#CoronaRacism: China’s Second Wave of the Pandemic

Is China experiencing a second wave of #CoronaRacism?

By: Eline Jeanne & Mikhail Yakovlev

Over the past few weeks, there has been an alarming spike in racist and hateful incidents against Asian communities around the world, as many blame China—and by default, anyone who looks like they could be Chinese—for the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Most media outlets are rightly focussing on documenting the growing numbers of dead and infected, and shortages of PPE in hospitals around the world. A senior media scholar at the University of Zurich, Dr Jing Zeng emphasises that a handful of “sensationalist media is exacerbating racist coronavirus fears.”  

However, far less documented is an equally disturbing trend in People’s Republic of China (PRC): a spike in racism against the country’s Black minority communities. 

PRC’s Guangzhou province is home to the largest African diaspora community in Asia. Many Africans started coming to Gangzhou during the mid-nineties, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) liberalized the country’s economy. More Africans came to the region as Beijing started deepening its relationship with several African governments. The promise of scholarships and business opportunities have lured a diverse expat community, earning Guangzhou the nickname “Little Africa.” On the flip side, there is no path to permanent residency for foreigners, leaving many who have chosen to start a life in China feeling unsettled, and marginalized. 

Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus, this marginalization has blown into a full-on attack. Many African expat communities have reported being denied service at restaurants, and even kicked out of their own apartments. Others have been targeted for quarantine and mass-testing with no explanation. Recently, the situation has got so extreme that even Chinese officials in Guangzhou admit that Black people who live in China have “reasonable concerns” about “Corona racism.” 

It isn’t just Black people—foreigners of other races have also been experiencing discrimination, as some locals blame them for the country’s “second wave” of the Coronavirus. According to The Guardian, multiple expats have experienced a rise in suspicion from locals, triggered by their appearance, and assumed association with Europe—where the Coronavirus is currently striking the hardest. 

However, many white foreigners in China were quick to say that their experiences do not even come close to the amount of racism that Asian communities are facing in Europe or the United States, or what Black people are facing in China.

Just like in other places around the world, sensationalist media – especially social media – has been used to feed the flames of #CoronaRacism against Black communities in China. Much of this content draws on traditional racist tropes, pushing the narrative that Africans (and “illegal migrants” from neighbouring countries) are importing the second wave of the Coronavirus to China.  

One particularly popular cartoon depicts foreigners as “trash to be sorted,” and illustrated the foreigner in question as a black person. The cartoon explicitly criticises mixed relationships and pushes a stereotype that Black people are overly sexual, and pass on sexual diseases more than other races. 

A similar cartoon, captioned “Beware of a second outbreak started by foreign garbage”, shows a white figure atop a floating pile of rubbish get pushed across the ocean. 

But, what are the reasons behind #CoronaRacism in Chinese media? Why are Black and African people disproportionately affected? 

Similar to many other parts of the world, China has a long-running tradition of anti-Black and anti-African racism. In 2018, Zheng Churun [郑楚然, pen name大兔 (Dà tù)] – one of the ‘Feminist Five’ – published a Mandarin-language post on WeChat titled ‘China Has No Problem With Racism, And That’s A Problem.’ In it, Zeng criticised fellow WeChat users for calling out white racism against Asian people, while refusing to look at the anti-Black prejudice across China. 

This post went viral before being promptly censored by the app.  

This brings us to another point: the People’s Republic of China’s media is government controlled, and therefore highly censored. While snippets of China’s racism against Black and African communities has made it into media articles and social media posts that we can see, it is not that easy to gauge the scope of xenophobia and racism – or how the Chinese public views them – from abroad. 

One thing is clear, however: the blame game did not start with foreigners. Before the virus went global, the original scapegoats were the Uyghur communities of East Turkestan (also referred to as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region by PRC authorities). Despite few officially-recorded cases of COVID-19 in the region, the Chinese authorities were eager to claim that some Uyghur men had been violating the lockdown. As punishment, they used social media to spread videos of these men with signs around their necks, reading – “We didn’t follow official orders to stay indoors, instead we went outside and walk around aimlessly like donkeys.” 

Comparing a particular racial, ethnic or religious group to ‘animals’ is one of the oldest and most effective strategies of dehumanisation. Making a person wear a sign around the neck that compares him to an animal physically reduces this person to the status of cattle. When Donald J. Trump referred to migrants as “animals” critics in the media rightly called him out for evoking “an ugly history of dehumanisation”. No similar backlash occurred against China’s racist propaganda campaign against Uyghurs—another sign that this kind of casual racism is a fact of life.  

No matter where in the world you are, #CoronaRacism is an ugly side of the Coronavirus pandemic, that is quickly turning into a violent force of its own. It is important that the media reports on the rise in hate with as much attention to detail and context as when reporting about the disease, with a goal of finding a cure.