A most unlikely scene might be seen this summer in Paris. Strolling next to the Louvre, on the banks of the Seine or around the Champs-Elysées, you might catch a glimpse of Chinese police on the beat, thousands of miles away from their home country.
The news was reported last week by Agence France-Presse (AFP), which quoted an unnamed official in the French Ministry of Interior as saying that, starting this summer, Chinese forces will help patrol touristic hotspot in the French capital. The decision comes after a series of reports claiming that in the past years attacks against East Asians visiting France have increased.
In 2013, six Chinese students were assaulted in Hostens, a town located in the province of Bordeaux, with gruesome consequences. They were there for studying oenology in a joint program run by the Beijing Arome Wine School and France’s Chateau de la Tour Blanche. At the time, French authorities blamed the criminal action, which left a 24-year-old girl with a serious injury on her face, on xenophobia.
Roughly a month before, it was none other than China Central Television – the national broadcaster – which fell victim to robbery. While reporters were busy covering the French Open, thieves thought it was the appropriate moment to smash their car windows and grab wallets and phones.
A common explanation for the attacks against East Asian citizens is that they carry cash – or, at least, they are believed to do so. Whether that theory holds or not, incidents involving residents of the People’s Republic could grow: not because the ranks of Parisian thieves are swelling, but because the flood of Chinese tourists traveling to Europe is gathering strength. Caixin recently reported that according to the Italy-China Foundation’s Business Study Centre, about 538,000 Chinese tourists traveled to Italy in 2013, while 425,000 chose France – large figures for a group which was extremely small only a decade ago. And that number seems bound to increase. China Daily recently reported that according to the China Tourism Academy, “more than 3.47 million Chinese tourists visited European countries in 2013, an 11 percent increase from 2012.”
Besides the personal safety of travelers, business interests are at stake. From luxury watches to leather shoes, from perfumes to electronic equipment, shopping for better goods at a cheaper price is a major driver for Chinese tourists. According to a study by Barclays, in the United Kingdom “tourists from China alone will spend over £1 billion in 2017, up by 84% from 2013.”
Against such background, it is not difficult to see why French authorities are concerned about the security of Chinese visitors. Yet, the fact that Chinese police will roam the street of Paris – the city, alas, that has given Honorary Citizenship to the Dalai Lama – is also a sign of changing times. So far Europe had been focused on a very different type of Chinese travelers: those who left their homes to look for a better life abroad. Shipped illegally throughout the world, they often ended up working in extremely poor conditions, and they did not find much compassion – let alone protection – from authorities.
Perhaps even more telling of how the world has changed is another comparison. About 150 years ago, in the midst of the Opium Wars, it was French and British soldiers that were ‘visiting’ the Chinese Capital. In October 1860, Commander Cousin Montauban led his troops through Beijing, entering the Old Summer Palace and camping among the pavilions. Soldiers then began looting the place, resulting in the almost complete destruction of the garden which soon followed. A penny for Mr. Montauban’s thoughts if he could see Chinese security forces working in his homeland.