Published on Sunday, February 2, 2020

Coronavirus fears spark anti-Chinese xenophobia

Health issues are not the only symptoms of the fast-spreading coronavirus across Asia and beyond. Almost as widespread are fear, mistrust - and increasingly, xenophobia.  Anti-Chinese sentiment has grown.

Not only has it taken root by anonymous keyboard warriors on social media with thinly-veiled racist comments, but also in the real world.

In Singapore, tens of thousands of residents signed a petition calling for the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the country, and this has now come into force.

This is a major decision for Singapore considering its population is overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese. The city state has 16 confirmed coronavirus cases.

'Sorry, no Chinese allowed' signs have been posted on restaurants and stores across the region, from Japan to Vietnam, while Thais are shunning shopping malls popular with Chinese tourists.

A week ago a group of more than 150 Chinese tourists were effectively holed up in a hotel in Bukittingi, West Sumatra in Indonesia due to protests from worried residents. Although it remained peaceful, they eventually left the tourist town by police escort. That led to a call from Indonesia's transport minister to 'treat them politely.'

The mistrust is spreading well beyond targeting visiting tourists. The Toronto Public Health agency cites 'unnecessary stigma against members of our community' due to misinformation, while in the UK an Anglo-Chinese family recently returned from a trip to China saying they are being shunned by their neighbours.

"Orientalist assumptions plus political distrust plus health concerns are a pretty powerful combination," says Charlotte Setijadi, an anthropologist who teaches at Singapore Management University.

The anti-Chinese feeling is being whipped up by emotive headlines with racist overtones such as 'Yellow Peril' and 'Chinese Virus Panda-monium.'

The non-Chinese East Asian diaspora in many countries are feeling the heat too.  Asians have been verbally abused and booted off trains in France and Italy and even South Korean super group BTS have been the butt of online trolling.

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