Motherland or otherland? A British petitioner’s journey in China

Alia | May 29th, 2013 - 10:48 pm

Four years ago when British girl Annie who was born and raised in suburban London married Chinese guy Xu Shuai, Xu’s entire village in Weifang, Shandong province, was thrilled – a foreign wife isn’t something commonly seen in this small village in North China. The couple settled down in the village since. It may not be a perfect happily ever after, but life wasn’t bad…until a land dispute happened between Xu’s family and the village government.

Fast forward to 2011, Annie had to go back to Britain to give birth to their first child since the couple failed to obtain the child-birth permit required for every couple who wishes to have a child in China. That was when all nightmares began.

Annie and Xu

One day in 2011, Xu’s father received a call from a village cadre saying that the village would like to buy back the family’s land for RMB 700 yuan per acre for real estate development. The family got about RMB 1500 yuan per acre through farming on the land. So naturally, they asked for a higher offer. They were, of course, rejected. It was “land or prison.” Xu tried to petition to higher authorities for a better offer, but none of his attempts worked…until a foreign newspaper contacted for an interview because his wife is British. Local government heard the information and called a stop to what may have become another forced land grab case.

Xu told journalists: “My British wife is the only thing that I have to fight social reality.”

Xu’s family eventually “sold” their land for RMB 700 yuan per acre. But it was far from the end of their struggle because Xu was permanently labeled as a trouble maker on local government’s blacklist.

A year later in 2012, when Xu’s family was building a new house on their housing land (a piece of land that is given to China’s rural pupation by the government for housing needs) , trouble came again. The half-finished house was demolished by local government who said that the housing land was already transferred to another family.

It wasn’t a nice scene to watch. Xu had a terrible quarrel with the family who was said to be the land’s new owner and beat the mother.  Xu’s grandfather spat out a mouthful of blood on the spot. He was later diagnosed with cancer and died two months later. Five days after his grandfather died, Xu’s second child was born. It was an uneasy year for the family, but Annie’s petitioner journey was yet to start.

Days after the force demolition, Xu was told by police that the mother he had a fight with was terribly injured, and that he could face criminal charges. At this point, Xu felt so wronged that he made the decision to resume petition.

Xu's family

At the end of the first day of their “protest” outside local government, the whole family, including Xu and his parents were beaten outside of their home by “you know who.” Annie was the only one who was spared the beating. But the damage was done nevertheless.

Xu told journalists that Annie became irritable at times after that evening, and that Annie now is wary of every stranger in China. But Annie is his protection, Xu said: “I understand very clearly that if I didn’t take Annie and our kids with me during petition, I’d be long ‘disappeared.’”

Annie told journalists that she doesn’t mind being a “sticky” petitioner if anything happens to her husband. 

Xu and Annie’s story have been making some waves on the Chinese Internet. Most netizens agreed that If not for Annie’s foreign citizenship, local government at Weifang wouldn’t have delayed the land grab. Xu and his family could have faced much worse treatments, such as being thrown into black jails where many of China’s persistent petitioners end up. Like one netizen 可以喝的番茄 commented: “We live in a time when a Chinese needs to be protected by a foreigner on his own land.”

More interestingly, netizens started to express their frustration of how the Chinese themselves have been alienated in their own country. It is no longer the “motherland.” It is “otherland.”

Many netizens sighed: “A foreigner enjoys much more privileges in China than a Chinese does.” And Xu’s story isn’t the only one that leads Chinese netizens to such a conclusion. Days before Xu’s story hit headlines, Chinese netizens were angry at another story in which foreign citizenship gives a huge advantage to someone in China.

Zhang Jiantang’s son was born and raised in Beijing. But since his family was from Anhui, Henan province, none of his family members, including his son, has a Bejing hukou (China’s household registration system. Residents without local hukou may lose access to many local things such as social welfare, healthcare, education, housing, employment, etc.).

Zhang and his son

According to regulations in Beijing, students without a Beijing hukou are not allowed to take gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, in Beijing which has slightly different tests than other parts of China. It won’t be a problem if universities in China don’t have lower admission requirements for students from Beijing. So it both doesn’t make any sense and is not feasible to send Zhang’s son back to their hometown where they have no family left or whatsoever for gaokao.

Zhang had no choice but to send his son aboard for college. His ex-wife (his son’s biological mother) went to the US for graduate school years ago and now already has US citizenship. Her gift to her son is US citizenship. The irony is that after Zhang’s son becomes a US citizen, he suddenly can take gaokao in Beijing because children of oversea Chinese are allowed to take gaokao in Beijing without any fuss. What’s more, they are given 10 points for free.

By changing from a Chinese without a Beijing hukou to an American, Zhang’s son not only can take gaokao in Beijing, but is also given 10 free points as a boost. Zhang isn’t the only one who is shocked.

Putting the two news together, Chinese netizens asked: “Whose motherland is China? Whom does our government serve?” Many of them concluded: “It is a nation’s discrimination against its own people.”

And most importantly of all, like one netizen pointed out: “When our country doesn’t love us. It’s hard for us to love our country back.”

By @王左中右 on Weibo


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2 Responses to “Motherland or otherland? A British petitioner’s journey in China”

  1. KenC says:

    This is less about foreigners having more rights or privileges than Chinese citizens in their own country, but more about the urban versus the rural.

  2. Density says:

    I’ve never seen any of those “privileges” foreigners allegedly enjoy in China. On the contrary, the British woman in this article could never enjoy the rights her husband would enjoy in the UK. The most basic example is the right of residence for spouses which does not exist in China. She has to get a new visa every 6-12 months depending on where in China you live. In many places she wouldn’t even be able to stay at a normal hotel without her husband, as passports are not accepted at check-in in most hotels in a few major Chinese cities (something that was normal everywhere in China back in the 90′s).
    The only “privilege” is that many government agencies, including the police, have to report everything related to foreigners to Beijing. That gives foreigners a certain level of protection against unlawful arrests etc. but calling it a privilege is a bit off the chart. I doubt it’s even meant to protect foreigners, and if it really is, it’s more likely to prevent international incidents that might taint China’s “face”.

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