As coronavirus sparks anti-Chinese racism, xenophobia rises in China itself

(ABC) – As people of Asian descent face xenophobic attacks worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, foreigners in China are also increasingly reporting incidents of hostility and discrimination.

A comic posted to the popular social media platform Weibo last week, entitled An Illustrated Handbook on How to Sort Foreign Garbage, depicted foreigners being thrown into waste bins and disinfected by people in hazmat suits for supposedly breaching China’s strict lockdown restrictions.

One vignette depicts a dark-skinned man in a rubbish bin, with a caption reading: “I was invited here. Yet you can’t even satisfy these little requests.”

Foreigners in the comic are targeted for “disposal” for a range of other alleged immoral acts, such as publicly praising China but secretly posting anti-China opinions online, scamming Chinese women into providing sex and money, and attacking health workers after testing positive for coronavirus.

“The epidemic prevention work has not yet finished. I didn’t expect to have to sort foreign garbage again,” laments one of the hazmat-clad officials.

Paul Mozur, a reporter for the New York Times based in Shanghai, tweeted that “two weeks ago I was called 洋垃圾/foreign trash while quietly eating at a restaurant. These cartoons inflame already nasty sentiment.”

It’s not the first time foreigners have been depicted as a threat to public safety. In 2016, local officials in Beijing ran a public awareness campaign cautioning Chinese citizens against dating foreigners, who they claimed could turn out to be spies.

Closing the borders to stop contagion

As it has claimed to have the pandemic under control, the Chinese Government has increasingly emphasised the threat of imported cases.

The number of new cases appears to have stabilised in China while skyrocketing in the US and Europe, but the official figures from China have been brought under scrutiny.

For example, a Washington Post report last week suggested that the death toll in Wuhan alone could be as high as 42,000 — 16 times the official total.

China’s National Health Commission this week reported there had been no new domestically transmitted cases of COVID-19, and that all of the 32 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported on Monday were from overseas.

For the first time since the pandemic began, no new deaths were reported.

While Beijing slammed Australia’s decision to issue a ban on travellers from mainland China back in February, the Chinese Government closed their borders to all foreign nationals last month in an attempt to stop a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

In a statement issued on March 26, the Foreign Ministry said it had decided to “temporarily suspend the entry into China by foreign nationals holding visas or residence permits”.

Kynan, an Australian based in Shanghai who asked to have his surname withheld, told the ABC “if I leave now I’m like banned indefinitely.”

Around 90 per cent of imported cases in China have been returning Chinese nationals, according to official data.

Nevertheless, foreigners have reported being visited especially by local party officials or police to ensure they are abiding by quarantine restrictions.

As businesses reopen, a fear of expatriates spreading COVID-19 also appears to be motivating some shops and restaurants to bar them from service.

Jim Boyce, a Beijing-based restaurant reviewer, tweeted a shop’s sign near his house in the Chinese capital reading: “We do not accept foreign friends.”

RF Parsley, another expatriate based in Beijing, posted a video of himself being turned away from a barber shop.

Workers there told him they had been instructed by local officials not to serve “foreign friends”.

Canadian national Kyle Hadfield has lived in China for 14 years and runs an online group for expats.

“There has been a big increase in animosity towards foreigners and expats in China during the coronavirus outbreak, especially over the last couple of weeks,” he told the ABC.

People would weave away from him on the footpath or walk out of a lift as he entered, Mr Hadfield said.

“When a Chinese person overseas has a sign saying, ‘I am not a virus’, I kind of feel like I want to wear the same sign here,” he said.

Mr Hadfield, who has a wife and a daughter who are Chinese, said it is disheartening that he was facing xenophobia in the country he considers home.

‘Special treatment’ of foreigners sparks anger

Last week, three foreign nationals reportedly jumped the queue for COVID-19 testing in China’s eastern city, Qingdao, which angered local residents and caused a stir on social media.

The People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper, condemned the behaviour in an editorial, arguing that foreign citizens should not enjoy “special treatment”.

“China always attaches great importance to the safety and health of foreign nationals in China and protects their legitimate rights and interests in accordance with law,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian when asked about complaints of rising xenophobia this week.

Foreigners’ alleged refusal to wear protective face masks is another point of frustration among many.

Last month, an Australian woman was fired and ordered to leave China after she breached lockdown conditions to exercise outside.

The case caused widespread anger on Chinese social media, with one Weibo user commenting: “Our nation won’t welcome people who don’t respect our regulations.”

Even the state-run Global Times newspaper reported that the pandemic was leading to “unhappy or suspected discrimination experiences” against expatriates.

Kynan said, however, that he had not experienced discrimination.

“Can’t say I’ve felt much difference here in Shanghai,” he said, adding that he’d “been to a few restaurants and bars which have been all fine apart from checking my [temperature].”

Xenophobia on the rise globally

US President Donald Trump has been accused of fuelling hate crimes against Asian-Americans by insisting on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus”.

Chinese state media and senior officials have, meanwhile, promoted conspiracy theories, including that the disease originated in the United States or Italy, rather than China.

The Australian Human Rights Commission recently told the ABC that around a quarter of people who have lodged complaints about racial discrimination in the past two months have been targeted because of COVID-19.

A video posted to social media this week appeared to show an Australian man verbally abusing people outside the Chinese consulate in Sydney.

“Combatting the epidemic requires tackling its darker sides,” said Fernand de Varennes, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, in a statement.

“Firm actions by states and all of us to safeguard the human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised, including minorities, Indigenous communities and migrants, are urgent and necessary,” he said.