China’s most populous province fights uphill battle against prejudice

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/17 18:48:39

China's most populous province, Henan, is struggling with stereotypes which say it is the "cradle of liars." A combination of past refugees, who fled the region after their homes were flooded by the Yellow River, and the new wave of migrant workers from Henan, spurred by China's urbanization and industrialization, have contributed to the abuse the region's people now face.

Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province, is shrouded in heavy smog on April 29. Photo: CFP

Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province, is shrouded in heavy smog on April 29. Photo: CFP

Passengers wait for their buses on the first day of the National Day holiday in Zhengzhou, Henan Province on Oct 1,2016. Photo: CFP

Passengers wait for their buses on the first day of the National Day holiday in Zhengzhou, Henan Province on Oct 1,2016. Photo: CFP

In country in which 90 percent of people are of one ethnic group, people have to find other grounds on which they can discriminate against others. To a certain extent, regionalism is the prejudice of choice, so don't be surprised if you hear that parents have rejected one of their daughter's suitors because he is from Central China's Henan Province.  

If you had never met anyone from Henan and heard rhymes about the most populous province in China with some 100 million residents which say things like "Nine out 10 people from Henan are cheats," you too might start to believe people from the region are not to be trusted.

The prejudice against Henan, known as the cradle of Chinese civilization, is so strong and widespread that it enters all aspects of life, from the job market to everyday social interactions, to the extent that some people from the province feel embarrassed about revealing their background. Just a few days ago, a man from Henan's job application to a restaurant in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province was rejected on the grounds of his origin, media reported.

This prejudice is so common that many people from this region either disguise their background or explore self-mockery to make themselves feel better.

In September, Jing Changshui from Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, sued TV host Hu Wei for his attacks and abuse against Henan people on Sina Weibo. The court case, one of the few to deal with this regional prejudice has attracted nationwide attention for its symbolic significance.

"I hope the case will at least make some people think [when they say rude things about Henan]," Jing said.

As Jing revealed Tuesday, court staff haven't yet managed to contact Hu and the date for a hearing has not yet been decided.

Legal fights

Hu grabbed Jing's attention this August when he posted on Sina Weibo in the wake of actor Wang Baoqiang's divorce with his wife Ma Rong, who allegedly had an extramarital affair with another man. Hu said that "Women like Ma are so shameless, just like Henan people." Jing, who used to be a journalist, was irritated by this post and went on to discover that Hu has been saying unkind things about Henan people online since April.

Such attacks reminded Jing of other unpleasant experiences. He recalled being treated differently whenever he traveled to other regions. Jing has also seen many reported cases in which Henan people fell victims of this prejudice, especially in the job market.

In his complaint sent to the court, Jing wrote that Hu has severely affected the reputation and dignity of those who live and work in Henan. He demands Hu delete the offensive posts, refrain from posting such content in the future and apologize to all Henan people publicly and pay him 1,000 yuan ($146) in compensation for his distress.

Chengyu and Li Dongzhao sued the Longgang district branch of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau because the branch  hung a banner that read "Strictly cracking down on blackmail gangs from Henan." But the case, the first dealing with regional discrimination that won nationwide attention, only ended up with an agreement in which the involved policemen apologized to the two plaintiffs.

To many, including Jing, who reported on the case, as no arguments were presented in court and no judicial judgment released, the case just "fizzled out" without causing any demonstrative effects.

"This time, besides regional discrimination, I hope the case will also set an example in confronting verbal violence on the Internet as a whole," Jing said.

Internal refugees

To Jing, this case is a response to his pent-up feelings of unfairness. Though he was actually born in East China's Shandong Province, Jing moved to Zhengzhou 24 years ago and identifies himself as a Henan person.

"Living in Henan for so many years, what has impressed me most is the kindness and simplicity of people here. The discrimination is so unfair," Jing told the Global Times, adding that his identity as a migrant to Henan might add to the objectivity of his stance.

Experts say the image of Henan people was not as bad as it is today in the 1960s. At that time, according to a survey conducted by Wolfram Eberhard, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, the majority of Chinese saw people from Henan as honest, frank and rule-abiding.

But in the 1990s, their image began to sour after several high-profile cases involving fake pharmaceuticals and other scams emerged from the region. Then every time another case of forgery or cheating involving Henan was reported, particularly in the early stage of the province's economic development in the 2000s, this prejudice was further enhanced.

Tracing the reasons further, Jing said it may be partly explained by the fact that Henan has long been one of the biggest sources of internal migrants.

 "As a big agricultural province, the number of migrant workers from Henan is very large. Sometimes the low quality of the basic-level farmers might be exaggerated," Jing said.

Many articles that try to explain why Henan has been such a source of migrants in history cite natural hazards, particularly droughts, plagues of locusts, and the often-flooding Yellow River, in addition to its relative backwardness as an inland agricultural province.

As statistics cited by a report show, from 1938 to 1946, more than 20 counties in Henan were flooded by the Yellow River and tens of thousands of people fled to other provinces. Since the reform and opening-up began in 1979, there have been huge amounts of economic migration from Henan.

"Henan attracts attention, on the one hand because it is not so underdeveloped or obscure, on the other, it is too populous not to attract attention from the outside," Zhang Xinbin, a historian at the Henan Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times, adding that it is also related to the province's backward industrial development.

"Poverty drove so many people out of the province. Particularly in modern times, Henan suffered from severe disasters and swallowed the bitterest misery," said Zhang.

From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of registered Henan residents living in other provinces rose from 5.4 percent to 7.5 percent, second only to Anhui Province. But unlike Anhui, whose migrant workers mainly flooded to Beijing and the Pearl River Delta, Henan people have migrated to every corner of the country.

Efforts continue

In 2001, some people from Henan, including writers and celebrities, tried to fight against the demonization of Henan people, publishing books and making statements. In 2002, the book Who Have Henan People Provoked was published to speak for the 90 million people that call Henan home.

"People first of all defame and discriminate the migrant workers, merchants and farmers, and then smear the other 100 million Henan people," the book read. 

As reported by The Democracy and Law Times, starting in 2000, rebuilding the image of Henan has been a top priority for the provincial government. In 2002, when Premier Li Keqiang was Party chief of Henan, an official said Li required them to make improvements and let the outside know the changes in Henan. 

Li's successors have also made great efforts to improve Henan's reputation and a series of "image projects" have been launched to reverse the tide, including a video broadcast on New York's Times Square last year.

But it is hard to say how effective these efforts have been in restoring the province's image as discrimination against Henan people is still common.  

Many media outlets have tried to solve the problem., an online news outlet, even made a video to explain why people are biased against Henan people in an attempt to eliminate such regional discrimination. Whatever the result of his case, Jing is happy to notice that his case is arousing attention and many people have shown him support, which he hopes could lead to more efforts in this regard.

"A businessman from Henan living in Guangzhou contacted me the other day, showing the initiative to found a fund and take this chance to unite Henan businessmen all over the country, who can help each other to seek legal help when similar abuse occurs again," Jing revealed to the Global Times.

Though noticing that legal means are one way to fight against regional discrimination, Zhang is not very optimistic about their eventual effect on eliminating bias. After all, the bias has existed for a long time and is too entrenched to disappear in the short term.

"It is common for people in society to look at others through blinkers. I believe that such prejudice will fade with time. The core and best way remains to develop itself [Henan] well," noted Zhang.



Newspaper headline: Hating Henan


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