Butterfly Effect: Who’s More Racist?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A novel strain of competitive racism is taking birth in the shadow of the pandemic.
As a worker in a hazmat suit holds a fumigation spray gun, another grabs a foreigner by his T-shirt, lifts him up and dumps him into a garbage can as punishment for ostensibly contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. The racist and violent cartoon could have come straight from the Donald Trump meme playbook — but it’s actually from China.
Posted on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook earlier this month, the cartoon was part of a series titled “An illustrated handbook on how to sort foreign trash.” It exposes a disturbing pattern with consequences that may linger even once the pandemic passes: competitive racism from the world’s two biggest powers.
At a time when Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, are facing tough questions about their handling of the health and economic crises in their countries, stoking xenophobia might serve their interests in shoring up domestic political support and in sharpening their diplomatic swords. But it’s also dragging the world into a parallel war at a time when the battle against COVID-19 is far from over.
It started with Trump repeatedly referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” even as hate crimes in the United States against people of Asian origin mounted. Trump supporter and Texas Sen. John Cornyn blamed Chinese culture, “where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” And although Trump has since spoken out against attacks on Chinese Americans, that apparently doesn’t count when it comes to his own reelection campaign.
A new Trump ad that presents presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as soft on Beijing portrays two-time Washington state Gov. Gary Locke — a third-generation Chinese American — as a Chinese official. Locke has also served as the nation’s commerce secretary and ambassador to Beijing.
China has hit back by also pandering to stereotypes. The cartoon series on Weibo has since been taken down, but a tweet by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggesting that American soldiers could have brought the virus to Wuhan — the epicenter of the outbreak in China — remains untouched. “It might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent!” Zhao wrote on Twitter — ironically, the social media platform is banned in China — in March. The U.S. Army was one of more than 100 teams that had participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan in October.
Zhao’s tweet also appeared to be a nod to the old conspiracy theory that HIV was first cooked up in a U.S. Army laboratory, and to the history of American soldiers spreading sexually transmitted diseases locally during their stints in South Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
Meanwhile, multiple reports have emerged of Africans in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou being evicted from hotels and rented apartments and being forced to take coronavirus tests regardless of their travel history. That has led to African officials dressing down Chinese envoys in capitals such as Abuja, Nigeria — unusual occurrences given that Beijing is the top trade and investment partner for much of the continent.
At the same time, Trump’s attack on the World Health Organization for what he has labeled its “China-centric” response to the crisis is sparking a backlash in Africa in addition to China. The continent’s leaders have rallied around WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who formerly served as Ethiopia’s minister of foreign affairs. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, current chair of the African Union, said last week that the “AU calls upon the international community to join hands to support the efforts of the DG.” Rwandan President Paul Kagame echoed Ramaphosa. On Tuesday, Trump said he was stopping U.S. funding for the WHO.
The racism wars are sucking in other countries too. Last week, China sought an apology from Brazil after the country’s education minister, Abraham Weintraub, suggested that Beijing had deliberately let the virus loose. “Geopolitically, who will come out stronger from this global crisis?” Weintraub wrote on Twitter. “Who in Brazil is allied with this infallible plan for world domination?” In Portuguese, he replaced the letter “r” in Brazil with an “l” for a pronunciation commonly used to mock Chinese accents.
Of course, the U.S. and China are no strangers to racism directed against their own ethnic minorities, “outsiders” and other nations. Anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. is older than communism in the Asian giant. Anti-African racism in China isn’t new either. Yet, historically, the two countries have tried to maintain a veneer: America as a crusader for human rights and democracy, and China as the BFF of poor countries throwing off the yoke of Western colonialism. So far, there has been much less pretense this time.
What does that mean for the world? At a time when the coronavirus is still wreaking havoc in one country after another, we can ill afford a global divide poisoned by ethnic divisions.
And when the world’s two most powerful countries legitimize the use of racism as a political and foreign policy tool, the implications run deep. Like the virus, expect it to spread. In India, right-wing supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are fanning the flames of Islamophobia, citing a Muslim cult whose gatherings emerged as an early hot spot in the country.
The virus will eventually fade, especially once a vaccine is ready. But if we’re not careful, we’ll be left with a new pandemic of racism — and science has no cure for that.