In the three years since COVID-19 broke out in Mainland China, foreigners have continually seen the limited goodwill to mild tolerance of their presence in the country quickly dwindle. Rallied around an age-old misnomer that foreigners are dangerous, the spread of COVID-19 was tied to foreigners living in China, causing many to be evicted from their homes in cities like Guangzhou, South China, refused access to public spaces, and even denied medical attention in the period. All the while, global rhetoric around the spread of the disease was firmly rooted in a xenophobic belief that the virus was being spread by people of Chinese descent and other Asians, sparking a spate of xenophobic attacks against Asians in most of the Western world.
But while even world leaders like former US president Donald Trump amped up the anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment by calling COVID-19 the Wuhan virus and the China virus, a movement to decry the discrimination, racial profiling, and resultant hate crimes faced by Asians in countries like the US and France began to grow. “I am not a virus,” the rallying cry for the Stop Asian Hate campaign gained support both in the West and in China, where, while themselves facing the same kind of discrimination in China that the Chinese were facing in the West, foreigners still, by and large, decried the racism and xenophobia against Asians on account of COVID-19 fears.
China saw a change in the rhetoric around the origins and spread of COVID-19 only months into the pandemic. While the world accused the country of having been the birthplace of the virus, then spreading like wildfire, Chinese social media platform users pushed back, positing that foreigners, especially Black foreigners, were indeed the source of the virus, prompting the mass evictions of scores of Africans in the southern city of Guangzhou. These evictions, first denied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, soon became a diplomatic hot button issue, as several leaders of African states summoned Chinese envoys in their countries to explain why their nationals had been targeted and were victims of xenophobic attacks and mass evictions.
Establishments such as hotels in Guangzhou, a city that has long been a popular destination for traders from Africa, began to deny foreigners service, restaurant chains like Mcdonald’s put up notices that foreigners would not be served in their establishments, and cab-share drivers began to decline foreign passengers. All the while, Black and African people became targets of mass testing and quarantine, with numerous videos surfacing of health officials in hazmat suits ordering African residents in residential areas to get tested while not expecting their Chinese counterparts to do the same.
So strong was the belief that foreigners were the vectors that China’s indefinite border closure was met with joy and relief. Since then, as the government through various arms has continued to issue daily COVID aggregates, the press releases are rarely ever specific as to whether the imported cases blamed for current infection flareups in different regions in the country are local or foreign, leading locals to believe that all imported cases were indeed a direct result of foreigners’ entrance into the country further, confirming their fears. In its vagueness, and thanks to three years of the zero-COVID policy and no or delayed clarification on the rigorous testing and quarantine process foreigners entering or re-entering the country are subject to, the government has become complicit in the misinformation spreading among the Chinese population.
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The Chinese CDC’s own recommendation, now amended not to contain advice to avoid direct contact with foreigners as one of the primary ways to avoid being infected with Monkeypox harkens back to the panic sparked at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic around foreigners. It is also likely to exacerbate an already increasingly hostile environment against the LGBTQIA+ community caused by the government’s recent efforts in what it has termed the “anti-sissification” of Chinese men, as the CDC director not only revealed that the first Monkeypox case in China is a man who has sex with men (MSM) but also drew a parallel between the spread of Monkeypox and the AIDS epidemic, which has long been associated with Queer men and sub-Saharan Africans in the country.
Drawing such parallels, especially in a country where virulently racist and homophobic messages are shared daily on Chinese social media sites, directly puts the lives of local and foreign LGBTQIA+-identifying persons at risk. It exacerbates an already delicate balance in a world caught in a seemingly never-ending zero-COVID policy, as local and international mental health experts sound the alarm on the decline of mental health in China thanks to three years of sporadic lockdowns, mass testing, mass quarantines, increased unemployment, and general growing uncertainty, especially among the youth.
Foreigners, who have shared their displeasure and even uneasiness around such messaging, do the only thing they can do while in the country – retreat to their WeChat groups and share the unsettling experiences that remind them of the beginning of the pandemic. In one such group predominantly consisting of Black educators all over China, one such member lamented, “At this point, like, aren’t people just tired of being scared?”
Another, in the group that is also Queer-friendly, pointed out how the narrative around Monkeypox has shifted. “So instead of making it a foreign issue, they’ve made it a Gay issue to appease homophobes,” the commenter wrote. Others have taken this latest “health warning” as a sign to leave, joining the mass exodus of foreigners who have left or are planning to leave China, with one such foreigner saying, “I am trying to make it through the summer and head back to the UK. But I am really struggling to bite my lip and ignore the BS here.”
