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Focus Politics

Reaction to Coronavirus Part of Wider Sinophobia Problem

Hal Conte February 27, 2020

Photo: CDC on Unsplash

If you’ve been reading the news  the past few weeks, you’re probably aware of how the recent outbreak of a strain of the coronavirus has led to an increase in racism and suspicion against Chinese people.

Even some U.S. government officials have appeared to react with glee to the coronavirus, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross remarking that  “I don’t want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease. But the fact is, it does give businesses yet another thing to consider when they go through their review of their supply chain.”

Amidst the climate of suspicion and bigotry, the WTO has sought to correct misconceptions surrounding the coronavirus by renaming it to Covid-19. This new name will provide distinction from the large number of other coronaviruses that exist throughout the world and are not life-threatening, and will also remove stigma from the Wuhan province and China, in general..

But while racism against Chinese nationals, people of Chinese descent and Asian people more generally based on the coronavirus has received considerable attention and condemnation by the American media, it has to be seen as part of a wider pattern of Sinophobia which many of the same outlets suddenly warning of a revival of the Yellow Peril have played into in recent years.

Since the U.S-China trade war began in 2018, American media has increasingly fallen into simplistic narratives which draw on stereotypical imagery and metaphors. These portrayals have led to China being viewed as a “hive mind” representing a “geopolitical threat” to the American way of life and democracy instead of a country with 1.5 billion people, many of them with similar ambitions as Americans.

The late Roger Scruton, a highly renowned and much-quoted British professor, said in 2018 that “each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”

A Washington Post editorial published at the start of the U.S.-China trade war plugged a report by the neoconservative Hoover Institution which described Chinese expats globally as sons and daughters of the Yellow Emperor,” who would work in the interest of Beijing against their own governments to “penetrate and sway” them, including America.

It‘s not to say that what the Chinese government is doing in Hong Kong and with the country’s Muslim population is not worthy of concern or debate by people concerned with human rights and an open society. But conflating Chinese people with the government of Xi Jinping is doing real damage to intercultural exchange, something which is particularly worrying to a writer for Freely Magazine. .

The fostering of a New Cold War environment has even shaped dialogue on Temple’s campus, where I have watched an American think tank official and a Chinese professor loudly confront one another over whether decisions taken by the U.S. were in line with previous commitments or undermining the global order.

Though it’s undoubtedly true that Chinese companies have pried off U.S. technologies, China’s economic success is not entirely the result of a national character based on stealing and cheating as media outlets and politicians would have you believe. These statements are clearly insulting, if not racist, to billions of people.

At Temple and elsewhere, Chinese-Americans have accused the U.S. government of racial profiling. In 2018, the director of the FBI, Chris Wray, described Chinese students at American universities as a “potential threat.”

Confucius Institutes such as the one on Temple’s campus, which seek to foster Chinese language and cultural education, are viewed by the U.S. government as a means of “infiltrating” the minds of American students. 

Is it true that China’s Communist Party is trying to influence Americans? Yes. Do Chinese spies exist? Yes. Does that mean that we can’t work with China as a partner on issues such as climate change and containing deadly diseases like the coronavirus, or that we shouldn’t make friends and professional contacts with people from China? No.

Mistrust and fear mongering between the citizens of the world’s two largest superpowers is not a productive way to enter what is only the second decade of a fairly young century. It’s a disturbing echo of all the things we were told led to calamity during the first half of the last one.

Perhaps the only good thing about the coronavirus is not that the U.S. or China will win some vainglorious narrative war over which country’s system works better or see manufacturers make a million bucks or so extra, but that the criticism of anti-China xenophobia related to the virus allows people to sympathize with ordinary Chinese and reflect on the wider problem of Sinophobia, in turn reducing Chinese citizens’ concerns over U.S. influence (the country expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters last week). No matter if you live in China or the U.S., it is mistrust which keeps real authoritarianism in place.