March 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of the mass global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the pandemic has been hard on everyone, it has been especially difficult in China and for Asian people living in the U.S, as they grapple with the virus and the racism that consequently succeeds it. Heightened racism towards Asian people has resulted in increased violence, with 3,000 anti-Asian incidents having been reported since the beginning of the pandemic. Donald Trump has fuelled anti-Asian rhetoric by constantly referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus,” however, Sinophobia has been constant throughout American history, media, and culture.
Global power dynamics and the interests of the U.S empire are shaping this spike in anti-Asian racism. Tensions between the U.S and China have been high since 1949, and now recently during Trump’s “Trade Wars,” the Hong Kong protests, and China’s growing economic dominance. The U.S state has vested interests in upholding the narrative of Chinese people as uncivilized and barbaric “others” who are responsible for the virus and deserving of their suffering. By looking at the historical trajectory of the U.S/China relationship, the politicization of disease, and the differences in Chinese/American COVID-19 responses, it becomes clear that this racism is not new – it is intentional, and it is dangerous.
Historical Context: U.S & China
The history of Chinese immigration to the U.S demonstrates that tensions between Americans and Chinese immigrants grew due to socio-economic pressures. To begin with, the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 between Britain and China left China economically devastated and, alongside the California Gold Rush of 1848, created the conditions for an influx of Chinese immigration to the U.S. Resentment between Chinese immigrants and white miners quickly grew due to competition in the labor market. Chinese immigrants were faced with an economic bind between sending money back home, repaying their loans to Chinese merchants who paid for their voyage, and the $3 monthly “foreign miners tax.” These factors gave Chinese laborers no other choice, but to settle for whatever wages they could find. The fear that the Chinese were “squeezing Americans out of their jobs” led to heightened violence, along with panic about Chinese culture lowering “the cultural and moral standards” of American society.
To add, Chinese women were restricted from immigrating to the U.S, creating a “bachelor society” where Chinese men allegedly congregated to visit prostitutes, smoke opium, and “seduce” white women. This eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first American law restricting immigration to the U.S, which lasted until 1943. Despite Chinese labor greatly contributing to the U.S economy and creating some of America’s best cities and railroads, there is an underlying sentiment that they are fundamentally un-American. Further, the Cold War and McCarthyism era of the 1950’s solidified American fears about communism, the “rising tide” of China, and immigration.
The Politicization of Disease
The history of Chinese immigration to the U.S sets a necessary backdrop for the surge in Anti-Asian racism; and because it has been sparked by COVID-19, it is important to unpack the intricate and historical relationship between imperialism, disease, and racism. Disease has been used to communicate messages about “undesirable” groups of people without explicitly saying anything incriminating. The hypocrisy of Western criticism about COVID-19 being China’s “fault” fails to account for the proliferation of zoonotic diseases (diseases coming from animals) that began with the era of European conquest. Contemporarily, 75% of all diseases are zoonotic, which is unsurprising considering, globally, that we consume about 350 million tonnes of meat each year. In the context of COVID-19, the association of the virus with “barbaric” Chinese eating habits promotes a racist understanding of the pandemic based on Orientalism.
In this context, Orientalism refers to the Western perception of the “Orient” or the far East that imagines, exaggerates, and distorts differences of Asian people and cultures in opposition to the West. Reports that linked the virus outbreak to a Wuhan Wet Market (exotic wildlife market) and the viral “bat” video re-surfacing at the beginning of the pandemic, reaffirmed stereotypes that Americans already had about Chinese customs. Jenny G. Zhang comments on the hypocrisy, stating “that some animals are socially permissible to eat, while others are not, is a belief in one’s own cultural hegemony.” Opposition to others’ cultural practices often creates apathy and reinforces differences between East and West.
The threat of disease has been used in American anti-immigrant and xenophobic laws and discourse for decades. The racialized aspect of COVID-19 is not new and is strikingly similar to the language that was used to talk about Ebola (another zoonotic disease), which depicted Africa as a “dark and diseased continent” with poor hygiene and dietary practices. The framing of these diseases by American media outlets that use the language of “national health and security risks” not only depicts people of color as disease-carriers but also fuels American nationalism. The spread of disease instills fear in the public, who then urge the state to “control,” or “contain” something. With COVID-19 and Ebola, it was the border. Although closing borders is sometimes necessary to stop the spread of disease, when it is coupled with racist language and targets one group of people it becomes problematic.The long-standing trope that migrants bring diseases that threaten the safety of Americans is connected to ideas about these countries being uncivilized and racially inferior. Diseases become a political playground that ignites xenophobia and eugenicist logic (white racial purity), which reduces the “other” as a danger to the nation, rather than people who should be respected as equals.
Contemporary Tensions: Responses to COVID-19
Evidently, there are layered elements as to why COVID-19 has been heavily racialized. Orientalism highlights how the East and the West are imagined to be the opposite of one another; it illustrates the notion of the “uncivilized” and “authoritarian” East in contrast to the “civilized” and “democratic” West. The Western media has been instrumental in contributing to this narrative by giving political commentary that favors democracy over other political systems. Western media outlets continue to discredit Asian responses, such as building hospitals within days, by reducing them to “cultural values” as opposed to competent leadership.
For example, a Wall Street Journal article emphasizing the importance of the “Confucian emphasis on respect for authority” faced widespread backlash. One Foreign Policy article wrote back to the Wall Street Journal, arguing that pointing to differences in cultural norms in this way actually contributed to outbreaks in the U.S. By “seeing Asia as an unrelatable other, [or] a place so fundamentally different from the West that no knowledge or experience is transferable” the American government did not learn from the Asian response and acted complacently. The Foreign Policy article goes on to explain that the reduction of Asia’s success in containing the virus is based on the limited view of the Asian population as not only meek and compliant but as a homogenous population.
Thus, the reasoning behind the differences in COVID-19 responses between the East and West is actually another manifestation of the decades-old political struggle between democracy and communism. Trump calling it the “China Virus” has a double meaning: in the minds of American politicians like Trump, China’s authoritarianism and dominance are spreading with the disease. COVID-19 is used as a metaphor for the Chinese political system, veiling American anxieties about emerging Chinese economic influence.
Anti-Asian Racism in America
Lastly, the result of decades of Sinophobia – fear of Chinese taking American jobs, fear of Chinese culture and economy “taking over,” and fear of the “diseased other” – is widespread anti-Asian racism. In 2020 alone, 2 elderly Asian women were punched in the head in separate incidents on the New York City subway, an 89-year-old Chinese woman was set on fire in the streets of Brooklyn, and an 84-year-old Thai man died after being violently knocked to the ground. One study indicated that 81.5% of Asian youth have reported being bullied or verbally harrassed, and at least 20 robberies have been reported in the Chinatown neighborhood of Oakland, California.
These instances of violence highlight how racist connotations related to the virus have been placed on Asian people of all ethnicities and nationalities, not just Chinese people. This in itself is another aspect of the legacy of orientalism which homogenizes the entire Asian population as simply being Chinese. Umbrella terms and sweeping statements about Asia increase tensions and minimize the ethnicities and cultures of an entire continent because, as Jenny G. Zhang comments, “in the eyes of the people who hate us, we all may as well be the same.”
The Asian community is included in the nation when it is beneficial to the U.S state – during war, when the state is targeting other communities, or when there is a railroad to be built. They are scapegoated when they no longer benefit or pose a threat to America’s imagined identity. While this surge in racism is structural and historical, it is important for individuals to challenge their own relationships with the Asian members of their community, not as commodities or tropes, but as human beings who are deserving of support and empathy during this deadly pandemic.