Coronaphobia fuels anti-Chinese sentiment: Op-ed
Discrimination against China and Chinese people is nothing new – Sinophobia is a well-documented phenomenon that has occurred for centuries.
However, the miscellaneous ways it has revealed itself during the coronavirus crisis reveals the increasingly complex relationship between China and the rest of the world. Sinophobia stems from historical resentment, fears of economic competition and racism. Fear of all Chinese is also linked to past ethnic trends and, at present, the coronavirus.
In places where Asians constitute a minority such as Europe, the United States, and Australia, Sinophobia seems to be incited by the profound stereotypes of the Chinese as dirty and uncivilized. Headlines such as “Yellow peril,” Chinese virus “panda-monium” and
“Chinese kids, stay home” have appeared in French and Australian newspapers. Some Chinese students were also beaten in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, some Chinese citizens have not been admitted to hotels and restaurants or shunned by public transport.
And all the while, the web is dotted with mocking memes about the coronavirus.
The anti-Chinese rhetoric has also gained a sharper and more xenophobic tone in Asia. One common theme has been worries about
mainland Chinese overrunning and infecting local populations.
In Singapore and Malaysia, hundreds of thousands have signed petitions demanding a total ban on Chinese nationals entering their countries; in response, both countries’ governments have implemented some form of entry ban. In Japan, some have dubbed the Chinese “bio-terrorists,” while conspiracy theories about the Chinese infecting locals, particularly Muslims, have predominated in Indonesia and elsewhere.
It is crystal clear that the flourishing prosperity of the Chinese has also culminated in ever-increasing numbers of tourists and students visiting and living in numerous parts of the world, resulting in their increased visibility on the ground. Reports of sporadic crude behavior, combined with their sheer numbers, have given rise to the stereotype of Chinese tourists as boors or Chinese students as ultra-rich.
Of course, Sinophobia is not ubiquitous, as populations in South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe view China more positively, according to the Pew Center for Research.
“In recent years, a remarkable amount of anti-China sentiment has originated in the U.S., especially under the Trump administration,” said Professor Barry Sautman, a sociologist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Like President Donald Trump, for instance, most American media outlets insist on calling the recent coronavirus outbreak as a “Chinese virus.”
“The U.S. itself has had a long history of Sinophobia, most notably with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers following immigration that began with the Gold Rush. The current wave coincides, and is perhaps in part due to, the rise in nativism in the U.S., as well as the rest of the world,” said Sautman.
“Now, China is seen as a challenger to U.S. hegemony, and almost every aspect of what the Chinese government does has been criticized heavily. As a result, lots of people around the world pick up on that, and it builds upon Sinophobia that has been historically embedded, like that in Asia,” he said.
The U.S. was the first country to impose a travel ban on Chinese travelers and the first to suggest a partial withdrawal of its embassy staff.
Obviously, the West fears the hideous pathogen of COVID-19, precisely because – short of very extreme measures – we are almost powerless to hinder its entry. The analogy in the Western subconscious is that: COVID-19 and China: both foreign contagions, carried by air, indifferent to borders and boundaries, and indifferent to the bodies they enter, are capable of wreaking havoc on core functions.
Whatever the historical cause of this relentless phobia, the present trigger is the inexorable rise of China as an economic and military superpower – a power that is increasingly inclined to demand deference and respect. Today, most commentators regard China as both a security threat and an economic enabler. It’s both. That’s why coronavirus is becoming a Western excuse for Sinophobia and China-bashing.
The media plays a prominent role in this. The use of fake news and misinformation as instruments to foment hate against China is a reason to fear the Western axis. In contrast, China must act against these attacks with the same energy that is being utilized against the coronavirus just because both are real threats and national security issues.
Amid the controversy and racism, an editorial published in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, on March 8 said: “The Chinese government has saved tens of thousands of lives. Isn’t making sure as many people as possible avoid contracting a dangerous virus the highest form of human rights?” China seems to have succeeded in bringing the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic under control, as Wuhan has reported zero infections for the first time. In doing so, it is trying to protect the health of the entire world population.
We hence owe a debt of gratitude to all officials and volunteers who are working around the clock to contain the virus and to treat those suffering from it. China is doing its best to help Italy and could be leading the way in developing a vaccine against COVID-19.
It is therefore high time for unity and solidarity for all to combat this plague rather than blaming and generating antagonism against one another because, after all, we’re all in the same boat.
Facing the monumental challenge formed by COVID-19, cooperation is the only way to protect human rights. The wrong response to a pandemic will not only cause grave damage to people’s lives and livelihoods and countries’ health but also harm the world economy.
That’s why the world, more than ever, needs to act together to overcome this common threat.