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An Outbreak of Sinophobia and Schadenfreude in the West

[A redacted and edited version of this article was published in the China Daily]

Nowhere is man freer than on the field of battle, where it is a matter of life and death, wrote Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. One way of determining people’s morality is by observing their reactions during a crisis.

Western audiences have offered three types of reactions to the recent virus outbreak in China: Sympathy, Sinophobia, and Schadenfreude. Sane westerners, one hopes, empathized with the victims, wishing the outbreak ends soon. Racists took advantage of it to indulge in stereotypes and memes. The third category, the western media, was delighted with the opportunity to insult the Chinese government.

Animal Instincts

The 1850s had come calling. Fake clickbait stories of Chinese (or people who looked Chinese but could be Korean or Vietnamese – who could tell these days?) eating bats, snakes, insects, or mice started circulating. Stereotypes about Chinese being “filthy” and being dirty carriers of disease made a comeback.  

Similar Sinophobic racism had surfaced during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Yet, those were early days of 24-hour news coverage, and social media was almost non-existent. Today’s technology worsens the disease. 

Upon hearing the (unverified) story that the virus spread through bats, the Daily Mail, a racist British tabloid, published a video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup. It didn’t matter than the video was from Palau, not China, and was filmed in 2016. Children started being harassed in school just for looking Chinese. French Chinese started a Twitter hashtag – JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I’m not a virus) – to counter the racism. 

It’s not entirely fair to say that Yellow Peril was back. It never left. Racism has always been central to western culture. Why change now?

Racism Lite

Slightly ahead on the Sinophobic spectrum came the mainstream western media. While their “wokeness” prevented them from succumbing to their natural orientalist tendencies – they filled the gap with Schadenfreude and White Superiority complex.

The more people the virus killed (the death toll currently stands at 213), the more the media killed their journalistic values. The New York Times led the horde, braying that the Chinese government’s response exposed “core flaws”, assuming perhaps that “democracies” handle health crisis better. Another article bellowed that the crisis could “humble China’s strongman” (their favorite word to describe President Xi Jinping). The Wall Street Journal was more direct, simply saying that China’s censorship helped spread the virus.  

Yes – there was some censorship in the beginning. Yet, today, few have been more forthcoming about this censorship than Chinese officials themselves, with the Supreme Court dropping the charges against the whistleblowers and praising them. The mayor of Wuhan admitted his mistakes and even offered to resign. 

In the initial days of an epidemic, obtaining accurate data is difficult.  Everything cannot be irresponsibly released without verification. Moreover, in this case, symptoms matched normal flu symptoms, making the virus difficult to detect. This obvious reluctance (and sometimes incompetence) of local officials was interpreted as some sort of nefarious conspiracy to silence critics at the cost of public health.  

Yet – do “democracies” handle health crises better? One way to find out is by focusing at what the western media won’t: facts. 

When they preach about “free speech”, do they mean the US, where Flint officials initially hid the true extent of lead poisoning, and where children and adults continue drinking poisoned water even today? Or where basic flu kills tens of thousands of Americans annually? 

Or do they mean India, where 67,000 people have been diagnosed so far with a preventable disease like dengue? Where 1108 children on average have died every year since 2014 in a single hospital in the city of Kota?

By contrast, in China, the response was sanctioned and mobilized at the highest level of government (a level which, in “democratic” US, is generally reserved for killing civilians using drones). More than 50 million people and 15 cities were quarantined. A 1000-bed hospital was planned to be built in 10 days, with workers being paid three times their normal wage. 

China put people over profits, taking the most un-American, un-capitalist steps to battle the outbreak:

  • Extending the Lunar New Year holiday
  • Banning online sellers from raising prices of masks
  • Canceling or delaying movie releases
  • Refunding train and flight cancellation charges
  • Suspending the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges
  • Accommodating delays in loan repayments
  • Prioritizing virus-related insurance claims

In the US, this is unthinkable. Imagine the corporate losses if whole cities and stock markets were shut down. US banks would probably increase interest rates in such a crisis.

Of course the Chinese system is not perfect. It is simply the least bad. 

And it paid off. While deaths have been rising (425 at last count), patients are also being cured. Experts estimate that the peak of the outbreak could be reached in 8-10 days. The WHO has praised China’s efforts relentlessly – denting celebrations in western newsrooms. 

The crisis will pass, but the Sinophobia won’t. They’ll always find something else. The western media will continue questioning the legitimacy of the Chinese government. As China succeeds and rises, it will experience more jealousy. More Sinophobia. More Schadenfreude. And that’s a disease that will prove difficult to cure. 

Originally published at India’s China Blog.

