Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 3, March 2020
By Ho-fung Hung, Johns Hopkins University
As the coronavirus global pandemic is unfolding and deteriorating, an age-old racial stereotype that associates contagious diseases with Asian/Chinese people reemerged. Reports about Asians being beaten up and accused of bringing the disease to the community are disheartening. The use of the phrase “sick man of Asia” in connection to the outbreak and calling the disease “Wuhan pneumonia” or “Chinese virus” invoked accusations of racism. We in higher education kept hearing episodes of Asian students harassed by comments from fellow students or faculty that associate them with the virus.
This racial association of contagious diseases often surfaces with epidemics in history. During the SARS epidemics of 2003, Western media was full of articles, images, and cartoons that explicitly characterized the diseases as an Asian one, as my research documented. In medieval Europe, the spread of epidemics like bubonic plagues often triggered harassment or even massacre of ethnic minorities such as Jewish people. Perennial as it is, this racial association is not only harmful but is also counterproductive to the effective containment of the disease. Epidemics know no ethnic boundary. They always spread beyond ethnic lines very quickly. The racial association of disease makes us overlook carriers who happen to be not among the stereotyped groups. We have to combat xenophobic racism at the time of an epidemic as hard as we can.
Having said that, we need to be clear that our fight against racial stereotyping should not prevent us from discussing the China-origins of the virus and blaming the Chinese government for causing this global public health crisis. On February 3, Xi Jinping made a speech to the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee and emphasized the importance of “taking the initiative to influence international opinion” about the epidemics. Since then, Chinese official media has been diligently criticizing foreign governments’ vigilance against the disease as overreaction and racism.. Ironically, Beijing chastised foreign governments for restricting travelers from China while it was itself putting tens of millions of Chinese citizens in lockdown. The WHO, which has been questioned for being heavily influenced by Beijing, kept praising China and telling the world not to overreact instead of warning the world how severe is the disease.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying commented on the same day of Xi Jinping’s speech that the US policy of restricting travelers from China was “violating civil rights,” “excessive,” and “could create and spread panic.” She even spread the misleading and unscientific notion that that the Coronavirus was less severe than the common flu in the US. Streams of English articles in Chinese official media suggested the measures of restricting travelers from China by the US and other countries were as bad as the racist Muslim travel ban. Chinese consulates around the world did not waste any opportunity to criticize any travel restriction measure as overreaction that only increases panic. On February 6, Hua said China “deplore[d] and oppose[d]” countries that suspended flights from China, saying such suspensions are “wrongdoings” that only “sowed panic among the public” and “will not help prevent and control the epidemic.” She complained these measures “have gravely disrupted normal personnel exchanges, international cooperation and order of the international market of air transportation.” When asked about the Chinese government’s response to the Wall Street Journal article discussing China’s financial vulnerability and titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” Hua Chunying called the article author Walter Russell Mead by name. She suggested that “you [Mead] should be ashamed of your words, your arrogance, your prejudice and your ignorance.” Then she went on to repeat the misinformation that the Coronavirus is less severe than the US common flu:
I want to draw Mr. Mead’s attention to the following facts. The H1N1 flu that broke out in the US in 2009 has a mortality rate as high as 17.4%, and according to the report by the US CDC issued at the end of January, the 2019-2020 seasonal influenza in the US has infected 19 million people and killed at least 10,000 people. Compared with the current pneumonia outbreak in China, Mr. Mead, anything more you’d like to say?
Without a doubt, the virus originated from Wuhan, China. An investigative report by Chinese media Caixin reconstructed how the disease emerged and concluded that the first confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission appeared in Wuhan in late December. The South China Morning Post, owned by Alibaba’s Jack Ma, obtained secret government documents and reported that the government knew of the first confirmed case as early as November 17. The Chinese government ordered a cover-up from the beginning by destroying all tested samples and muffling any whistleblowers who tried to warn their fellow Chinese citizens and the world about the virus.
Genetic sequencing research shows that the first cases of Coronavirus in Europe and the US entered from China as early as mid-January when Beijing was still busy covering up about the disease and assuring the world nothing serious was going on. Had Beijing been transparent about the virus from the beginning in late December and taken the aggressive quarantine measures that it took later, the disease would have been effectively contained locally in Wuhan. The world would have regulated and monitored travelers from China earlier and prevented the global spread of the virus better. Italy banned flights from China on January 31, and the US banned the entry of foreign nationals who had visited China in the previous 14 days on February 2. But as it turns out, the outbreak in the US and Italy had already started quietly before the travel restriction began. Their situation would have been even worse had they not imposed the travel restriction at all.
In contrast, Taiwan, despite its proximity and intensive economic and civil exchanges with China, successfully prevented an outbreak, and the accumulated case as of March 16 stood at 67. It is nothing short of a miracle. One key to Taiwan’s success is that the Taiwan government, run by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which just won a landslide election in January, did not trust the words of Beijing and WHO that nothing serious was going on. Taiwan treated the rumor about a mysterious new disease in Wuhan seriously despite Beijing’s and WHO’s denial. It acted early and decisively. Taiwan authorities inspected plane passengers coming from Wuhan starting December 31, banned Wuhan residents from entering on January 23, and suspended all tours to China on January 25, disregarding criticism from the pro-Beijing camp in Taiwan that these measures were Sinophobic and discriminatory.
To be sure, the disease has already evolved into a pandemic, and the forefront of combating the virus has moved from China to other countries like the US and Italy. It is now the leadership of these countries’ governments and the vigilance of their people that matter most in this global battle. But holding the Chinese government accountable for causing this global crisis in the first place is still crucial. Many courageous Chinese netizens and activists were trying very hard to speak out about the responsibility of the Chinese government despite the draconian censorship and the consequences of speaking out.
Winner of Nobel Prize in Economics Amartya Sen, when discussing the authoritarian origins of China’s Great Leap Famine of 1959-61 and contrasting it with the disappearance of famine in democratic India despite its poverty, argued that:
And yet there is an inescapable fragility in any authoritarian system, since there is little remedy when the government leaders change their priority in a counterproductive direction. The reality of that danger revealed itself in catastrophic form in the Chinese famine of 1959–62, which killed at least 30 million people, when the regime failed to understand what was going on and there was no public pressure against its policies, as would have arisen in a functioning democracy. The policy mistakes continued throughout these three years of devastating famine. There was not only no politically significant opposition (and no criticism of the disastrous policies pursued by the government) but the information blackout was so complete with censorship and control of the state media that government itself came to be deceived by its own propaganda and believed that the country had 100 million more metric tons of rice than it actually had.
These dynamics of how censorship and information blackout enabled a famine to grow quietly into a disaster are similar to the making of epidemics like the Coronavirus. They are no natural disasters but human-made ones created by Beijing and the centralized authoritarian system that it upheld. Blaming the Chinese for the Coronavirus is racism, blaming the Chinese government for it is not. We should not let Beijing exonerate itself from the responsibility of causing this global crisis by hiding behind the noble banner of anti-racism. Holding Beijing and the political system it represents accountable is not Sinophobia. It is our responsibility if we want to prevent similar global disasters from ever again starting in China or any other authoritarian country.
Ho-fung Hung is Henry M. & Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld Professor in Political Economy at the Department of Sociology & School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.