The outbreak of COVID-19 is eerily similar to the scenarios of sensationalist Hollywood disaster films that usually top box office hits worldwide. The plot is surreal: In a truly globalized world, the sudden outbreak of an unknown deadly epidemic forces a megacity of 11 million in an Orwellian regime into mass quarantine and threatens the peaceful lives of the rest of the world.
Unlike previous global epidemics, such as H1N1, the new coronavirus is associated with a race, a culture and a problematic political regime, especially in the infodemic. The global panic is accompanied by rumors, conspiracy theories, and condemnations about the country where the virus began: China. In the midst of epidemic mayhem, Chinese or those identified by others to be Chinese, found themselves at the end of exclusion, verbal abuse, and physical attacks. Whether it is about a Singaporean in London, a student from Hong Kong in Italy, a Chinese fencing student in Australia, phenotype – skin color, almond-shaped brown eyes, black hair – may have become the primary shortcut for identifying persons deemed dangerous.
How do we understand the increasing Sinophobia and blatant racist behaviors targeting those whose phenotype marks them as Chinese, or, in the language of the white gaze, the “yellow race”? As two anthropologists of Chinese “race,” it is with a mixture of dismay and caution that we observe the white supremacist gaze and reductionist terror that have become increasingly and excessively flagrant in the Western world by tracing the historical development of the imaginary of China and Chinese people in the West.
Discourses about the virus and the epidemic has reignited certain age-old underlying anxieties about the idea of “China”: their people are racialized in the West, their food is weird and at times unimaginable, and their country is a threatening economic and political power. In this imaginary, China and Chinese are two racialized notions essentialized as interchangeable in the West, representing, at the same time, an indistinguishable geographical notion and people.
The racialization of the “Orientals” is nothing new in the West. China and Chinese peoples have long been demonized by the Western world. They are perceived by some to be inherently dangerous to the Western race, civilization, and social order. In the USA, Chinese men were portrayed as a threat as early as during the Gold Rush of the late nineteenth century. The term “Yellow Peril”, popularized at the time, represented Western fears that East Asians would arrive in a horde to the West to pollute the white race and disrupt their values. One notable example of the fear of “Yellow Peril” is an anti-Chinese cartoon from 1886, depicting a Chinese man as a monster with a human head and eight octopus tentacles instead of arms. In each tentacle, the monster is clutching a different danger, including typhoid, opium, gambling addiction, and immorality.
The “Yellow Peril” discourse normalized the anti-Chinese racism that was further baked into actual laws, official policies, as well as citizens’ everyday life. Take the United States as an example, whereby the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited practically all immigration of Chinese laborers to the country, while several states enacted anti-miscegenation laws against interracial marriages between Asian men and white women. The early anti-Chinese racism in the US was in fact the blueprint for later forms of racism including anti-Japanese, anti-Latinos, anti-Muslims sentiments and prejudice, throughout the twentieth century until today.
During the Cold War, the democratic West identified its biggest threat as Communism. Included were those of Chinese descent who align with the democratic West in rejecting communism as they were less dangerous. Historian Madeline Hsu highlights in The Good Immigrants how US policy making contributed to constructing a new image of Asian Americans as model minorities, leaving behind the older racist “Yellow Peril” stereotype. This is in tandem with the nation building project of “multicultural” societies such as the USA, Canada, andAustralia. White settler colonial societies produced ideas of a cultural pluralism that is accompanied by processes of control and normalization which center “whiteness”. Chinese immigrants in the West, however, like many other people of color, continue to be treated as “perpetual foreigners” due to their phenotypic difference and perceived unbridgeable cultural differences such as eating habits.
In the post-Cold War era, China was incorporated economically into the global capitalist regime, all the while maintaining its different political and ideological structure. As European imperialism and Cold War rivalries waned in the last century, US-Europe dominated geopolitics encountered unexpectedly a non-Western growing economic power in the world. China would grow not only to resist the West dominated political and cultural order, but also become a threat to their perceived superior modernist and democratic values, rooted in western liberal ideology. The influx of millions of Chinese including labor migrants, professionals, and economic elites to the West further raised alarmist concerns about changing demographics and cultural erosion from within.
Anxieties about China are not groundless. The rise of China and its dramatic progress in reducing poverty is overshadowed by its political and social reality as a single-party nation that censors dissent, suppresses the cultures of ethnic minorities and many socially disadvantaged groups. On the pretext that China had once again become the birthplace of an infectious global pandemic, insecurities of a waning liberal West, an uncertain economic future and the reversal of a political and economic order can finally be expressed in racist forms.
“China” emerges as what anthropologist Mary Douglas would categorize as an “impure matter out of place” in her seminal work Purity and Danger. She suggests that things which fit poorly in the European social and cultural structure can be perceived as impure, and therefore dangerous. It represents a kind of destructive power that threatens the social order of the West. In her interpretation, discrimination against Jews in the past can be explained in this way because of their sinister but undefinable advantages not only in commerce but their being “outside the formal structure of Christendom”. It seems that the power of a reified idea of China and Chinese as problematic and impure by the Western ideology led to the conflation of an entire racialized Chinese population with undesirable political regimes.
Western liberal ideology carries with it the inherent ambivalence between the desire of purifying the imaginary Other and the anxiety of being contaminated. One cannot forget that the West, in the name of defending its liberal and democratic ideals and social order, carried out harsh political and military operations resulting in the violent destruction of social fabric and the loss of innocent lives across the world. For instance, more than 26,000 bombs rained down on countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan under the Obama administration. The imprecision of the favored drone strikes has resulted in the killing of thousands of civilians.
Tracing East-West encounters, it is fairly transparent that the now taken-for-granted imaginary of China took shape in the West, together with its expansive and brutal imperialism, global capitalism, and modernist supremacy. We believe it is important to reflect the connections between covid-19 and the historical imaginaries of Chinese people and its homogeneous and ahistorical culture in the West, as well as its relational positionality as a political and economic entity. While the contamination of covid-19 is indeed an urgent global issue, the gravity of the social repercussions, whether it is in the transparent form of verbal or physical abuse of East Asian bodies or less blatant racist yet politicized infodemic, must be taken seriously.
~ Grazia Ting Deng is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Population Studies and Training Centre (PSTC) of Brown University
~ Ping-hsiu Alice Lin is a PhD candidate in anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong