Over the past few weeks, the subject of anti-Asian racism has received an unusual degree of Western media attention, ever since a video showing the January 28 killing of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant in San Francisco, was widely shared on social media. Coverage intensified when gunman Robert Aaron Long targeted three Asian-owned spas on March 6, killing six Asian women among eight victims in Atlanta, Georgia. Local and national media centered the gunman’s professed motive of a “sex addiction” and police statements disputing whether the crime was racially motivated, even though gendered racism is still a factor when racist incidents don’t meet the narrow and arbitrary requirements of what constitutes a hate crime (FAIR.org, 3/26/21).
While this has given more exposure to the longstanding history of racism towards Asian people in the West, as well as the various ways Asians are often gaslit by having their racial oppression trivialized, Western news outlets have also deceptively omitted the centrality of media-promoted Sinophobia to this latest spike in hate crimes toward anyone perceived to be Chinese.
Western media reports throughout the pandemic have presented the most obvious explanations behind the spike in anti-Asian violence, settling on the Trump administration’s repeated use of the phrase “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu,” even after being informed that such rhetoric fuels the risk of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian people.
Time (3/20/20) pointed out that Trump was “part of a long history of associating diseases with foreign countries.” USA Today (2/11/21) reported that “racist rhetoric about the coronavirus pandemic may be fueling a rise in hate incidents.” The Los Angeles Times (3/5/21), reporting on a study that found anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 major cities had risen 149% last year—while total hate crimes against all minority groups had dropped 7%—declared that “the rise is almost certainly related to the pandemic.”
But the Trump administration wasn’t the only actor associating COVID-19 with China. Asian writers (Salon, 2/7/20; CNN, 3/28/20) have pointed out the racist logic often employed by the scientific community and Western media in naming an epidemic: If a virus is believed to have originated from and is circulating in Western countries, either refer to it by a generic numerical designation (e.g. H1N1), or reference the animal believed to be responsible for the zoonotic spillover (e.g., Mad Cow Disease, Swine Flu). If the virus is first detected in a country that the West has stereotyped, then the epidemic will be named after the region it’s believed to have originated from (e.g., Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, West Nile Virus).
The World Health Organization (WHO), breaking with this tradition in 2015, officially named the novel coronavirus that started the pandemic “COVID-19” on February 11, 2020, to avoid stigmatizing Chinese people, even though the virus was informally referred to as the “Wuhan Coronavirus” in Western media reports both before (e.g., New York Times, 1/21/20; CNN, 2/4/20; US News & World Report, 1/24/20), and after the WHO’s official designation (e.g., Fox, 12/29/20; BBC, 8/18/20). Indeed, towards the beginning of the pandemic, U.S. media outlets saw fit to publish loaded headlines in op-eds like “A Communist Coronavirus” (Wall Street Journal, 1/29/20), “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” (Wall Street Journal, 2/3/20) and “Coronavirus Spreads, and the World Pays for China’s Dictatorship” (New York Times, 1/29/20).
Despite WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus’s calls to avoid politicizing the virus and “pointing fingers,” because it would hinder international cooperation crucial to combating the pandemic, Western media have also echoed the Republican Party’s strategy of blaming China to avoid accountability for the US’s disastrous handling of the pandemic.
Foreign Policy ran an op-ed, “Yes, Blame China for the Virus” (3/25/20), dismissing calls to avoid politicizing the virus as “nonsense” because the Chinese government’s “missteps are directly responsible for its global transmission and uncontrolled spread.” The Atlantic ran another op-ed, “China Is Avoiding Blame by Trolling the World” (3/19/20), stating that the “evidence of China’s deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is a matter of public record,” and that the Chinese “regime imperiled not only its own country and its own citizens but also the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks.”
Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote “The Election Is Over. Can We Finally Blame China for the Pandemic?” (12/8/20) arguing that those who tried to avoid blaming China were merely attempting to suppress an inconvenient truth for political gain:
If the regime had taken action as soon as human-to-human transmission was detected, it might have prevented a worldwide pandemic. Instead, Chinese officials deliberately covered up the outbreak, punished doctors who tried to warn the public, intentionally lied to the world about the danger the virus posed, and proactively impeded the U.S. and international response. It is the Chinese regime’s lies and incompetence that are responsible for the most devastating and costly pandemic in American history.
Western media also ran op-eds demanding China pay “reparations” to other nations, asserting that China was not only to blame for the pandemic, but deserved to be punished: Newsweek (5/1/20) published an op-ed by far-right British politician Nigel Farage, which described the “liberal democracies of the West” as being “increasingly pitched against that clever, ruthless opponent called China,” and questioned whether “Western governments really have the collective nerve to ensure” China pays reparations to them. The Spectator (12/5/20) talked about “the need of the citizens of the world to be given reparations by China for what it did to us all this year.”
