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Ghost town? Ruined city? Ahead of APEC, Chinese-language media bashes San Francisco

An illustration combines images from Chinese-language websites framing San Francisco as a crime-ridden, lawless city. | Source: Illustration by Lu Chen/The Standard

Frequent high-profile crimes and viral shoplifting videos from San Francisco have done more than provide ample fodder for American commentators. They’ve begun to seriously harm the city’s international reputation as well. 

As the city gets ready to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and Chinese President Xi Jinping in only 10 days, reports bashing San Francisco are very easy to find in the online Chinese-speaking world. It’s not just the comments section, either—in many cases, the stories themselves spare no criticism.

“Ghost town San Francisco to have major blood exchange transfusion as APEC will bring the safest week in history to the city,” reads one headline by U.S. Chinese Radio. “The whole country is working to ensure public safety, but what happens next?”

RELATED: San Francisco Opening Hundreds of Homeless Shelter Beds as Winter, APEC Approach

Other headlines have come up with dramatic-sounding nicknames for what used to be called the City by the Bay, including “Total Failure,” “Garbage City,” “Ruined City” and “Fallen City.”

A police vehicle sits parked along Van Ness Avenue next to a homeless encampment a few blocks from City Hall. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

“San Francisco declines into a ‘death loop’ as this city of freedom and love falls from heaven to hell,” a headline from the Chinese-language Phoenix TV reads.

Maybe the most prominent attack on the city came from the People’s Daily, which is considered the official mouthpiece of Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party. In a June article headlined, “Theft and robbery have become an epidemic in the U.S.,” San Francisco was mentioned multiple times, citing both the closure of Market Street’s Whole Foods and a surge in property crime.

Other than the widely known problems of homelessness and drug crisis, some of the city’s high-profile local crimes also travel through the language barriers to the Chinese world.

Last month, a Chinese driver crashed into San Francisco’s Chinese consulate, where he was shot and killed, triggering a wave of Chinese-language coverage regarding public safety in San Francisco

Eason Chan, a Chinese pop superstar, made headlines in Chinese media when he mocked San Francisco’s dirty streets at a September concert at Chase Center.

Other major crime stories in the city—including the April killing of tech executive Bob Lee and the 2022 attack on Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, have become resources for foreign media to mine as they address the city’s “darkness” and “lawlessness.”

A screengrab from a video of the moment after a vehicle crashed into the Chinese consulate in San Francisco on Monday, Oct. 10, 2023. | Source: Courtesy Sergii Molchanov

Something as mundane as the closure of a Starbucks can spark striking headlines on the Chinese internet. 

“Even Starbucks can’t stand it, San Francisco is seriously sick,” a post on the popular news site Toutiao reads. The coffee chain explained that the closure is meant to ensure “a healthy store portfolio.”

However, on Xiaohongshu, a Chinese social media site, people are noticing the city is getting better because of APEC—which also benefited Beijing when that city hosted the summit nearly a decade ago.

A Bay Area resident said in a post that he thanked APEC—which turned the Chinese capital’s smoggy skies blue for a month in 2014, thanks to the massive efforts to quickly clean up the environment. He credited APEC for making San Francisco’s previously “homeless people-occupied” streets walkable.

“This is not an economic trade summit,” the author posted in Chinese. “It’s a magic conference.”

What exactly is APEC, and why is San Francisco hosting part of it this year? KQED journalist and APEC Host Committee Press Ambassador Priya David Clemens explains. | Video by Jesse Rogala

Han Li can be reached at