Sinophobia vs. coronavirusphobia

Illustration of countries glaring at China
Lucy Yang/Staff

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Unfortunately, discrimination against China and Chinese people is not a new story; sinophobia is a well-documented phenomenon that has occurred for centuries.

Sinophobia emanates from a historical resentment, a phobia of economic competition and racism. A fear of all Chinese people is also linked to past ethnic trends and, today, COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus.

The various ways this prejudice has, however, revealed itself during the coronavirus pandemic shows the increasingly complex relationship China has with the world nowadays.

In places where Chinese people constitute a minority — such as Europe, the United States and Australia — sinophobia seems to be incited by harmful stereotypes that classify Chinese people as dirty and uncivilized. Headlines such as “New Yellow Peril,” “China Virus Panda-monium” and “China kids stay home” have prevailed in Western newspapers. Chinese students have been beaten in the United Kingdom; Chinese citizens are blocked from hotels and restaurants, as well as shunned on public transportation; and the web is dotted with mocking memes about the coronavirus.

The anti-China rhetoric has also gained a sharper and more xenophobic tone in Asia. One common theme has been the irrational fear that mainland Chinese people could overrun and infect local populations.

In Singapore and Malaysia, hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions demanding a total ban on Chinese nationals entering their countries — and both countries’ governments have executed some form of an entry ban. In Japan, some people have dubbed Chinese people as “bioterrorists,” while conspiracy theories about them infecting locals, particularly Muslims, have dominated in Indonesia.

The flourishing prosperity of Chinese people has also culminated in ever-increasing numbers of tourists and students visiting and living in numerous parts of the world, which has unfortunately been met with a negative response, such as the recent, harmful stereotypes of the confused Chinese tourist and the ultrarich Chinese student flashing their affluence.

Of course, sinophobia is not ubiquitous. Populations in South America, Africa and Eastern Europe view China more positively, according to the Pew Research Center.

Sinophobia is deeply embedded in U.S. history. In 1882, Congress passed a bill outlawing “the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States.” This bill, known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, is regarded as the first piece of American legislation to restrict immigration on the basis of race or ethnicity.

In recent years, the U.S. has generated a remarkable amount of anti-China rhetoric  — especially under the Trump administration, according to Barry Sautman, a visiting professor in the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. For instance, many conservative U.S. media outlets have previously insisted on calling the recent outbreak the “Chinese virus.”

Nativism has recently emerged as a major political force in the U.S. Now, China is perceived as a threat to U.S. hegemony in a new era of world power competition, as the U.S. tries to maintain its dominance and the Chinese government is heavily demonized. 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. Moreover, a recent Pew Research Center poll showed that about 60% of Americans have an unfavorable view of China. This increase of 13% from 2018, according to Pew, is the “highest unfavorability rating since the poll began.”

Obviously the West fears COVID-19, the hideous, detrimental pathogen that penetrates bodies without permission, precisely because we are almost powerless in hindering its entry. The analogy in the Western subconscious seems to be that COVID-19 and China have some features in common: Both are being regarded as foreign contagions, aiming to colonize and capable of wreaking havoc on core functions of the human body and countries they enter.

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 increasingly demands deference and respect. Today, most political commentary regards China as both a security threat and an economic enabler. This is why the coronavirus has become 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 West. China must act against these attacks with the same energy that is being utilized against the coronavirus, as both are very real threats and national security issues.

In the controversy and racism weighing down this diasporic disease, an editorial published in the medical journal The Lancet 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 brought the outbreak of the coronavirus under control, as Wuhan reported zero infections for the first time on March 19.

We owe gratitude to all of the 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 country in developing a vaccine against COVID-19. It is high time for unity and solidarity among all earth dwellers and nations to combat this plague, rather than blame and generate antagonism against each other as we all drift on the same ship.

In the challenge of common threats, cooperation is the only way to protect human rights. A wrong response to a pandemic will not only harm the world economy, but it will also cause grave damage to people’s lives, livelihoods and countries. This is why the world, more than ever, must act together.

Serkan Aydin is an independent journalist and a research assistant at the University of Leeds.