Coronavirus and anti-Chinese sentiment

February 19, 2020 14:57
Passengers walk past a quarantine notice about the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Photo: Reuters

The new coronavirus outbreak is causing significant disruption to business, travel and day-to-day life for millions of people in China and around the world. It has also created uncertainty and fear. And that in turn has led to a worrying pattern of anti-Chinese discrimination in many places.

Some of this may be connected to travel bans that some jurisdictions have placed on people who have recently been to China. Australia and the United States introduced such measures around the end of last month (and, of course, Hong Kong has since introduced quarantines for such travelers). Tens of thousands of Chinese students were unable to return to schools in some Western countries as a result.

Although these measures apply to anyone who had been to China at a particular time, they may have given the impression that the disease is linked to Chinese as an ethnic group.

The virus first appeared in a particular geographic area – Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province in the central-eastern part of China. Much of the world now links that area with the infection.

But the virus does not target any particular ethnic group or nationality – it can hit all human beings alike.

Looking at stories in the mainstream press and on social media around the world, it seems that many people are forgetting that the threat is color blind. Over a period of just a week or so in mid-February, we could read a depressing series of stories about how the outbreak has led to racism.

One very common occurrence is Chinese (or simply Asian-looking) tourists being harassed overseas. There are reports from Vietnam, Italy, Australia and other places of mainland tourists being humiliated and treated as a health risk while traveling, sightseeing and shopping. In South Korea and Japan, cafés have put up signs saying “No mainland Chinese allowed”.

Even sadder, perhaps, is the phenomenon of locally born ethnic Chinese children being insulted or bullied in schools as carriers of the virus. There are reports of this happening in Italy, France, Britain and Canada. Thankfully, many media commentators and leaders in these places have spoken out against this xenophobia.

Chinese restaurants overseas have seen customers stay away. The owner of a very popular place in Queens in New York City specializing in Wuhan spicy noodles says its sales have dropped by around two-thirds because of the fear surrounding the virus. In Canada, social media posts discuss whether it is safe to go to malls with Asian outlets in them. Canadian health authorities have issued statements pleading with people not to stereotype, and to learn facts about the coronavirus from trustworthy sources.

It's important to remember that in many of these countries, there are large numbers of ethnic Chinese who are well integrated into communities, and they are not usually the target of racism. What we are seeing here is a sudden shift that is due to ignorance and fear.

The results can be irrational. Canadian media have reported two cases in mid-February where Canadian permanent residents had been turned away from Caribbean cruises because they held Chinese passports – even though they hadn't been to China for at least six months. The cruise company later stated that it would not allow any guests with Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passports, regardless of their residency.

It is easy to get angry about this sort of thing. But we should bear a few things in mind.

Social scientists say that it is human nature to look for someone to blame when some sort of natural or other disaster takes place. History is full of ugly examples of scapegoating and witch-hunts all over the world.

All of us are at risk of falling into this trap. Many of us in Hong Kong may feel upset about the anti-Chinese discrimination triggered by the virus overseas. But let's not forget that there are restaurants in Hong Kong that have put up notices saying “no mainlanders” or “no Mandarin speakers”.

I will leave the last word to a conversation reported on a social media account. Two mainland Chinese tourists in Vietnam are complaining about being turned away by hostels and people pointing and whispering about them on buses. They are upset. But then one remembers that this is happening back home as well. She says: “Then I realized we are doing the same thing to the Wuhanese.”

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress