German police arrested two Chinese tourists late last week for giving the Nazi salute at a popular Berlin monument.
It was intended as a joke, the tourists reportedly said. But what had been meant as lighthearted vacation antics piqued the interest of international newsrooms—from China's CCTV to France's Le Figaro to Britain's The Economist to CNN—and not for lack of more pressing stories cycling through the press.
Chinese tourists often make top-10 lists of most obnoxious visitors. Their tendencies—and the strong reactions they can elicit—are dissected and studied by the international media. Even Hong Kongese have derided fellow Chinese from the mainland as "locusts." It seems people love to read about China's misbehaved tourists, derided internationally in much the same way that American tourists have been on the Champs-Élysées in Paris for what was viewed as garish, absurd behavior. It also appears that people like to read about the potential resurgence of Nazism—particularly amid a wave of populist nationalism that threatened to sweep the globe this year.
The two tourists in last weekend's incident were taking photographs delivering the Nazi salute in front of the Reichstag building Saturday. The building, an emblematic one in Berlin, famously never housed a single Nazi parliament during World War II; a fire in 1933 left the building largely inoperable, meaning it was not of great historical significance to Germany's Nazi administration. But that history didn't stop the two tourists.
It is illegal to brandish Nazi symbols and other paraphernalia in Germany where it is not used to educate people on the history of a white supremacist movement that enveloped large swaths of the world, killing millions of Jews, Roma, gay and disabled people, dissidents, and others. The tourists, in their 30s and 40s, were eventually released after paying a fine of about $1,000—a relatively light punishment given that the crime of brandishing Nazi symbols in Germany can carry a penalty of up to three years of prison time, according to German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
In response to the incident, Beijing effectively told its citizens to shape up or ship out. The Chinese Embassy in Berlin, according to a statement seen by CNN, asked its citizens in Germany not to embarrass their homeland. The statement reportedly asked that Chinese avoid "words or deeds which would be detrimental to the image of Chinese tourists and their own nation."
It's a tone—perhaps a bit condescending—that has become commonplace in the People's Republic; signs across the Beijing subway system, for instance, often ask people to be "polite" and "civilized." At tourist destinations across China, people disregard regulations, almost as a kind of cheek or rebellion; where you see signs saying not to throw coins into a pond, that pond will most likely be filled with coins.
"Tourists from particular countries tend to get a bad name when large group travel from that country becomes common."
Chinese are not unaware of the Holocaust, but the Holocaust is not the focal point of their retelling of recent world history that it is in the West.
Similarly, in China, there are many reminders of World War II. The communists' triumph over Japanese invaders who slaughtered millions of Chinese is central to Beijing's reinforcement of its mandate today. There are frequently television programs and films commemorating the early communist army's valiant fight against the Japanese. The 2000 film Devils on the Doorstep and Mo Yan's 1986 novel-turned-blockbuster are akin to Schindler's List in that their cinematic portrayal of one of the grimmest moments of human history.
"The Holocaust is well known in China, and frequently compared to Nanjing Massacre to make a point that the Germans have dealt with their war history far better than the Japanese," says Yinan He, an international relations professor at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University who has researched and written on how wartime legacies affect diplomacy. "For that reason, the Chinese generally hold warm feelings toward Germans. In a nutshell, they condemn the Holocaust but like Germany, and do not hold war history against that country."
Just as many Westerners were likely not aware of the Chinese Schindler's Lists, many Chinese view the world—and its history—from a perspective unhinged from a far-off, foreign experience.
In the Chinese telling, the events that transpired in Europe are overshadowed by the Rape of Nanjing; the sexual enslavement of many Chinese, Korean, and other women; the outright slaughter of Chinese villages; and forced labor.
"The Holocaust is certainly mentioned, but is not covered in great detail in Chinese school curricula," says William Hurst, a Northwestern University political science professor and expert on Chinese politics. "An average person would likely not be unaware of Nazi war crimes or genocide, but it would not likely be something at the forefront of every person's mind when thinking about the history of Germany or World War II."
As for what makes the Chinese tourist so internationally scorned—there is, quite simply, a sudden, unprecedented number of Chinese traveling abroad.
"Tourists from particular countries tend to get a bad name when large group travel from that country becomes common, because large groups by definition are disruptive to the places and people the come into contact with," Hurst says. "American tourists in Europe in the 1960s and '70s had such a reputation. Japanese tourists in the United States were thought of the same way in the 1980s. And Chinese tourists today have this reputation, especially in Europe and Southeast Asia. Individual tourists or those is small groups can also become reviled for especially thoughtless, boorish, or insensitive behavior, as occurred in this case."
Most Chinese had difficulty affording and obtaining international travel just a few decades ago; that's now changing with China's rise as a world economic and political power.
In 2016, Chinese tourists spent more than any other nation's voyagers at $261 billion, more than double that of the U.S. in second place, according to United Nations data. Nearly 10 percent of all world travelers are Chinese, according to some reports.
Tourists in general risk bringing shame to their homelands. Now, as Americans before them, the Chinese are learning that firsthand.