Projekt „Where to?"
21 questions on flight and migration to Wang Ge

Wang Ge
Photo: Guo Yanbin

In the project "Where to?" authors and intellectuals from almost 40 countries were given a questionnaire on refuge and migration. The sources of inspiration were questionnaires by the Swiss writer Max Frisch, who in his diaries formulated them in a concise manner on general topics like friendship, marriage, death or money.

What does the term refugee mean to you?

A person who, out of desperation, is hoping for an elsewhere and an elsehow.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

This point of view is probably based on the assumption that poverty, in part, is self-inflicted while people are usually defenseless in the face of war and political persecution. Basically, even if this is utopian, all of us earthlings have a right to freedom of movement. But in reality, they use words and institutions to create borders, fears and “the Other”. Finally, the idea of more or less “legitimate” remains a fine legal or intellectual instrument, used to repel fears, to secure the imaginary order of communal life.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

See above.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

Being a refugee is an intermediate identity. It ends with the retunr when the situation at home improves or when the host country becomes the new homeland. From yet another perspective we have been thrown into our world without having been asked. We do not know where we come from, nor do we know the direction or the end of our existence. Isn’t this being in our world comparable to permanent exile?

Is there a natural right to asylum?

Yes, as long as there are persecution and catastrophes the right to asylum should be possible. The right to asylum is proof of a kind of solidarity that exceeds our color of skin, religion or nationality.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

The absence of conditions is part and parcel of the universal values, in spite of all conditions and problems which prevail in practice.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

Unconditionally speaking: yes, limitless. However, this is less a description of reality than an attitude.

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

The limits are to be found less with regard to resources and more with regard to the people. This goes for both parties. There cannot be an ideal refugee, and there cannot be any long-term over-exhausted Samaritan. Both parties would be disappointed or even upset if one did not tactfully take seriously the expectations of all concerned in order to find common solutions. An international fund for refugees should be established into which not only the host countries would pay but which would also be used by the entire world to finance all refugees around the world.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

Because of its poverty, relative seclusion, the particularities of language and culture as well as Chinese-type policy, China is not a country of destination preferred by refugees.
Although China signed the Geneva Refugee Convention in 1982, it still does not have a law on refugees, with the exception of travel regulations for entering and leaving the country. As a result of decades of self-perception as a developing country, China does not perceive itself as an active host country for international refugees. After WW II, refugees in China can be classified in accordance with four types.

  1. Chinese refugees “returning“ from overseas are comparatively privileged refugees. This includes, for example, refugees from Indonesia (following the massacre in Indonesia in 1965 - 1966) and from Cambodia (following massacres by the Red Khmer).
  2. The number of integrated refugees without Chinese roots is comparatively small. Examples are about 50,000 Vietnamese (who fled from the Vietnam War and the Chinese-Vietnamese war) in Hong Kong before 1997 and about 10,000 Kirghiz and Tajiks who were naturalized in the course of the Anglo-Afghan wars as ethnic minorities in the province of Xinjiang in the west of China.
  3. In most cases China merely serves as a transit country on the way to the final destination.
  4. Refugees from North Korea are a problem for China. Instead of being termed political refugees, refugees from North Korea are considered illegal immigrants. Since 1998, when a bilateral agreement on illegal entry was signed, China is obliged to expel them. Nevertheless, there are grey areas on the political level as well as the level of execution, partly due to humanist considerations, partly due to international pressure. For this reason, there are no reliable statistics on the numbers of refugees from North Korea (the estimate lies somewhere between 30,000 and 300,000). A natural zone of protection is formed by the Korean national minority in the border provinces of Liaoning and Jilin. This anonymous situation without rights in turn leads to numerous cases of forced prostitution and crime.
Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

In the absence of a law on refugees, most refugee issues in China are coordinated with the help of the UNHCR.  No matter where one lives in China, every legally recognized refugee currently receives an allowance of 1200 RMB per person. 95% of health insurance are paid by the UNHCR. In the absence of adequate legislation, refugees in China do not have work permits and can be naturalized only in cases of exception. Their lives are suspended and temporary. Possible ways out are the acquisition of refugee status in a third country, mostly in the European Union or in the USA, or the return back to their homeland.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

Yes. This decision requires the inclusion and co-determination of society in its entirety. In contrast to the fully developed social system in Germany, the Chinese social system has extended over numerous areas so far but is heavily underfinanced and comprises less than one third of the government’s expenses. Presumably, China would enable expenses for refugees by financing through the central authorities, the international institutions and civic donations such as after the earthquakes following the turn of the millennium.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?

Recognize the basic values. Learn the language. Comply with the laws.

- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

In addition to respect and tolerance the decisive factor is an understanding of polyphonic human cohabitation.

Do you know any refugees personally?

Not yet.

Do you actively support any refugees?

Until now there hasn’t been an opportunity to do so.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?

China is currently hardly affected by the refugee crisis. Refugees who arrived in the course of recent years from Somalia, Syria and Nigeria are still considered “transit refugees” by China. Nevertheless, China is getting increasingly involved and should accept more responsibility. What’s important is that China should issue a law on refugees and accordingly draft preliminary administrative mechanisms.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

Difficult. As long as there are wars, persecution and catastrophes, there will be refugees.

If yes: what does it take?

We should keep educating ourselves mentally and think of new possibilities. For example, friendship can replace the logic of power. Voluntary sharing can complement the absolute logic of equivalent exchange within consumerist societies. The education of mankind can replace the criterion of productivity. The doctrine of the mean as well as appropriateness can replace the logic of the eternal “higher, faster, farther” of modern times. Self-love as well as love for life are only possible through loving others. This is a never-ending, laborious, creative process of learning.
If the right to free movement for all were secured, there would be no refugees in the contemporary sense. If it were possible to have a technology which would make it possible to find one or more inhabited planets and move there and if the right to asylum was also accepted by the possible inhabitants of such a planet, there would be no more refugees in the future sense.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?


Do you think you will ever be a one?

Everything is possible.

- If yes: why?

Because of the unpredictability of the present.

- How do you prepare yourself?

By trying to become cosmopolitan from a mental point of view and educating myself all my life.

- To which country would you take refuge to?

In ancient China, many free thinkers chose the hermit’s way of life. This escape was made possible by renouncing publicity or by giving up the general public which also means a renunciation of the self. Where to go does not really play a role in this context. As a parent, I would consider first of all the educational opportunities and the quality of life for the children as a criterion. In addition to this, knowledge of the language in the country of destination is crucial.

How much “home” do you need?*

All that I perceive now and here and what I think represents my temporary home. Physically seen, the extent of home can be elastic. Nevertheless, it should have a cosmopolitan dimension.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.