Coronavirus epidemic: a conundrum on Chinese imperialism and xenophobia

Tuesday, February 4, 2020 - 12:45pm

People wearing protective masks in Macau, China

People wearing protective masks in Macau, China Buy this photo
Macau Photo Agency via Unsplash

News Flash! You can criticize the Chinese Communist government and the Chinese imperialism sympathizers for the coronavirus epidemic while standing against racism and xenophobia, as you should.

For the past month, Asians in the diaspora have been speaking up against racism and xenophobia they have encountered because of the coronavirus epidemic. The narrative that Asian folx are dirty and diseased based on the fact that coronavirus started in China skews the perception of Asians in the public eye. For example, the UC-Berkeley health center received backlash by saying that “recognizing any of [the xenophobic actions] can be normal reactions.” 

Yesterday, a man in Chinatown in Sydney suffered from a heart attack and people were scared to give CPR because of the fear of the epidemic. Many insensitive memes about the epidemic and negative connotation of Asians have also surfaced on the internet and around our communities in the U.S. lately. In reality, if you are currently living in the U.S. and have not been to China for the past month, you are more likely to catch the flu and die from it than the coronavirus. 

On the other hand, leftists on social media, specifically the tankies, have criticized the racialization and are also so quick to draw conclusions that it is western propaganda to report the epidemic in a way that vilifies the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government. Whenever any political issue involving the United States and China relations comes up, it is exhausting to see that a lot of diasporic Asian folx in “leftist spaces” have such a U.S.-centric understanding of the imperial power in the 21st century. I always have to let you gaslight my lived experiences as a Hongkonger before I can chip in my two cents to debunk your fake-wokeness on China. The PRC government doesn’t actually care about the well-being of its everyday citizens, it only cares about economic stability so that the ones who hold political and economic power in China can harvest their fruits of social capitalism in the name of being “communist.”

Let me be clear here, we should stand against all forms of racism and xenophobia and we will continue to do so while living under oppressive structures upheld by white supremacy. Criticism of the crisis control on the PRC government’s end does not make it acceptable at all for anyone to make microaggressive jokes about the epidemic or make hateful comments about any Asian people. This is not only extremely disrespectful to patients, everyday citizens and clinical staff who are suffering from the epidemic in Asia, but it also feeds into the racist narrative that people of color are dirty and diseased. 

In short, people who care about social issues should start having more intuitive thoughts and discussions about the root causes of these problems and how countries use borders as a colonial construct to impose their nationalist agendas in the 21st century. I am writing from the perspective that I have witnessed fear from the epidemic and government mishandling in the last few days of my winter break in Hong Kong and have close friends and family back home who are terrified. It is important to recognize that I am NOT analyzing from a diasporic lens. Today, China is not a developing country, it is an imperial power, actively commiting genocide and colonizing Lands in Tibet, “Xinjiang,” Sri Lanka and countries in Africa. Since the Great Leap Forward and economic reform in 1978, the class barriers and wealth disparity we all witness in the capitalist countries like the U.S. can also be seen in mainland China under social capitalism. It is dangerous to think in a binary sense that standing against U.S. imperialism is to deny Han Chinese imperialism, when in fact they are mutually exclusive. It is reasonable to critique the lack of health measures and policies in any fascist, imperial country.

Here are some puzzle pieces I have gathered of this epidemic:

During 2003, the PRC government covered up the SARS epidemic, until it spread across Hong Kong, leading to 286 deaths confirmed in Hong Kong alone. The SARS virus is fundamentally the same as the coronavirus in terms of its root causes and biostructure. It is reasonable for the PRC government to take the SARS epidemic as a lesson to take more preventative actions. However, PRC covered up data and figures of coronavirus for at least two weeks before it realized the escalation and eventually declared emergency.

While food culture and habits should not be mocked or racialized, research has proven that both the 2003 SARS epidemic and coronavirus potentially stemmed from  the wildlife markets. Medical researchers around the world have warned China to stay alert when consuming wildlife during the aftermath of the SARS epidemic and to establish heavier health measures and legal actions on endangered animals. Despite having Wildlife Protection Law in place since 1988 and last amended in 2003, many loopholes exist, leading to failure in actual implementations. 

A few days before China declared an emergency in Wuhan, 8 people on the Weibo blog posted about the urgency and escalation of the coronavirus. Not only did the local district government not act upon it, but they also arrested them for “misinformation,” potentially destabilizing the state, when they were telling the truth. These 8 people are still jailed at this moment. Additionally, a self-proclaimed Wuhan citizen has publicly expressed fear over the lockdown and anger towards the PRC government recently in a video.

Contrary to many news sources stating that the first case of coronavirus was confirmed on December 31st in Wuhan, recent medical research from the medical school at the University of New England has shown that the earliest signs of human transmitted coronavirus can be traced back to mid-December. 

Due to increased tension between Taiwan and PRC, China has prevented Taiwan’s involvement in the World’s Health Organization including the international emergency implementation against the coronavirus epidemic. Since the geographic distance between China and Taiwan is so close, this deeply impacts Taiwan, as they do not receive information from WHO in a timely matter or have any say within WHO. China also has close ties with WHO. Diplomatic sources in Geneva criticized the late declaration for an emergency, suspecting that the close ties between China and the UN lead to biases and questionable credibility of WHO.

Since hospitals in China are mostly occupied, high-speed rail border entry increased by 40% in Hong Kong last Monday. Many rushed to Hong Kong last week to seek treatment when most hospitals in Hong Kong were already overcrowded by an average of 113% in the first place, having huge health and fire hazards. Clinical staff in HK were so frustrated that 3600 clinical staff are unionizing and planning to go on strike. Chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, described the medical staff strikers as “using extreme means to beleaguer Hospital Authority.” 

HKU medical school has successfully developed a coronavirus preliminary vaccine, but the Hong Kong government decided to withdraw $250M of research funding for HKU medical teaching facilities due to the Hong Kong protests. Public hospital staff has not received any overtime compensation working overtime in high-stress environments either. To give you a comparison, Hong Kong police, infamous for its brutality for the past 7 months in Hong Kong protests, has just received $950M of funding from the Hong Kong government for overtime compensation last month.

To reiterate, speaking on the PRC government’s failure on health measures doesn’t mean it’s okay for anyone to make fun of this epidemic, but rather get everyone to think more critically of the root cause and what is actually happening here. You can be critical of a government without being racist or xenophobic. It is unproductive to twist criticisms as U.S. propaganda. In fact, while we are criticizing the health measures from this epidemic, let’s also have discussions on the U.S.’s poor public health implementation as well, especially when 34,200 Americans died during flu season last winter. Comparatively, measles is one of the most common viral infections in the U.S. since the 1900s largely affects patients who are not vaccinated. Let’s start having conversations about what kind of global changes in public health we should be implementing as we carry hope for our future generations. If health crises aren’t thrown onto a political playground by imperial regimes, we can be way more productive with healthcare systems and more cognizant with epidemics. And to white people in the west, next time you joke about having coronavirus when you cough without covering your mouth, consider asking yourself if you have gotten your flu shot yet this year.