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On March 27, an article titled “For the Good Health of 684 Foreigners” (“为了684个“老外”的安康”) sparked controversy online over the alleged special treatment of foreign nationals during their mandatory 14-day quarantine period.

According to the article published by Nanjing Daily, Nanjing’s Xianlin Subdistrict set up a special WeChat group for foreign nationals and their families returning to the city after the Spring Festival holiday, which coincided with the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

In special WeChat groups, subdistrict officers, doctors, translators, and property managers provide assistance and daily services to these China-based foreigners. Examples of such “daily services” include delivering fresh bread or contacting pet boarding facilities.

“One young man loved online shopping on Taobao, and once we delivered twenty packages for him within one day,” one member of the service group told Nanjing Daily.

Although foreign residents in China and foreigners with previously issued visas are currently no longer allowed to enter China, they needed to undergo a two-week quarantine period upon entry until the travel ban of a few days ago.

Jiangsu Province, of which Nanjing is the capital, tightened quarantine rules on March 23, making every traveler from abroad subject to a centralized quarantine (e.g. in a hotel) for fourteen days.

The special services for returning foreigners reported by Nanjing Daily triggered controversy on Chinese social media this week. Many netizens criticized it as a “supra-nationals treatment” (超国民待遇).

Under one Weibo post by media outlet The Cover (@封面新闻), which received over one million views, many people are criticizing local officers’ favorable treatment of foreigners. One commenter writes: “Will they provide the same comprehensive services to their compatriots?”

Another person writes: “Why don’t they also adhere to the slogan of ‘Serve the People’ (..) when dealing with Chinese citizens?”

In discussing the supposed inequality between the treatment of foreigners and Chinese nationals in quarantine, many netizens raise a recent example of a quarantined Chinese student who asked the civil police staff for mineral water. In a video that circulated online in mid-March, the girl quarrels with the police for not being offered mineral water. The student, demanding mineral water over the available boiled tap water, was ridiculed for suggesting that having mineral spring water is a “human right.”

Ironically, the Nanjing Daily article explicitly mentions how the Xianlin Subdistrict deals with foreigners drinking purified water: “[This] Laowai [foreigner] wants to drink bottled purified water, [so] we bought four barrels for him (..) and carried them from the community gate to his apartment.”

The contrast in treatment of quarantined foreigners versus Chinese nationals prompted some Weibo users to reflect on their previous remarks on the female student: “I apologize for previously mocking the Chinese student at the quarantine center in Pudong, Shanghai, for demanding to drink mineral water,” one commenter writes.

In response to the online controversy, the office of the Xianlin Subdistrict clarified that Chinese nationals would receive “corresponding services” during their quarantine period. Some netizens question what these alleged “corresponding services” exactly entail.

In another media report, the official reply was that “the Subdistrict treats Chinese and foreign citizens the same.”

Over recent years, there have been many online controversies on the issue of privilege in China. Earlier this year, there was public outrage over two women driving a Benz SUV into the Palace Museum, where cars are usually not allowed.

The issue of the perceived privileges of foreigners in China has particularly triggered anger among netizens. The “preferential treatment” of overseas students and the “dorm disparities” between Chinese and foreign students in China, for example, previously became major topics of online discussion.

A popular WeChat article that comments on the Nanjing controversy of this week also lists examples of special treatment for foreigners, including cases where foreigners were not fined when breaking rules in China or being “treated better” in other ways. By now, the article has received over 100,000 views.

For more COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

By Bobby Fung (@bobbyfungmr)

Follow @whatsonweibo

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