In “China Should Be Held Legally Liable for the Pandemic Damage It Has Done,” the Washington Post‘s Thiessen (4/9/20) declared, “Somebody has to pay for this unprecedented damage. That somebody should be the government of China.” He accused Beijing of “intentionally lying to the world about the danger of the virus, and proactively impeding a global response that might have prevented a worldwide contagion.”
The inevitable result of Western media actively assisting the Trump administration’s attempts to blame China for the world’s pandemic woes is to give rationalizations to those carrying out anti-Asian violence out of the racist belief that all Asians, wherever they are, are collectively guilty and worthy of punishment for perceived wrongdoings of the Chinese government. But pointing fingers at China doesn’t just inflame anti-Asian racism; it’s also factually inaccurate.
Western media narratives of a supposed Chinese “coverup” primarily hinge on the myth of the Chinese government punishing “whistleblower doctors” like Dr. Li Wenliang, and other falsehoods, such as the Chinese government denying that there was any human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 before January 20, 2020, or needlessly delaying the release of the SARS-CoV-2 genome (FAIR.org, 10/14/20, 1/20/21; CGTN, 4/23/20, 8/22/20).
What nearly all Western media reports criticizing China for not acting faster than it already did omit is that a joint mission report from WHO and China described the Chinese response as probably the most “ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” They also omit that earlier action and information probably would have made little difference, since countries like the U.S. didn’t act on the information it already had when the Chinese government initiated the unprecedented lockdown on Wuhan on January 23, 2020, which was widely dismissed and condemned by U.S. media outlets at the time for being “authoritarian” (e.g., Washington Post, 1/27/20; Atlantic, 1/24/20; Slate 1/24/20).
In actuality, the Chinese government and people went to extraordinary efforts to contain COVID-19, buying the rest of the world time to prepare for the pandemic (which countries like the U.S. squandered).
Foreigners and Chinese people living in China were motivated to produce the independent documentary Blaming Wuhan after seeing the blatant falsehoods and misrepresentations in Western media about what was happening on the ground in China, so that people could see and hear for themselves what Chinese life was really like. The documentary contains numerous testimonies showing that Chinese media’s unified science-based reporting to contain panic and prevent infection—along with the Chinese people’s expressed trust and respect for their government—led to widespread compliance with government directives, as opposed to complying out of fear. The documentary also attributes China’s success in containing the pandemic to greater cultural consideration for the collective good, as well as the government devoting significant resources to contain the virus.
Journalists also say, “Well, they’re only acting out of fear of the government,” as if it’s some evil fire-breathing regime that eats babies. I talked to lots of people outside the system—in hotels, on trains, in the streets at night.
They’re mobilized, like in a war, and it’s fear of the virus that was driving them. They really saw themselves as on the front lines of protecting the rest of China. And the world.
Despite this, Western media have promoted centuries-old racist stereotypes of Chinese people as exceptionally uncivilized and filthy. Western media reports like the New York Post’s “Revolting Video Shows Woman Devouring Bat Amid Coronavirus Outbreak” (1/23/20) reported on a “gag-inducing clip” featuring an “unidentified woman at an undisclosed restaurant in the Wuhan province clutching what appears to be a fruit bat with chopsticks while nibbling its wing like chicken.” The Daily Mirror’s “Coronavirus: Woman Eats Whole Bat in Disturbing Footage After Outbreak Linked to Soup” (1/24/20) described the video as a Chinese woman “eating a bat in a plush restaurant, despite fears the new deadly coronavirus could have been spread by a soup made from the mammal,” with bat soup being “a delicacy in the country and a popular dish in Wuhan, where the virus originated.”
In fact, the widely circulated video was first shared by Chinese social media users condemning the act, and was later revealed to be the host of an online travel show eating in the Micronesian nation of Palau in 2016. But when Western media operate within an Orientalist framework that depicts all Asian people as a barbaric monolith, factchecking crucial details like time and location don’t matter when they can spread clickbait articles by playing into racist stereotypes instead.
Before the origin theory of COVID-19 emerging from Wuhan “wet markets” was abandoned, I also criticized (FAIR.org, 5/7/20) how early Western media coverage falsely conflated what were called “wet markets” with wildlife markets, even though the vast majority of wet markets don’t keep or sell wildlife.
An op-ed in USA Today (4/8/20) from a former Shanghai-based journalist described how the “strangest animals for human consumption” to his “Western eyes” were “turtles, snakes and frogs,” before condemning Chinese “cultural traditions of medicine, animal husbandry and culinary tastes” for being a “unique incubator of terrible diseases.” Georgetown professor Bradley Blakeman wrote a patronizing op-ed (The Hill, 4/1/20) arguing that “China’s domestic demand and customs for exotic and live food are a direct threat to the health, safety and welfare of the world.”
