Who’s afraid of China? A reaction towards the spread of coronavirus

External Relations

Before being called Democratic Popular Republic, it could be useful to remember that China used to be known worldwide as the Celestial Empire. Thus, far from still being “celestial”, China stayed an Empire even though it has been forced to restructure its political, economic and social foundation on newer and more flexible settings.

China is the country with the largest population in the world (1,3 billion) representing the second biggest economy on the planet (third, if we count the European Union as a single country) and counting 2 million people actively serving in the Chinese army. 260 cities in China host more than 1 million inhabitants and, due to such dimensions and the ramping Chinese industrial processes, China became the first country in the world for carbon footprint. As for the International Monetary Fund most recent forecast, in 2025 China will carry out its industrial requalification plan, and the “Chinese Dream” of full modernization will be finally accomplished in 2049.

The greatness of the Chinese Empire has always been something Western countries had dealt with, since the early stages of XIII century. The rich and undeniably flourishing trade in arts, the spectacular architecture of traditional buildings, and the profound spirituality of this country – all these things (and much more indeed) stunned and fascinated western travelers and missionaries across centuries. Charm translated soon in interest and interest took a range of different forms – some of them sneaky and at the detriment of the Chinese economy – from political to economic ones. Western emissaries strived to create deeper and deeper gaps between the center and the periphery of the Chinese society, in order to fill that political vacuum, installing the presence of Western political entities and representations, thus contributing to eroding Chinese authority across the country. This “Divide Et Impera” approach, structured on the imposition to Chinese authorities of “Unequal Treaties” with European states, easily collided with the imperial pride, thus escalating in what everybody knows as the “Opium war” in 1839.

Since then, China and the perception of that country worldwide rapidly changed depending on the political stance of different members of the international community. China became a competitive partner, sometimes an ally, while more often an enemy to combat.

The United States of America was the first nation in history to experience anti-Chinese sentiment. In the 19th century, the era of the “Great Gold Rush” on the West Coast, the demand for labor gathered tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants from their homeland to California and contiguous states. The mine owners initially approved the massive income of workers because of the low wages demanded by Chinese people in comparison to those of the pioneers and for their incredible endurance and efficiency to the most humble and tiring jobs.

In the following years, because of the decline of the Qing dynasty, more and more Chinese decided to migrate, moving mainly to California, the region with the highest number of job opportunities as for factories and the mining sector. Employers’ preference for hiring Chinese people rather Americans, due to the competitive advantages that those people generated (less expensive, excellent workers), caused the first waves of violence against immigrants. The first historical case dates to October 24, 1871 in Los Angeles, when an angry mob of American and Mexican working-class individuals, without income nor job, entered the local Chinatown, blaming immigrants for their living conditions and killing most of the residents.

Between 1870 and 1880, the U.S. government passed several regulations regarding Chinese immigration because of the problems it brought to the local community, the most important of which is the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

Relations between China and the Western world became limping across centuries. From WW1 to WW2, there is plenty of historical examples delineating a fluid and troubled relationship. Governments did shape public opinion; therefore China became soon an enemy not just at an higher political level, but also at a lower, more common and everyday level – between low-skilled workers and ethnic groups. The term “Yellow Peril” refers to white apprehension, peaking in the late 19th century, that the Europeans and Americans would be displaced by a massive influx of East Asians. People became afraid of these incoming fluxes of immigrants who would have filled their nation with a foreign culture, with speech incomprehensible to those already there and steal jobs away from the European inhabitants and that they would eventually take over and destroy their civilization, ways of life, culture and values – in a way that Samuel P. Huntington defined as a “clash” between civilizations. The term “Yellow Peril” has also referred to the belief and fear that East Asian societies would invade and attack Western societies, wage war with them and lead to their eventual destruction, demise and eradication. Consequently, the American Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of Asians because they were considered an “undesirable” race.

This troubled relationship lasted during Cold-war years too, and today, the explosion of the  – unreasonably  feared – coronavirus in the Chinese province of Wuhan, and the spreading of contagion across countries and continents determined a new wave of racism targeting Asian people and Chinese in particular.

As for European countries, in Italy, the European country with the highest annual number of Chinese tourists, the confirmation of two confirmed cases coincided with incidents of xenophobia and calls to avoid Chinese restaurants and shops. In Rome, Mr Roberto Giuliani, the director of the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, one of the oldest music institutes in the world, was criticised by colleagues on Wednesday after telling students from China, Japan and South Korea not to come to class until after a doctor had visited their homes to ensure they have not contracted the virus. And last, but not least, a cafe near the Trevi fountain in Rome exposed an ignominious sign outside saying “all people coming from China” were barred from entering.

One of the most direct consequences of the illness apparently was not solidarity, rather than despicable and widespread xenophobia.

Fears over the coronavirus have affected Chinese populations in other countries, too. Recently, the mayor of Toronto condemned racism against Chinese Canadians, and there have also been reports of anti-Asian racism in the UK. Further, in France, Chinese residents have been sharing their experiences using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus).

In Italy, there have been long queues in chemists across the country to purchase face masks. As Roberta Siliquini, a former president of Italy’s higher health council, put it down for the Telegraph, the paranoia was unsurprising even if it went “beyond logical sense”.

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