China Loses in Battle with Spartans

It was quite a sight: 100 shirtless men dressed as Spartans parading down the streets of Sanlitun, Beijing’s foremost bar and expat district, in order to promote the first anniversary of the salad restaurant Sweetie Salad. Sadly, the parade did not end well. The men, almost all of them tall, muscular Westerners, were arrested for causing a public disturbance, and photos circulated of the bare-chested young men grimacing on the pavement after being tackled by police officers.

It is easy to brush off this episode as a publicity stunt gone awry, as expats behaving stupidly, or as a cross-cultural misunderstanding. However, this incident may actually be part of a more troubling trend of Chinese officials targeting the foreigners living and working in China. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, Chinese authorities have initiated numerous crackdowns on foreign interests in China as part of a broader trend of inward nationalism. These crackdowns could hurt China’s relations with its foreign partners, which, as its economy continues to slow, China can hardly afford.

Before Xi took office, many Westerners hoped that he would continue the trend of opening China politically, economically, and socially. After all, Xi and his family’s vast fortune is largely a product of business interests abroad. Through Xi’s anti-corruption campaign he has indeed proven to be a reformer, just not the kind that observers both within and outside of China had hoped that he would be. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has helped net some of the country’s most notoriously corrupt leaders, such as Bo Xilai, and has had a dramatic effect on cleaning up some the most blatant examples of governmental corruption. Indeed, Chinese businesses ranging from restaurants to airlines have had to change their strategies in order to make up business lost from newly shy governmental officials.

However, Xi’s effort to cleanse China have also led to crackdowns on intellectuals, lawyers, artists, and universities. Many are now calling Xi China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong. There is a real question as to whether the anti-corruption campaign is truly concerned with reform, or whether it is more about eliminating real or suspected enemies and exerting control over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As of yet, the reform process has yielded no evidence of reform with regards to the rule of law or opening of any political space. Instead, the anti-corruption campaign has operated as a mechanism to exert tighter control throughout Chinese society.

Foreigners in China, especially ones from Western countries, have long lived an alternative existence to Chinese citizens. In exchange for the business these foreigners have brought, the Chinese government turns a blind eye to staples of expat life, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) that allow foreigners a higher degree of freedom of speech and information than what most Chinese citizens are allowed to access from behind the “Great Firewall.” However, as China’s economic, political, and military power has grown, the government appears to have decided that China no longer needs to afford expats or foreign firms so many privileges.

Western firms, such as BMW, Audi, Microsoft, and Volkswagen, have been singled out for antitrust investigations, despite the fact that large state-owned firms still dominate the Chinese market. Foreign firms are now worried about doing business in China because of its increasingly hostile climate. According to a survey done by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, 60 percent of US companies now believe that foreign firms are less welcome in China. Indeed, the US Chamber of Commerce, one of China’s greatest longtime allies in the United States, has even proposed that China should be brought before the Word Trade Organization for treaty violations based on recent antitrust activities.

Foreigners in China have also begun to see many of their privileges erode. In January, China launched an attack on the three most popular VPNs used by foreigners: Astrill, StrongVPN, and Golden Frog. All VPNs were eventually restored to service, but the attack served as a warning to foreigners that Chinese authorities have the ability to attack their access to outside information. Given that many expats in China either work for foreign companies or study at Chinese universities—trades that require frequent use of the Internet—recent crackdowns have begun to complicate their ability to work, live, or study in the Middle Kingdom.

Should China care that it has begun to alienate many of its expats? If China views the world as a zero-sum game, then perhaps not. Forcing out foreign interests could make room for new domestic innovation. After all, China’s “Great Firewall” serves to protect China’s technology sector from competition as much as it does to keep out information that authorities deem too sensitive. For example, Chinese search giant Baidu owes much of its success to the fact that Google is virtually inaccessible in China.

However, even if Chinese officials choose to subscribe to a zero-sum perspective, the reality is that China is still heavily dependent on the international economy, foreign investment, and the outside world. Competition is global and it is very difficult to create an innovative economy if information is controlled, if firms are insulated against competition, and if researchers can’t properly use Internet to access academic papers. Although China has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies over the past three decades, signs increasingly point to its structural fragility. Most troublingly, China’s booming property and construction markets, which account for 25 percent of its economy and about 15 percent of its jobs, increasingly looks like a bubble ready to pop. China’s plunging stock market may thus be just the beginning of its economic woes.

If China continues its crackdowns, it could alienate foreigners at the very moment when it most needs to reassure international markets that it is a stable place to do business. Therefore, it might be wise for China to continue to turn a blind eye to the follies of its expats, no matter how little clothing they may be wearing.

Samantha Juster is an intern at the Atlantic Council.

Image: China's CCTV reported on the police crackdown on dozens of half-naked Western men dressed as Spartans for a salad store's publicity stunt in Beijing July 22.