Another foreigner in the same group said, “But what’s a foreigner to do,” encapsulating the excruciating helplessness foreigners are again forced to endure. Many foreigners in China are educators who work predominantly with children and have to endure invasive tests on an annual basis where they are scanned for everything from pre-existing medical conditions to venereal diseases. Such a warning by the Chinese CDC could see another wave of foreigner dismissals from their current jobs since Chinese parents, especially those who pay for their children to attend international schools, are incredibly protective and overzealous at times in wanting to safeguard their “Little Emperors” from harm.
Sexuality, for both foreigners and locals, might also become a contentious issue in work and domestic spaces, as some might decide to hide their identities or return to the closet in fear that they will be profiled as possible Monkeypox vectors. This, in a country that offers no explicit legal protection against discrimination on account of one’s sexuality. In yet another Queer-friendly WeChat group, a commenter noted, “It would be an excuse to shut down Gay bars/clubs probably.”
As the world continues to observe China and takes note of statements made even by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning declining to comment on whether the ministry and government agree with the directive issued by the Chinese CDC, both the international and Queer communities anxiously await to see whether this too will be yet another reason to keep the borders closed, keeping those who haven’t left the country in three years from venturing beyond its borders for fear that a Monkeypox test and mandatory quarantine will be added to the list of hurdles one must jump to be allowed back into the country.
Denial’s the Name of the Game
Even with widespread condemnation from both locals and foreigners alike, the directive by China’s CDC has given occasion to the casual and blatant xenophobia and homophobia witnessed around issues of health and nationalism in the country. Foreigners aren’t immune either from issuing racist and homophobic statements, with a commenter under an article posted on the WeChat microblogging service amending the CDC director’s statement to what he believes he should have said, stating “He should have just said stay away from benders,” a direct reference to Monkeypox increasingly being associated with the gay community.
Comments under the CDC director’s original post have since been disabled, as it also came to light that he is among China’s growing ranks of professionals who studied abroad. A life outside of China, however, seems to do little to nothing to quell nationalist sentiments among China’s expanding middle class, who, in the last three years of the pandemic, have increasingly disavowed the West and all things Western, all the while maintaining a strict hierarchy of foreigners found desirable and thus worthy to not only educate their children but also act as status symbols both socially and professionally in the country.
Monkeypox being attributed to foreigners creates further conflict in a world where locals are trying to reconcile their love for their country and their desire to westernize “Chinese style” especially with a growing contingent of foreigners leaving the country to seek their fortunes elsewhere as informed by harsh lockdowns in major foreign hubs like Shanghai, and a generally unfavorable enduring sentiment against foreigners that has only deteriorated in the years since COVID-19 first broke out. If zero-COVID is a precursor of how the Chinese government is likely to deal with the likelihood of a Monkeypox outbreak and foreigners subsequently, then it might prompt even more foreigners to join the “the big exodus”, especially those in the LGBTQIA+ community for fear that they might be freshly vilified for not only their race and nationality but also their sexual identity.
What foreigners would perhaps like to impress upon the rest of Chinese society is xenophobic sentiments and policies do not benefit anyone. Both foreigners’ and locals’ fortunes are tied and if one loses then the other is likely to lose as well, though the correlation might not be quite so obvious to most. Even though the Chinese government introduced the Double Reduction policy to bring relief to overworked Chinese students, many schools, both private and public, still offer lessons from international educators, many of whom have been weighing their options as to whether it is worth remaining in China and face further public vitriol, or return home and contend with the Western world’s current reality of inflation.
Moreover, in the recent past, China has struggled to maintain the little international credibility it has gained in its rise to becoming a superpower economy, and while the mistreatment of foreigners within its borders and the indefinite closure of its borders aren’t broadcasted in-country, the international community is still noting the government’s inaction and incalcitrant attitude toward the matter.
Aside from the extensive coverage of African evictions and expulsions at the height of the pandemic in China, International media, which is routinely accused by Chinese state organs and agencies of being unfair, has also exposed countless accounts of racism and mistreatment of non-Chinese nationals in Chinese firms around the world, pointing to a sanctioned pattern of behavior, as often, when exposed, culprits in such wrongdoing are shielded and even publicly defended by fellow Chinese nationals. Social media is also awash with the horror stories of foreigners shipped off to quarantine with barely a warning, only to be disallowed entry back into their communities for fear that they might be contagious. These events are not lost on the international community, as China inches ever closer to a seat at the table of global financial and cultural leaders.
Foreigners who remain in the country are forced to readopt an approach of keeping a low profile and taking up as little space as possible, in a culture where the discomfort of locals, whether real or imagined, is never to be questioned, and is instead reaffirmed through the punishing of foreigners who are the cause of such discomfort. “The flip side of [saving] face culture is that everybody would rather find scapegoats than just fix the problem,” noted yet another foreign educator in a WeChat group conversation.
Casual racism, now medically weaponized threatens to turn an already COVID-fatigued society against the very same foreigners who have suffered beside them with the added pressure of being foreign, feared, and policed.
Photos: Unsplash, Weibo Screenshots, WeChat Screenshots
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