Business Insider’s “Both the New Coronavirus and SARS Outbreaks Likely Started in Chinese ‘Wet Markets.’ Historic Photos Show What the Markets Looked Like” (2/6/20) maximized shock value and outrage by using photos that are up to 16 years old across China, along with images from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, which undermined the epidemiological need to be specific about what animal species the Huanan Market in Wuhan actually contained, and in what frequency. There are significant regional variations in cuisine in a country populated by over 1.3 billion people, and a more contextual approach would have informed audiences that wildlife actually isn’t commonly eaten in China—the practice being largely restricted to the southeast region and some towns—with one poll finding nearly 97% of Chinese people disapproving of the practice.
One can also find sources critical of the unsanitary eating habits of Americans, as well as them eating exotic meat like turtles, snakes, frogs, squirrels and camels, yet it still wouldn’t be fair to criticize all Americans for the peculiar eating habits of a few.
Reinforcing implicit bias
Western media have also made Asian people the face of the coronavirus from the very beginning of the pandemic, giving excuses for people who already held latent racist and xenophobic attitudes towards Asians to act on them under superficially plausible pretexts. Several reports have criticized Western media practices of lazily and insensitively using stock photos of Chinatown and Asian people wearing masks, even when the people getting infected and dying from the coronavirus weren’t Asian, or in Asian countries. Western media have also used photos of Asians wearing masks, even when the racial background of people testing positive for coronavirus haven’t been released in those reports, reinforcing implicit biases against Asians.
The most notable instance of this practice was when outlets like the New York Post and New York Times used images of East Asian people in Queens wearing masks on a story about New York City’s first confirmed COVID-19 case being in Manhattan, after contracting the virus in Iran. This particular story is especially ironic, because it was later revealed that New York City was the primary source of infection across the US, with most New York cases being traced back to Europe, not Asia.
The story of COVID-19 itself is especially ironic, as observers, including Indi Samarajiva in Sri Lanka, have pointed out that Western incompetence in containing the pandemic, and hoarding of vaccines, have been responsible for infecting and harming the rest of the world. Samarajiva (Medium, 5/4/20), along with FAIR (6/6/20), has criticized Western media coverage for praising and highlighting the Global North’s efforts in combating the pandemic, while downplaying the superior pandemic achievements of Asian nations in the Global South like China, Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala.
Yet white people have not been blamed or associated with the coronavirus the way Asians have in racialized Western media coverage. This is despite some white people leading anti-lockdown, anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests, along with the European Union and the U.S. having more than 58 million total confirmed cases as of April 7, 2021, with China barely surpassing 100,000 total confirmed cases—even though China has around double their combined population—according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.
US imperialism & anti-Asian racism
Several Asian observers have already made the connection between U.S. imperialism and expansionism in Asia, accompanied by bipartisan aggressive and fearmongering rhetoric about China, leading to racist stereotypes, anti-Asian violence and state persecution of Asian people (Nation, 3/19/21; Washington Post, 3/19/21). Dehumanizing portrayals of Asian people have been necessary to prepare Westerners to rationalize massacring millions of Asian people in the West’s historical legacy of invasion and colonization, as well as to justify paranoid and blanket state persecution of Asian people living in the West, often with many false accusations, and little evidence of alleged Chinese infiltration and espionage (e.g., USA Today, 8/23/20; Newsweek, 10/26/20; Foreign Policy, 9/28/20).
Looking at the alarmism in Western media coverage throughout the years, one can easily get the impression that China is a hostile and expansionist power seeking to dominate the world, as the U.S. has done since World War II:
- Axios (7/9/20): “China’s Extraterritorial Threat”
- Foreign Policy (10/12/19): “Can American Values Survive in a Chinese World?”
- Economist (10/4/18): “China Has Designs on Europe. Here Is How Europe Should Respond”
- The Week (3/29/18): “The Looming Threat of Chinese Imperialism”
- Washington Post (3/12/21): “China’s Rise Is Exactly the Kind of Threat NATO Exists to Stop”
- The Hill (1/21/21): “Xi Jinping’s China and Hitler’s Germany: Growing Parallels”
China has repeatedly declared its explicit desire for a “multipolar” world and “win/win cooperation,” with “no ambition to seek hegemony, much less to replace the United States,” which it contrasts with a U.S. preference for “unilateralism” and “zero-sum games” (People’s Daily, 9/10/20). As with most nations, China’s past and current foreign policy has unscrupulous aspects, but Chinese state media have also criticized the non sequitur that aspiring to become a more powerful nation necessarily means desiring world domination, citing the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence codified in China’s constitution (People’s Daily, 5/21/15). While government declarations of principles shouldn’t always be taken at face value, these are recognizably different arguments from Chinese media than the ones commonly found in U.S. media propagandizing the desirability and necessity of U.S. supremacy (FAIR.org, 12/11/20).
