Social media campaigns such as “Je Ne Suis Pas Un Virus” (“I am not a virus”), a hashtag started by Asian people in France to combat xenophobia, have inspired others to take a stand against the growing climate of fear and mistrust. Photo: Twitter
by Lijia Zhang
by Lijia Zhang

Coronavirus triggers an ugly rash of racism as the old ideas of ‘Yellow Peril’ and ‘sick man of Asia’ return

  • A headline referring to China as the ‘sick man of Asia’, a cartoon of the Chinese flag with stars replaced by coronaviruses, an increase in xenophobic incidents against Chinese people: the epidemic seems to have brought out people’s uglier side
Fear of the ‘ Yellow Peril’ seems to have returned as the novel coronavirus spreads globally. The outbreak has unleashed an underlying prejudice against Asians, in particular Chinese.

Time and again, I have read stories on my social media groups about how fellow Chinese have experienced verbal and even physical abuse in Britain, simply because of their race. Some were told to go home. One student in Sheffield was harassed for wearing a face mask. A Chinese doctor’s practice had a coronavirus sign painted over it.

Around the world, anti-China sentiment is bubbling over. Some restaurants in Vietnam, Japan and Italy are refusing entry to Chinese. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, courted controversy by publishing a cartoon version of the Chinese flag with viruses in place of the five stars.

On February 3, The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Walter Russell Mead titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia”, with the subtitle: “Its financial markets may be even more dangerous than its wildlife markets.”

Whatever the author’s issue with China, it is shocking that a mainstream media outlet would use such a headline, which insults not only the Chinese government but also ordinary Chinese people. I wonder whether whoever came up with it really understands the historical context of the term sick man of Asia.

It actually refers to the sickly state of China in the late 19th and early 20th century, bullied by Western powers and plagued by internal divisions.

This term is strongly associated with events regarded as a national humiliation, such as the Opium war, a series of unfair treaties the Qing government signed with Western nations, pressured by their superior weapons, and the burning of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. To this day, the scars caused by that humiliation run deep among Chinese people.

For them, “sick man of Asia” is a derogatory reference, and triggers painful memories of the country’s darkest days. Back then, the term also referenced the poor physical health of Chinese people, thanks to the appalling lack of hygiene and overwhelming poverty.

Why hygiene fears strike at the heart of modern China

As China was the sick man of Asia, so Chinese were regarded as the “Yellow Peril”. At the tail end of the 19th century, German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II reportedly came up with the term after he saw, in his dream, Buddha riding a dragon, threatening to invade Europe.

Even if he did not coin the term, Wilhelm popularised the psycho-cultural perception of the so-called civilised world – that is, the Anglo-Saxon empires – in danger of being overrun by the yellow-skinned East Asians (the Chinese and Japanese).

He then encouraged European powers to conquer and colonise China. In 1898, Germany coerced China into leasing it 553 square kilometres in its northeast, including Qingdao, for 99 years. That was another event of national humiliation.

Even before the aggressive German emperor, however, white supremacists in the US had embraced the “Asian menace” theory, demanding that the government bar immigration of “filthy yellow hordes” of Chinese.

The white labour unions lobbied to keep out Chinese, claiming that some Chinese malaises were more virulent than white ones. This led to America’s 1882 China Exclusion Act, an immigration law that prevented Chinese labour from entering the US. It was revoked in 1943 but old prejudices persist.

One editorial from 1954, for example, in the influential New York Tribune newspaper, described the Chinese thus: “They are uncivilised, unclean, filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute, and of the basest order.”

The second coronavirus is a ‘moron strain’ driving social media panic

In a 2014 review of the book Perceptions of the East – Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear, sinologist Leung Wing-fai explains that: “The phrase yellow peril (sometimes yellow terror or yellow spectre) … blends Western anxieties about sex, racist fears of the alien other, and the Spenglerian belief that the West will become outnumbered and enslaved by the East.”

Some experts have noticed that only certain disease outbreaks have been racialised. Those that originated from China, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and the novel coronavirus, as well as Ebola from Africa, led to a racial backlash. However, this did not happen with the swine flu pandemic that originated in North America or “mad cow disease” from Britain.

When millions of Chinese are suffering, racist headlines and comments are doubly insensitive and inappropriate. It only perpetuates the stereotype that Asians are disease-ridden. Fear and racism feed on each other, and both hinder our fight against the virus.

Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus