Sinophobia: How a virus reveals the many ways China is feared

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Two women wearing protective facemasks stand inside a shopping mall in Bangkok on 5 February 2020.Image source, AFP
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Suspicion towards Chinese people has grown since the virus began, even within Asia itself

Sammi Yang first realised something wasn't right when she showed up at her doctor's in Berlin, and was immediately barred from entering the building.

Other patients were buzzed in through the clinic's door, while Ms Yang, a make-up artist from China, had to wait outside in the January cold. Eventually her doctor emerged. Her first words were: "This isn't personal but..."

"Then she said: 'We are not taking any Chinese patients now because of this Chinese virus'," Ms Yang told the BBC. "I had no chance to explain myself and say that I was healthy." She had not travelled to China recently either.

In the weeks since the virus spread around the world, multiple accounts of discrimination against Chinese nationals or anyone who looks East Asian have emerged, including from Asia and Chinese-majority societies.

Even as sympathy has grown for the Chinese victims, particularly with the death of "whistleblower doctor" Li Wenliang, Asian minorities and Chinese nationals say virus-related racism and xenophobia have thrived.

Discrimination against China and Chinese people is not new - Sinophobia is a well-documented phenomenon that has existed for centuries.

But the varied ways it has manifested during the coronavirus crisis reveal the increasingly complex relationship the world has with China right now.

'Unfamiliar in the West, too familiar in the East'

Virus-related vitriol has appeared all over the world, expressed in subtly different ways.

In places where Asians are a visible minority such as Europe, the US and Australia, the Sinophobia appears to be fuelled by superficial stereotypes of the Chinese as dirty and uncivilised.

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Parents say children are bullied at school for "being Chinese and carrying the virus".

Being called "a virus", for instance, is common, and Asian minorities are physically shunned in public or have become the target of racist tirades and attacks.

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Headlines such as "Yellow peril', "Chinese virus panda-monium" and "China kids stay home" have appeared in French and Australian newspapers.

With news that the virus originated from a wet market that sold wildlife, and possibly mutated from a virus carried by bats, the usual jokes about Chinese people eating anything that moves have been trotted out.

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While the same sort of comments have surfaced in Asia, the anti-Chinese rhetoric here has also taken on a deeper and possibly more xenophobic tone. One common theme has been a suspicion of mainland Chinese overrunning and infecting local populations.

In Singapore and Malaysia, hundreds of thousands have signed online petitions calling for a total ban on Chinese nationals from entering their countries - and both countries' governments have put in place some form of entry ban. In Japan, some have labelled the Chinese as "bioterrorists", while conspiracy theories about the Chinese infecting locals, particularly Muslims, have proliferated in Indonesia and elsewhere.

"In the West, China is seen as far and removed, and the Sinophobia there tends to be borne out of unfamiliarity. But in Asia and South East Asia it's borne out of too much familiarity," said Professor Donald Low, a Hong Kong-based academic who studies Chinese public policy.

In Asia, the shadow of China has loomed large for centuries in the form of regional disputes, historic grievances, and waves of Chinese immigration. More recently, China's claims to the South China Sea and the detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province have aroused anger and suspicion particularly in South East Asia, which has a significant Muslim population.

Chinese money and investment flooding the region have been welcomed, but have also provoked suspicion of Chinese economic dominance and exploitation with little benefit to local economies.

Even in predominantly ethnic Chinese societies, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, there has been an uptick in anti-mainland sentiment, in part due to long-running anxieties over Chinese immigration and identity as well as influence from Beijing.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The discrimination has also triggered an anti-racist pushback, as seen in this Italian graffiti that reads: 'There is an epidemic of ignorance around... We must protect ourselves."

'Awe and disdain'

Some believe this current wave of Sinophobia is largely due to how China has behaved, both in the current crisis and in recent years on the world stage.

One general attitude towards the Chinese has been a mixture of "awe and disdain", says Prof Low.

For some people viewing how China has handled the coronavirus crisis, "there is this incredible admiration of what the Chinese can do, such as building hospitals within days. But there is also contempt for their inability to contain things like the wildlife trade, or to be functionally transparent".

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Aerial time-lapse shows Wuhan hospital construction

Officials have admitted they were too slow in their initial reporting and containment of the crisis, and have been lambasted for their treatment of Li Wenliang, who was investigated by police when he first messaged colleagues about the virus.

As President Xi Jinping seeks to project a strong and confident China, the messaging has been that it is a responsible global player while it invests billions in countries around the world.

But China has not hesitated to flex its muscles as well, as seen in the fierce state media rhetoric in the US-China trade war, the accumulating evidence of its far-reaching state espionage programme, and relentless staking of its claims to contested territories.

"They want to be loved, but also feared," said Professor Low.

The growing affluence of the Chinese has also resulted in ever-increasing numbers of tourists and students visiting and living in various parts of the world, leading to a higher visibility on the ground. Sporadic reports of bad behaviour coupled with their sheer numbers have given rise to stereotypes of the boorish Chinese tourist or the ultra-rich Chinese student flashing his wealth.

Image source, EPA
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The proliferation of Chinese tourists around the world has led to higher visibility

Of course, not every place in the world has the same suspicion of China that you might more readily find in Western Europe, the US and Asia. Populations in South America, Africa and Eastern Europe view it more positively, according to the Pew Center for Research.

Some observers - and the Chinese government - say that China's rivals are also to blame for Sinophobia, given the political capital they could reap from it.

In recent years, a significant amount of anti-China rhetoric has come from the US - particularly under the Trump administration, says Professor Barry Sautman, a sociologist with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The US itself has had a long history of Sinophobia, most notably with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which banned Chinese labourers following immigration that began with the Gold Rush. The current wave coincides, and is perhaps in part due to, a rise in nativism in the US as well as the rest of the world, says Prof Sautman.

"Now China is being seen as a challenger to US hegemony, and almost every aspect of what the Chinese government does has been criticised 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 says.

'Kicking China while it's down'

China is not taking the attacks on its people lying down.

In the past few weeks, state media outlets have published several scathing opinion pieces condemning discrimination and racism, notably in English and aimed at a global audience.

But they have also taken issue with the international media's critical reporting of the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis, even though some of the criticisms have been carried in local media. They have either called it misreporting or branded it as unfair discrimination against China, with prominent TV anchor Liu Xin from state broadcaster CGTN comparing it to "kicking China while it's down".

Officially, the government has criticised countries, particularly the US, for "creating and spreading fear" by enacting what it has called "unnecessary" entry bans on Chinese travellers.

Meanwhile, the anxiety and despair over discrimination are deepening for many overseas Chinese and Asian minorities, as the outbreak continues with no end in sight.

"I feel scared," said Sammi, the make-up artist in Berlin. She plans to avoid going out for the next few weeks.

It isn't just her experience at the doctor's that has spooked her. A German-Asian friend was recently harassed at a train station, while a Chinese woman was brutally attacked on her way home, with Berlin police classifying it as a racist incident. The woman claimed on Chinese social media that she was called "a virus" and was beaten up after she fought back.

"I don't want to quarrel with people when they call me a virus. All they know is what they read in the papers, you can't change their mind," said Sammi.

"Even if I show them my visa, tell them I'm a permanent resident, all that doesn't matter. Because all they see is my Chinese face."