As the world learns more about a deadly COVID-19 virus, so too can we see more clearly its socio-political side effects. Whether it’s Asian people being attacked in the West or Africans being kicked out of their accommodation in China, this article brings you a timeline of how COVID-19-related racism and xenophobia have developed around the world.
Source: Markus Spiske
When the city of Wuhan went into lockdown on January 23, COVID-19 was still fundamentally a “China problem”, although there was a small number of confirmed cases overseas. Some individuals, in Western countries in particular, started to vent their anger and fear at anyone who looked Chinese. International media outlets reported various incidents of COVID-19-related racism in the West, including cases of families being spat on and even children being attacked in the United States. In Britain, a video also emerged of a group of face mask-wearing Chinese students being threatened by a group of teenagers, one of whom was wielding a piece of wood. Many more videos and social media posts appearing to show physical and verbal attacks on people of Asian decent circulated online.
In what could be described as a more “high-brow” case of anti-Chinese discrimination, a statement by a Michelin-starred restaurant's head chef caused outrage. Jean-Claude Bourgueil, of Düsseldorf’s French restaurant Im Schiffen, announced the eatery’s re-opening on their official Facebook page, followed by a “No Chinese wanted” disclaimer. He later tried to walk back the outburst with the classic excuse that he can’t be racist because his wife is Asian, adding that his statement was aimed at the Chinese government rather than the Chinese people. Many social media users found his explanation less than convincing, however, as did Michelin, which has since removed the restaurant from its guide.
The scope and scale of such incidents are difficult to quantify. In April, NBC referenced a poll conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, which claimed that over 30% of Americans had witnessed some form of COVID-19 bias against Asians. Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, added that there had been a marked increase in cases of “physical assaults, refusal of service and vandalism” against Asians.
Some blamed the rise of such incidents on ignorant individuals. Others said that rhetoric from politicians was responsible for fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia; president Trump’s labelling of COVID-19 as the “China virus” is one frequently cited example. As always, it’s difficult to say to what extent rhetoric from those in power is responsible for individual incidents of racism, but it’s fair to say it probably didn’t help.
On February 25th, San Francisco became the first US city to declare a state of emergency over COVID-19. On March 9th, Italy went into nationwide lockdown. Most of the rest of Europe and the UK soon followed. By mid-March, COVID-19 had well and truly gained a foothold outside of China.
Fearful of expat carriers of the virus returning from hard-hit foreign countries, some Chinese individuals and businesses began to showcase their own brand of COVID-19 racism and xenophobia. This seemed to mainly manifest itself in the form of the rejection of expats from restaurants, bars, supermarkets, shopping malls, karaoke halls and elsewhere — somewhat different to the verbal and physical abuse Asians had experienced in Western countries. Numerous photos and video clips, some not easy to verify, circulated online in China. They invariably seemed to show China-based businesses carrying the same message: “Due to the epidemic overseas, we cannot accept foreign customers.”
One video in particular received a lot of attention within China’s expat community. It was taken inside QMEX, a popular Mexican restaurant and bar in Beijing’s Sanlitun area. The woman who recorded the video spoke anonymously to the Beijinger, explaining that after she and her husband finished their meal, they questioned why four people were seated in a booth together, something staff had initially said was not allowed. It was at this point that the woman claims to have heard a staff member say, “My boss told me not to allow black people in.”
The video, which the woman said she started filming immediately after the alleged comment, then shows a scuffle between her husband and a staff member, in which the latter appears to try and physically force the couple to leave. QMex later put out a statement saying that they do not discriminate on the basis of nationality or ethnicity, and that the confusion around seating arrangements was due to government restrictions on how many people could enter the restaurant at a time.
QMex are not the only company to be accused of discriminating against black people in China during the epidemic. In Guangzhou, a branch of McDonald’s posted a sign at its entrance that read: “We’ve been informed that from now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant.” McDonald’s later apologised and temporarily closed the branch for “diversity and inclusion training”.
The McDonald’s incident came at a time of great tension for nationals of African countries across Guangdong province. Arbitrary discrimination, particularly towards black Africans, appeared to begin with a story in Chinese media about two Nigerians allegedly absconding from a hospital after testing positive for COVID-19. Shortly afterwards, pictures began to circulate online of Africans sleeping on the streets, having reportedly been evicted from their homes. Many also spoke of being forcibly quarantined by government authorities.
But the racism wasn’t just confined to the black African community. Popular South African YouTuber Winston Sterzel, known by his online persona “Serpentza”, documented the treatment of one of his white South African friends in the city of Zhuhai. His friend states that although he had not left China since the start of outbreak, he was forced to leave his home and quarantine in a hotel merely because he's South African. He was released early after six days (standard COVID-19 quarantine is 14 days) after diplomatic tensions broke out over the treatment of Africans in China. As compensation, the staff responsible for enforcing the quarantine at the hotel gave the man a bouquet of flowers and a bag of fruit (I guess that makes up for everything?). They also took a photo with their released detainee, most likely in an attempt to help create some positive PR.
Following global outrage about the overall allegations of the mistreatment of Africans, the Chinese government responded by saying that all expats are equal when it comes to COVID-19 prevention and control. In mid-April, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong met with diplomats from more than 20 African countries to discuss the mistreatment of African people, particularly in Guangzhou. However, he continued to deny that anyone had been discriminated against.
The rising tide of Xenophobia towards expats in China is perhaps best summed up by a comic strip that went viral on Chinese social media in early April. Entitled “Sorting Foreign Trash”, male expats of various ethnicities are shown being thrown into different trash disposal units by men in Hazmat suits. Parts of the comic strip refer to reported cases of expats not following China’s COVID-19 prevention rules, such as not wearing face masks when required or breaking quarantine early. But other parts vent frustration at expats cutting in line, “trying to trick” Chinese women into having sex with them, and slamming China online — a sign perhaps that COVID-19 has exacerbated some unrelated but long-standing tensions between Chinese people and expats.
If you’re an expat living in China, there are a few things you can do to help avoid discrimination. In many Chinese cities, residents (including expats) can get a QR code via their mobile phone that gives them a colour coding of red, yellow or green, depending on where they’ve been and who they’ve been in contact with. Apps in other cities give a detailed breakdown of where a person has been in the last 14 days. In most cases, this (and probably a mask) should be enough to get you into any venue you please. It’s a faff, but follow the rules like everyone else and you’re unlikely to come up against any problems, particularly since most foreigners have been banned from entering China since March 28. Most of us who are here have therefore been in the country at least since then.
In rare cases, however, you may find yourself discriminated against purely for the fact that you are foreign. I have personally experienced rejections from venues in Beijing, albeit on very few occasions. The reason given was that my expat friends and I “looked foreign” and that our presence might attract the unwanted attention of the local neighborhood watch. Whether this kind of reasoning is still commonplace throughout China, I don’t know.
To be clear, this has only caused minor inconveniences in my daily life and pales in comparison to the cases of Africans being evicted from their homes or Asians being violently attacked in the street. It is, however, frustrating and annoying. If this happens to you, the easiest and least confrontational thing to do is, of course, take it on the chin and pick another venue. If you feel very strongly that you need to make a stance, however, you could ask to see the manager of the establishment, shame the venue online, or tell the local neighborhood committee or even the police. If you have been badly wronged, such as kicked out of your accommodation for no good reason, you could also appeal to your embassy for help. Whether or not any of this will actually remedy your immediate situation is debatable, but it might make you feel a bit better, at least.
Racism and xenophobia are not unique to the West, China or even this epidemic. Let’s just hope such sentiments die out as soon as possible along with the virus itself.
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Keywords: COVID racism in China
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