Opinion / Blog

The killing of a Chinese man in Paris

By Chevalerie (blog.chinadaily.com.cn) Updated: 2016-08-25 10:49

The killing of a Chinese man in Paris
[Photo provided to China Daily]

During my last visit to Paris, the killing of a Chinese man moved me a lot. Chaolin Zhang was a dressmaker, a man like many others, hard-working, good father and happy to live on Earth. In honor of his memory, this is the context surrounding his death.

Aubervilliers, a Chinese settlement at the edge of Paris

Next to Paris, beyond its ring road, lies the city of Aubervilliers, one of the poorest suburbs of the French capital. High unemployment combined with an endemic poverty is the most pressing issue there.

However, for the past 20 years, a vast Chinese trading platform has stood there whose central axis is the avenue Victor Hugo, the author of the "Miserables" that describes the suffering experienced by the people in the early 19th century and their will to survive. On either side of the street, a multitude of shops sell a wide range of wholesale lingerie bras, panties, thongs, corsets and nightwear at competitive prices. The shop owners are native Chinese, mainly from southern Zhejiang, or to be more specific, from Wenzhou city.

Since the 80s, they have settled in successive waves in the Paris urban agglomeration. Many have chosen to establish their activities in Aubervilliers because of the proximity of Paris. When they landed there, the Victor Hugo avenue was an abandoned and deserted area, full of dilapidated building and ripped factories. People wandered the street hungry and homeless. By that time, drugs were seen to be a major problem and very damaging.

Chinese migrants revitalized the city

One by one, thanks to an unshakable determination and a time-consuming work, the Wenzhouren have refreshed and rejuvenated the street, re-modeling the shops, upgrading the storefronts. With their hard-earned savings and the support of their family, they gave life back to this city segment.

Over the years, this trade area emerged as one of the most dynamic inside France but also outside, towards Europe and Africa. People from all over the world come and purchase products here and then take them back to their cities, their countries.

This area has become a thriving commercial sector that contrasts with other neighborhoods still poor and often neglected.

This tremendous success caused a stir.

To the astonishment of many, the Victor Hugo avenue was reborn without any subsidies much as happens in France where normally the state plays a key role in the cities renovation. 

As hopes are raised for the future of Aubervilliers, hard feelings and bitterness emerged in others communities, mostly from Northern Africa and Sub Sahara. Grudges and old suspicions fueled a somewhat resentment against the Chinese much criticized for their successful achievements and their apparent wealth. Petty jealousy degenerated sometimes into overt racism.

Local authorities' odd and unfair attitude

Instead of congratulating the Wenzhouren for their amazing work, they showed a surprising discretion. In a normal situation, they would have featured this success as an example of an excellent integration. This time, they kept a low profile.

Crowned with laurels-wreaths the Chinese have meant that other ethnic communities have a serious problem. Indeed, the registered unemployment rate is very high among the migrants coming from northern Africa and Sub Sahara around 30 percent while it is insignificant among the Chinese. While the later make a living from their own business, the first ones rely on social assistance and welfare payment.

Fearing to make it obvious this striking contrast, local authorities remained unusually silent. Some have suggested that the Mayor and its team didn’t want to offend them for fear of losing votes on local election.

Moreover, very little have been done to strengthen the relations between the communities.

Clear discrimination against the Chinese

Due to the lack of an official constructive approach, prejudices and stereotypes of all kinds spread dangerously. Thus, since many years, Chinese are often victims of violence. Chinese are presumed to carry bundles of money. Petty crime, such as pick pocketing, bag snatching and theft has increased dramatically. The thieves come from the disadvantaged and underprivileged backgrounds of the city, the vast majority from Northern Africa and the Sub-Sahara. If they got caught red-handed, the sanctions are limited or non-existent. Repeat and dangerous offenders are getting sentences that are quite frankly, too lenient. Potential dangers posed by some are not taken seriously into account. The bad guys continue to roam the streets chasing their prey.

Once again, local authorities cast a veil of silence on the origin of the perpetrators of the violence. Likewise, the French anti-racist organizations always quick to speak up against racist attacks are silent on this matter. Furthermore, the French government response appeared slow and mainly unproductive. Does a Chinese deserve less than any other citizen? As a result, the death of Chaolin Zhang.

A growing awareness

Up to now, Chinese were reluctant to answer through the biblical lex talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Over the years, protests occurred in particular in the Paris Belleville district where a huge Chinese community works there. But it has never been so far.

This time, this dramatic event gave rise to a new situation. It has created an adverse atmosphere. Some Chinese mention already the idea to set up a militia force to better protect them. Other say, with a catch in her voice, "We were Charlie! We are Chaolin Zhang!".

Despite the calls for calm, distrust is on every lip, now deeply engrained. No one dares to look into each other in the eyes. From now on, a hostile and dangerous climate prevailed between the Aubervilliers ethnic communities. Tensions will worsen in the short term.

Before others dreadful events occur, people of good will must take urgently on the challenge to bring back harmony between the people, this time, without ignoring the true, as it is, regardless the susceptibilities, being effective, going straight to the point.

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