  1. Ngok Ming Cheung
    February 8th, 2020 at 07:50 | #1

    As I said the pandemic is a mixed blessing in disguise. It exposed the short comings in the governances and bureaucracy at the cost of sufferings of the patients and economy. I am sure there will be reckonings for the incompetence and non performances of some of the officials. Yet it will strengthen future emergencies that’s sure to come with the climate warming.
    There is one aspect I expect Western Media will harp on and still miss its significance. That’s the AI and large data computation on the question of privacy. To control the spread of the virus, China has essentially lock down on transportation. Now it requires real name ID to board even local buses and subways, not to mention on rails and planes. There were stories on failure to accurately report one’s movement and suffered the virus and spread the disease to others. China will now use AI much better to pin point movements rather than depend on voluntary confessions and self segregation to prevent spreading the virus. The implication of liberal’s fear of authoritarian control is staggering. Think the debate on national ID in West and the need to control viral spread in coming decades. China will be in he fore front on the experiment of new human society as a whole over the individualism of the West.

  2. February 9th, 2020 at 09:45 | #2

    @Ngok Ming Cheung

    Interesting, interesting points on AI and tracking of people and ID. I see Westerners thinking this: tracking people is fine when we are trying to spread disease but not ok when China is trying to spread radical ideology or protecting its citizens from terrorism.

    But your observation also leads me to think more about collective vs individual rights. Quarantine itself is an assertion of collective over individual rights. Imagine if you are in Wuhan, you want to flee, you want to leave. On an individual level, if you can leave, you should probably leave. But your leaving – and more importantly, if your leaving leads others to leave also – might spread disease much faster and farther. Who gets to make the decision? Is a quarantine against basic human right?

    If this seems too academic, imagine if a virus were much more deadlier – i.e. it spreaded much easier and kills much higher percentage of people, what then? Would people tolerate the military locking a city down and preventing people from leaving?

    This is the stuff of science fiction. We are nowhere there. But how should humans act?

    I have been very sad about Western coverage of this virus. The Time magazine even has a cover “China’s test”. If this virus started in U.S., would we call it the “American test”? The swine flue started in North America, and we don’t call it the “North American” test.

    China has not done anything wrong to be blamed or to deserve the coronovirus. Like other influenza viruses, these viruses have co-evolved with humans and other animals for eons. The world should stand together in fighting public epidemics … not coward and point fingers as the West, Japan, and others have done.

  3. wwww1234
    February 10th, 2020 at 21:21 | #3

    confucian collectivism is a more refined and sophisticated version of utilitarianism. Do you agree?

  4. February 16th, 2020 at 23:04 | #4

    Another op-ed of similar vein…


    Asians battle growing US xenophobia

    By MIAO XIAOJUAN | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-17 01:45

    Racial prejudice rears its ugly head

    As China races to contain the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak and minimize its international spread, Chinese people living abroad are battling stigma and discrimination.

    In the United States, only 15 cases of infection of the virus have been confirmed, and the immediate risk to the public remains low. But false health information has circulated, including warnings to avoid Asian food and Asian-populated areas. A barrage of vicious comments and derogatory jokes about Chinese or Asians in general has also gathered steam online.

    Former US ambassador to China Gary Locke said, “These negative, uninformed comments only stress the need for US public health officials and government leaders to do a better job of educating the public about the virus, how it is spread and how to protect themselves.”

    Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases in the United States, stressed that there is no need for people to fear Asians in their community. “It’s unfortunate. It really saddens me to hear these stories,” she said.

    Bias: Uninformed comments made

    Marybeth Sexton, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said, “All of the infected patients are either isolated at home or hospitalized, and public health officials are closely monitoring anyone else who is at high risk of having had exposure. There’s no reason to assume that anyone you meet in public, of any ethnic or racial background, poses a risk to you.”

    It is critical that the US public guards against any xenophobia surrounding the outbreak and let common sense prevail, as urged by officials, doctors, entrepreneurs and experts at the CDC.

    Observers said the “virus” of misinformation and disinformation, which might be used to spread xenophobia, could pose a greater danger than the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak itself, and concern over public health should not justify any anti-Asian racism.

    Stereotyping fight

    During a news conference last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “It’s easy to move into … perspectives in which there tends to be discrimination; there tends to be violation of human rights; there tends to be stigma on innocent people just because of their ethnicity.”

    In recent weeks, an 8-year-old boy from Washington state, who was wearing a facemask, was told by a worker at a sample stand in a Costco outlet to “go away” because he may have come from China, while students at Columbia University in New York City were welcomed by a Chinese-language message reading, “Wuhan virus isolation area”.

    The health services center at the University of California at Berkeley listed xenophobia toward Asians as a “normal reaction” in an Instagram post on managing fear and anxiety about the outbreak; videos of Asians eating bats accompanied by inaccurate speculation about the cause of the virus and dehumanizing comments went viral; and The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

    Reports of such racist incidents have sparked public outcry, prompting many to speak out and actions to be taken.

    Costco has since apologized to the boy and his family; Columbia University has called on students to report any racist incidents; UC-Berkeley has revised its handout, which now reads, “Be mindful of your assumptions about others” and “Self-awareness is important in not stigmatizing others in our community”.

    The bat-eating video was shot in the Pacific island nation of Palau, where the dish is a delicacy; and social media users have accused The Wall Street Journal article of resurrecting an archaic stereotype while making light of a serious outbreak. An online petition, demanding an apology from the newspaper to the Chinese community and either a retraction of the article or a rectification of the headline raised more than 113,000 signatures in just days.

