, media coverage, publications, or legal studies on refugees in China and their conditions are sparse. It possible that Chinese respondents to the survey lacked much information on refugees altogether.

What’s Next?

In the past, the UNHCR encouraged the PRC to adopt national asylum legislation and offered technical support. Establishing laws and a responsible government institution in charge of refugee matters is the first step for a long-term legislative project. In the meantime, there are short-term actions the government should take like facilitating the naturalization of Indochinese who have been present in the country for decades and taking all measures to ensure protection for those North Korean asylum-seekers who may be determined to be in need of international protection. The government could issue them identification and documentation to legally reside in China under Article 46 of the Exit and Entry Law.

“As a developing country with great political and economic influence in the world, China can and will play an increasing active and global role to respond to the current refugee crisis”, Teoh says. As a global player, China’s leadership is important to address humanitarian challenges that affect international security and stability. “In recent years, China has increased its annual contributions to UNHCR and provided ad hoc donations to support UNHCR’s programme in the refugee emergency in the Middle-East. In terms of addressing root causes of the refugee crisis, China’s position and presence in assisting countries build or rebuild their infrastructure is an important factor”, he continues.

Beijing has gradually acknowledged the responsibility to respond to humanitarian catastrophes in certain circumstances, giving primacy to capacity-building and preventative measures. China’s continued efforts to gain the status of “responsible power” encourages the government to engage with international humanitarian crises more actively. Unfortunately, this engagement happens exclusively in the international arena, without prioritizing emergencies at home.

Elena is a 2015 Yenching Scholar at Peking University and is now an international justice professional based in The Hague. Contact her at