And despite Western media’s dehumanizing and incoherent portrayals of Chinese people being a monolith of brainwashed robots supportive of their government, while simultaneously being cognizant people with agency being governed against their will, one can find a wide diversity of opinion on China and the US’s place in the world there:
The debate around whether Chinese officials can be trusted generally ignores the question of whether U.S. officials can be trusted not to start a war, or fearmonger about an ascendant China to retain U.S. hegemony. A Defense News analysis (2/17/21) argued that “lawmakers, Pentagon leaders and defense industry–funded think tanks have been ramping up ‘great power competition’ rhetoric for years as a ploy to justify greater military spending,” and that China’s military investments are clearly “meant to keep invaders at a safe distance rather than project its own military power forward,” with the Chinese military advantages evaporating “beyond its shores.”
Even establishment commentator Fareed Zakaria (Washington Post, 3/18/21), generally noted for his celebration of U.S. power, mocked the threat inflation surrounding China, citing the U.S. having 20 times as many nuclear warheads as China, the U.S. having over 800 military bases around the world (many surrounding China) compared to China having as many as three, and China spending roughly only one-third as much annually on its military as the U.S. (FAIR.org, 10/1/19).
And while the Western-centric question of whether China is a threat to us is a convenient distraction from the more pertinent question of whether the US is a threat to China, the Union of Concerned Scientists (5/7/20), for example, has pointed out that China has had an unconditional no-first-use pledge ever since it first developed a nuclear deterrent in 1964, whereas the U.S. maintains the right to target China with a nuclear first strike. China is not planning to build a hostile missile network, or deploy Chinese soldiers near Western borders, as the U.S. is doing to China (Nikkei Asia, 3/5/21, 7/5/20). Despite being more powerful than ever, China has never invaded another country in over 40 years, whereas at least 800,000 people have been directly killed in the US’s ongoing post-9/11 wars.
As a Korean American, it’s not hard to see the parallels between today’s Sinophobic hysteria over China’s rise with historic white supremacist fears of nonwhite people seeking retribution, or inevitably becoming just as bad as their oppressors: from white slaveowners fearing revenge from newly freed slaves, to Western media paranoia about Black South Africans slaughtering white South Africans and Palestinians killing Jewish people upon ending apartheid (FAIR.org, 2/1/19). When one is aware that Western media spread the exact same Yellow Peril propaganda of deceptive and ruthless Chinese ambitions for global domination even while Western imperialist powers were dominating China during its Century of Humiliation—and before the Chinese Revolution brought the Communist Party of China to power—current speculations over China’s alleged desire for hegemony seem more like projections and an unfalsifiable thesis, rather than evidence-based fear.
While Western media like to self-present as “objective,” “impartial” and ideologically normative, FAIR has repeatedly criticized their bias in favor of white supremacy and the political and business establishment. And when we recall that US foreign policy has been designed by white supremacists, along with U.S. newsrooms remaining predominantly white, it’s fair to question whether race is still a factor behind U.S. foreign policy and Western media’s vilification of both the Chinese people and the Chinese government, especially when U.S. journalists have held more hostile views towards China than the general public (Columbia Journalism Review, 11/5/18; Newsweek, 5/2/19). With U.S. public opinion of China plummeting to all-time-lows as a result of the US’s expanded information warfare against China, it’s no surprise that Asian people are suffering from racist violence (Mintpress News, 5/18/20, 3/1/21).
It’s not inherently racist to criticize the Chinese government, but it is racist to insist on criticisms based on dubious evidence and outright falsehoods, or to prioritize hypocritical critiques of China when the West has committed more egregious atrocities than the worst Western media allegations against China (CounterPunch, 1/4/13; Mintpress News, 12/16/20). It’s racist to assume China is inherently dishonest, has nefarious motives behind all its actions, and presumed guilty of alleged wrongdoings without investigating the accuracy of Western media claims, or without critically considering non-Western views of China (e.g., Hankyoreh, 6/21/20; Medium, 10/26/20; South China Morning Post, 10/21/20). Yellow Peril and Red Scare propaganda has serious consequences for the Asian diaspora, as anti-Asian racism is spiking in Western countries as an inevitable result of Western imperialism (Time, 3/8/21).
Just as official condemnations of Islamophobia didn’t spare anyone perceived to be Muslim from state persecution and racist violence in the wake of the US’s post-9/11 wars, Asian people will continue to be targeted, despite disingenuous condemnations of anti-Asian racism, as long as the new Cold War against China continues. When many Westerners can’t even distinguish between hating the Chinese government and the Asian diaspora, it’s hard to believe familiar claims of only hating the Chinese government and not the Chinese people.