A Chinese perspective on crime, race, and the recent demonstrations in Paris

Ed note:  This is a guest post by Zhang Yajun, A.k.a. “YJ”, A.k.a. “Mrs. Granite Studio.”

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On June 20th, over 20,000 overseas Chinese in Paris organized a demonstration to protest against what they call an epidemic of violence and robbery against the ethnic Chinese community. As a Chinese citizen who once studied in France for a few years, I am happy to see the Chinese community speak out and demand its basic human rights in a peaceful way. Furthermore, based on my own experiences, I feel that this protest is not simply a reaction to a few individual crimes, but is related to profound race problems in French society.

Chinese and other residents of Paris protesting last week against what they see as a continuing pattern of violence and crime against the Asian community in France.

Possessed of a mentality that seeks to avoid trouble whenever possible, Chinese communities usually prefer to keep problems to themselves rather than seek help from police. Being perceived as physically weak also makes Chinese seem easy targets for attacks and robbery. But after keeping quiet for many decades, the Chinese community in Paris finally decided to publicly demand greater security.  This demonstration not only draws attention to the problem of violence and crime against Chinese in France, but signals an important step towards political action by the ethnic Chinese community.

Witnesses of some of the recent attacks have said the perpetrators were young immigrant men, but during the years I lived in France I saw how  people of African or North African descent are themselves victims of racial discrimination in French society. I remember during the violent riots in the suburbs of Paris in 2005, current French president Nicolas Sarkozy called the African and Arabic ethnic youth “racaille” (“scum”) in public. I remember that one of my classmates, who was originally from Morocco complained to me about how difficult it was for Muslims — especially men — to find jobs in France. She considered herself a Moroccan even though she holds a French passport and comes from the second generation born and living in France. I also remember how my landlord told me to my face that the reason he agreed to rent his  apartment to me was because I was  Asian. If I had been African or Arab, he would have preferred to keep his house empty. However, it didn’t stop him from checking on me regularly without making an appointment ahead of time.

Of course Chinese are not immune from discrimination. If French discrimination against Africans and Arabs comes from their sense of superiority as former colonizer, then their feelings towards China are much more complex. 20 years ago, Chinese were considered poor refugees coming from a third world country and treated with generosity tinged with pity. However, as China has developed and prospered, French people’s attitudes towards Chinese have changed. During my two years in France, a number of people reacted to the discovery that I was Chinese by asking whether China would overtake the US and become the world’s strongest country in twenty years. Once, my French professor singled me out in front of the entire class, telling me “you Chinese took away all of the jobs from France.” As the Chinese residents of Paris can attest, the combination of fear and resentment towards China is growing in French society.

Ed note: The historian would just like to add that the Chinese students studying and working in France are the present-day intellectual descendants of such China notables as Zhou Enlai (1921-1924, Paris, Lyon) and Deng Xiaoping (1920-1926 in Paris, BayeuxChâtillon, Le Creusot, and Billancourt). It was in France that both Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping honed their chops as Communist revolutionaries, with the diminutive Deng Xiaoping’s expertise at handbill production earning him the moniker “The doctor of mimeography.”  – JJ.

Yajun works in the Beijing bureau of The Christian Science Monitor.  You can read her most recent article here. Yajun studied in France from 2004 to 2006.

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