    Meanwhile, Peter Koo, a New York City Council member for a district that includes Flushing, where more than one-third of the 150,000 residents are Chinese Americans, warned against calling the virus “Wuhan coronavirus” or “China coronavirus.”

    “Viruses are color-blind. Naming a virus after a country or a city is an unfair insult that exacerbates discrimination against people from China,” Koo said.

    Understanding needed

    A recent video on Twitter showed a man attacking an Asian woman wearing a mask at a subway station in Manhattan, New York, while cursing her and shouting, “Don’t touch me!” The man called her “diseased,” according to Tony He, a New York resident who posted the video.

    Asians often wear facemasks for self-protection from germs, allergies and dust. Since the viral outbreak, many Chinese living abroad have been wearing surgical facemasks in public areas, but few people foresaw that this could heighten fear and generate dislike among the US public.

    Koo said his office has received complaints from parents whose children are bullied when they wear facemasks at school, adding that while many people might only wear masks when they are sick, they should not stigmatize Asians for doing so.

    “I hope Americans will understand that when Asians wear facemasks, it does not mean they are sick. But it takes time and education to change cultural perceptions,” he said.

    Koo’s deputy chief of staff Scott Sieber, who has years of experience in Asian communities, said he actually appreciates Chinese wearing facemasks.

    He said this indicated that people were taking precautions and looking after those around them, adding, “I understand this, as I am familiar with the culture.”

    The CDC and doctors in general believe there is no need to wear a mask in the US, but are urging people to wash their hands often and avoid going out in public when they become sick.

    But Locke, who used to be governor of Washington state and is a former US secretary of commerce, said the CDC is only making a recommendation, not a requirement or a law.

    “Americans in general, and the Chinese community in particular, are free to do as they wish, without any repercussions,” he added.

    Charlie Woo, co-founder and CEO of toy manufacturing company Megatoys in Los Angeles, called on Asian Americans to continue explaining that they are not sick just because they are wearing a facemask.

    “If any Asian feels more comfortable wearing a facemask, he or she has every right to do so,” said Woo, who is also vice-chair of the Committee of 100, a group comprising leading Chinese Americans striving to ensure full inclusion in the country and to advance US-China relations.

    “The United States has had racial issues since the beginning. Hopefully, we make progress one day at a time,” he said.

    Chinatowns still safe

    Angela Wang, the owner of a decade-old hair salon in Flushing, said one-third of her regular customers used to be non-Chinese, but two days after her employees started wearing facemasks, these clients all stopped returning. There has also been a significant drop in the number of her Chinese customers.

    “All of us have taken off the masks, but our business has declined by 90 percent in the past week. If customers are not coming back and rents are not going down, we might have to shut down within two months,” said Wang, who arrived in the US 18 years ago from Zhejiang province.

    Her salon is just one of many businesses struggling financially in Flushing. A sales manager of a spacious dim sum restaurant believed the outbreak could deal the neighborhood its heaviest blow for many years.

    Amid fears of business slowing down in Chinatowns and Asian communities such as Flushing, city officials have told people not to change their day-to-day activities.

    Mark Treyger, a New York City Council member, tweeted: “Stick to the facts about coronavirus by getting your info from trained medical professionals and reliable sources. Basic hygiene rules apply. Call out hate when you see it, and continue to shop, dine and go about your normal everyday routine.”

    New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot took the initiative to frequent Chinese restaurants, attend celebrations in Chinatown and share all her experiences on Twitter. “I’ve been disheartened by reports of bias and discrimination against the Asian community recently. Let me be clear – our public health response is about a virus, not a group of people,” she tweeted, along with a picture of her and two others dining at a Chinese restaurant.

    During Spring Festival she tweeted, “Today, our city is celebrating the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown, a beautiful cultural tradition with a rich history in the city. I want to remind everyone to enjoy the parade and not change any plans due to misinformation spreading about coronavirus.”

    Flu a bigger threat

    The CDC and the Chinese government have joined hands for the past 30 years to address public health priorities affecting the two countries and the world, according to Barbara Marston, head of the international coronavirus task force at the CDC’s Center for Global Health..

    She added that the CDC is preparing as if the outbreak was the next pandemic.

    While the epidemic continues to dominate headlines, officials and doctors have reminded the US public that influenza poses a bigger threat.

    Koo said that in New York, where there have been no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus pneumonia, there is a much higher chance of becoming sick from influenza.

    Sexton, from Emory University School of Medicine, said: “Getting a flu vaccine is very helpful. If people are sick with respiratory symptoms, they should put on a mask in a healthcare waiting room to avoid infecting others.”

    The CDC estimates that, so far this season, flu has caused at least 22 million cases of illness, 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths.

    In a recent interview with The Boston Globe, Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said, “Anti-Chinese racism centered around the coronavirus outbreak isn’t just ugly, it’s illogical.

    “The fact of the matter is we are facing a health crisis right now in the United States, and it’s a domestic one and it’s the flu.”

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