Is China really the most welcoming country for refugees?

They’re here to help?
They’re here to help?
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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A whopping 94% of respondents in Germany said other countries should welcome those fleeing war or persecution, according to a new Amnesty International survey of attitudes toward refugees—more than any other country. Of course, that probably won’t surprise many people given that, during the current refugee crisis, Germany has accepted more refugees than any European country.

This might, though: When asked about letting a refugee stay in their home, the most welcoming nation was… China.

What explains the people of China’s remarkable magnanimity? It could be that the Chinese people—or more precisely, the survey respondents, who came from 18 big cities around China—have somehow moved way ahead of their government in the willingness to welcome refugees. (With a few exceptions, the last time the Chinese government accepted largest numbers of refugees was during the Vietnamese refugee crisis in the late 1970s, according to the UN High Commission on Refugees.)

The head of Amnesty’s East Asia office, Nicholas Bequelin, said in a statement that it was “very encouraging to see that in a country where citizens tend to provide answers they think the government expects from them…there is nonetheless high acceptance that refugees fleeing war and persecution should be helped and welcome, and that China should do more to address the issue.”

However, there also could be a more mundane reason too: a glitchy translation. The first two questions on the Chinese phone-administered questionnaire specifically mention refugees fleeing ”war or persecution.” The third doesn’t; it merely asks what degree of accommodation the respondent would be willing to offer refugees.

In addition, only in the first question—one about whether refugees should be able to flee to other countries to escape conflict and persecution—does the questioner imply anything about refugees fleeing specifically to other countries.

This last point is significant because the word that GlobeScan, the consultancy who conducted the research, used to in its phone-administered survey, 难民 (nanmin), literally means “person displaced by calamity”—without regard to nationality. So it can mean a person fleeing, say, Syria. Or, just as easily, the word might refer to someone driven out of their home within China (what humanitarians call “internally displaced people,” or IDPs). For this reason, Chinese-language media often make the distinction between “international refugees” and “domestic refugees.” And thanks to both its size and the tragic frequency of natural disasters, China just happens to have a lot of those latter.

So this could mean that some of those 46% of respondents willing to let a refugee shack up with them didn’t mean international refugees—instead, they meant other calamity-struck Chinese people. If the latter, that still very impressive generosity toward their displaced countrymen would seem to square with the unprecedented groundswell of altruism after the deadly 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, when volunteers from around China poured into the area to help any way they could, and adoption inquiries for children orphaned by the earthquake soared.

That translation ambiguity also might help explain why Chinese respondents were relatively ambivalent in the survey’s first question—the one with a specific reference to refugees going to other countries—while topping the charts in the next two nationality-ambiguous nanmin questions.

That said, China did rank first among all the other countries on the question that asked “Should your government do more to help refugees fleeing war and persecution?” The resounding “yes,” thus, could possibly refer to “international refugees” since China’s “domestic refugee” problem is due to neither. Maybe China’s leaders—and plenty of folks everywhere else—have been underestimating the charity of the Chinese people.