Amid the coronavirus pandemic, ethnic Chinese worldwide have been encountering racial assaults. Some restaurants in both Asian and Western countries, including South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada, prohibit the entry of ethnic Chinese. Individuals of Chinese descent who live overseas feel they are part of a threatening and diseased mass, as the public believes most, if not all, Chinese-looking individuals are potential COVID-19 carriers. Employees for private companies, like Uber and Lyft, have been refusing to give rides to those who look East Asian or display Chinese-sounding last names.
While Beijing has lashed out against anti-Chinese discrimination and racism globally, it has encouraged racist behaviors against foreigners at home.. For example, in the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, Africans have been ejected from hotels, arrested or deported. They have also been forced to undertake a 14-day quarantine and COVID-19 tests, despite an absence of recent travel or contact with, suspected or actual, COVID-19 carriers. Caucasians living in China, likewise, suffer from verbal and racial assaults, being referred to as “foreign trash” and told to go back to their countries if they fail to wear masks in public.
Beijing accuses foreign countries of a lack of humanity by allowing any practice of anti-Chinese exclusion. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) encourages the spread of ethnic conflicts and tensions, implicitly attempting to influence nationals to develop a sense of superiority over individuals of other races. The ethnic tensions could result in mutual fear between Chinese and foreign nationals, consolidating the former group’s development of ethnic and cultural solidarity as to restrict the latter group from gaining socio-cultural influence.
This is not the first time Beijing has attempted to reinforce Chinese nationals’ solidarity against foreign influence In 2016, Chinese officials in Beijing organized a public awareness campaign about the “dangers” of dating foreigners, stating they could be spies. Rather than defending the importance of inclusion, harmony, and humanity, the CCP’s criticisms against foreign powers are often politically motivated.
Beijing seemingly covered up their initial spread of the COVID-19 but has denied such an accusation of inhumane behaviors in order to avoid political and economic consequences. Beijing has additionally denounced Western governments’ impotence to contain the virus, but has failed to follow Taiwan and other countries in exporting their medical supplies unconditionally and selflessly.
While China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has used the pandemic to shore up his political power at home and exert influence abroad, the means that the Communist Party has deployed to achieve this goal are threatening China’s international standing. It is crucial for governments to coordinate globally by prioritizing health over political power. However, Xi Jinping’s regime has unduly taken advantage of a humanitarian crisis in order to consolidate China’s dominance over both advanced and subordinate economies. China has touted the superiority of its top-down authoritarian model of governance over Western-style democracies. It is now portraying itself as a savior to the world by providing medical supplies with “propagandized” media coverage.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s so-called “mask diplomacy” has sparked outrage across the world. The pushback against the Chinese government’s actions and statements is growing. In the past weeks, the media and officials in Britain, France and Germany have issued stern protests and have rebuked China’s assertive diplomacy. Such a growing anti-China sentiment could have profound implications for China’s image as a nation and shatter Xi’s global ambitions. Specifically, it could jeopardize his signature foreign policy initiative—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—which he is currently pushing forward to a new dimension: the “health silk road.” While BRI sought to increase cultural exchange and public diplomacy abroad, allowing xenophobia at home raises the question about the authenticity of China’s intentions.
The transactional nature of Chinese diplomacy has also tarnished its image of benevolence. In exchange for helping countries with medical supplies, China has demanded recipient countries recognize China’s model of epidemic prevention and control. In exchange for supplies, China also expects countries to not condemn or hold it accountable for the initial mishandling of the outbreak. In one instance, the Chinese consulate in Chicago pressed a lawmaker in Wisconsin to draft a resolution supporting China’s efforts to fight the virus. This has increased concerns among ordinary Americans. A recent Pew Research survey found that Americans’ unfavorable views towards China are at an all-time high of 66 percent, compared to only 40 percent in 2012. U.S. domestic suspicion of China has translated into political pressure on American lawmakers. Missouri became the first state to sue the Chinese government over its handling of the COVID-19.
The pandemic is not the only reason for the rapid erosion of China’s global image—it is simply the latest addition. Anti-Chinese sentiments had been on the rise globally, especially in Africa and the Middle East, even prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19. Those grievances have largely been driven by China’s assertiveness, increasing trade surpluses, as well as its repressive domestic practices on minorities. With all these existing angers, the virus ignited a firestorm of criticism, which has now made its way into more mainstream outlets.
It is necessary for China to demonstrate its commitment to ethnic inclusion. Beijing should not discredit foreign nationals of African and Caucasian descent as being COVID-19 carriers and spies unless such claims are supported by credible evidence. The CCP can only persuasively urge foreign countries to embrace visitors of Chinese nationals if China itself has continually included individuals of any ethnicity and nationality. If humanity is China’s primary concern, Beijing should cancel its mask diplomacy policy and unconditionally give out public health resources to countries in need. To accomplish massive multistate foreign policy goals like the BRI, China needs to earn foreign states’ respect and foreign publics’ affinity. Transactionalism during a pandemic is not the way to earn this esteem. If China continues its path of politicizing the discourse on humanity and disparaging foreign powers or nationals, anti-Chinese sentiments globally will continue to grow and China’s dream of worldwide influence could be in jeopardy.
Anu Anwar is an affiliate scholar at the East-West Centre, US, and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, the University of Tokyo, Japan.
Jason Hung is a researcher and writer who held research attachments at Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley and King’s College, London.