Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Sean McMinn
by Sean McMinn

Why Hong Kong students spreading racist coronavirus memes and blaming China are playing with fire

  • The Covid-19 crisis extends beyond Hong Kong politics and China. Singaporeans and Hongkongers have been racially targeted overseas because of the virus. Pinning the virus on China only reinforces bigotry and racism
There are some in Hong Kong, such as university student unions, who are purposely circulating memes hashtagged with #ChineseCoronaVirus, #WuhanPneumonia or some variation thereof through social media. Why? One can only assume the purpose is to keep the anti-China movement alive and demonise a people.

It’s important to analyse and evaluate why these people insist on using such labels for the novel coronavirus, in spite of the World Health Organisation’s recommendations.

As stated in a WHO document on “best practices for naming of new human infectious diseases”, we should “minimise unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups”.

Researchers have already argued that, given the use of social media in global communication, the choice of names like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and swine influenza “has had unintentional negative economic and social impacts by stigmatising certain industries or communities”.

Yet, many people who use labels like “Wuhan virus” continue to argue that it is common practice to name a disease after the place where the first outbreak occurred. An example often wrongly cited is the Spanish flu, the origin of which is still unclear.

This is sometimes followed up with comments suggesting that there should be fewer concerns about political correctness and that the Chinese shouldn’t have such low self-esteem. After all, as some of them claim, it’s China’s fault.

The intention of these arguments is rarely scientific and they only serve to belittle China. Just because something is accepted as common practice does not make it morally correct, politically correct, or scientifically informed. For the record, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was caused by an H1N1 virus.

Context and currency are also key. The fact that the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, is making its presence felt around the world makes all the difference. Its impact on our daily lives is more immediate, making it that much more tempting to blame a disease on a people.
Disease names like German measles and Japanese encephalitis are no longer strongly associated with a particular group of people because these diseases are not on people’s radar right now. However, Wuhan is still in the news and on people’s minds around the world. Continuing to call the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” is dangerous, in today’s connected world.

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There is one more dimension to why we need to be more critical of those who propagate labels like “Wuhan virus” to further political agendas.

The current Covid-19 crisis is an emergent phenomenon within a social complex system. Social complex systems can be defined as systems with multiple interactions between many different components (for example, individuals, communities, government bodies, viruses).

These interactions occur across different levels in societies. Unless we analyse them carefully, it is easy to miss feedback loops that have a negative impact or might even be life-threatening.

One possible feedback loop that requires attention now is how some people using Covid-19 to push political agendas are further inflaming anti-Asian sentiment overseas.

In today’s networked world, ideas are communicated faster than ever before. These ideas mutate, spread and infect. Sometimes malicious ideas like memes and hashtags incubate in isolated pockets of online communities and eventually corrupt a system.

In a social complex system, one idea can have multiple effects that are detrimental to social stability, as well as the war on Covid-19.

Biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his now famous book, The Selfish Gene. He derived the word from the Greek word “mimeme” because he wanted to create a “noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”.

To Dawkins’ mind, memes function in culture like genes, and can undergo variation, selection and retention. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a meme as “an idea, behaviour, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”.

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Internet memes behave similarly. They are replicated pieces of information that spread through the internet from user to user. A successful internet meme usually has a defined purpose: social commentary, political critique, social activism, parody, hoax or special interests.

There is little about the purpose of the people who advocate associating the virus with China. The people hashtagging online rhetoric with #WuhanPneumonia know exactly what they are doing.

They know the infectious power of internet memes with racially charged hashtags, how they make the misinformed sick with hatred, and how that sickness spreads quickly through online networks. After all, that’s what a meme does: it spreads ideas.

But the current Covid-19 crisis extends beyond China and politics. Singaporeans and Hongkongers have been racially targeted overseas because of the virus. Pinning the virus on China only emboldens that behaviour.

The coronavirus and Hong Kong’s social unrest are two different issues. Let’s be wiser and more on our guard against people who are manipulating the Covid-19 situation for political gain. US President Donald Trump was doing it to help his trade war with China. Hong Kong student unions are doing it to promote their anti-China agenda.

Let's not politicise Covid-19 and behave like mini-Trumps. Hong Kong, you’re better than that. You are not helping your political movement, you are not increasing people's awareness of Hong Kong’s social unrest or China’s lack of transparency, and you are definitely not helping those suffering from Covid-19.

What you are doing is reinforcing bigotry, racism and small-mindedness. You are allowing people to manipulate you for their own political purposes, and you might worsen the unrest.

If you want to make Hong Kong a better place, apply reason and logic. Stop swallowing online propaganda that could ultimately damage Hong Kong. People who are doing a Trump and propagating labels like “Chinese coronavirus” are unintentionally harming Hongkongers abroad, or worse. Think beyond your hatred.

Sean McMinn is an associate professor of language education at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and teaches an undergraduate course on digital literacy

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