President Trump referred to COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” during his Oval Office speech last month. Soon after, that phrase gave way to the “China virus” triggering a spike of racism directed at Chinese Americans.
Of course, Trump enjoys race baiting. It’s good TV.
Most Americans don’t realize – or perhaps don’t care – that Xenophobic sentiment is also on the rise in China. A cartoon series on WeChat went viral earlier this month that essentially characterized foreigners in China as “hazardous trash.” Here are a couple of the cartoons with summary translations:
Translation: A local drags a foreigner to a trashcan because he came to China to avoid the virus outbreak in his home country, but refused to wear a mask in the street (which is mandatory in China). The foreigner verbally abuses the medical staff saying “I have the right to breathe freely.”
Translation: A foreign sports player, quarantined in a hotel room, orders the hotel staff to pick up take-out food for him at 3 a.m.; otherwise he’ll get it himself. The foreigner complains, “You invited me to play basketball for you. Can’t you even fulfill this demand?”
The media has become more strident in highlighting the bad behavior of foreigners. A video of three foreign nationals cutting in line at the Qingdao airport for testing triggered headlines like “Foreigners Cut in Line for Coronavirus Test, Act Like Total Assholes” in The Shanghaiist.
It’s worth pointing out that foreigners in China have long enjoyed preferential treatment compared to Chinese nationals. I’ve experienced this myself, making my first trip to China in 1989 where a red carpet greeted me at every turn.
Still, as Cecilia Zhong (senior account executive in our San Jose office; born in China) points out, xenophobia in China is not new. “It’s been in China as long as racism has existed in the world. But the feeling has become more salient now for many reasons.”
Bias reporting from the West also plays into this picture.
Take a look at these two New York Times tweets, both posted on March 7.
From a China perspective, Italy and China have exercised similar actions. Yet, the NYT commends Italy’s “effort to contain Europe’s worse coronavirus outbreak” while the paper calls out China for a “campaign has come at a great cost to people’s livelihoods and personal liberties.”
And President Trump calling COVID-19 a “Chinese virus” amplifies the feeling.
Remember the chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Actually name calling and associated imagery hurt all of us. Nationalism hurts everyone.