February 5, 2020

An Outbreak of Sinophobia and Schadenfreude in the West

Sinophobia goes more viral than the virus

Nowhere is man freer than on the field of battle, where it is a matter of life and death, wrote Leo Tolstoy. One way of determining people’s morality is by observing their reactions during a crisis.

Western audiences have offered three types of reactions to the recent virus outbreak in China: Sympathy, Sinophobia, and Schadenfreude. Sane westerners, one hopes, empathized with the victims, wishing the outbreak ends soon. Racists took advantage of it to indulge in stereotypes and memes. The third category, the western media, was delighted with the opportunity to insult the Chinese government.

Animal Instincts

The 1850s had come calling. Fake clickbait stories of Chinese (or people who looked Chinese but could be Korean or Vietnamese - who could tell these days?) eating bats, snakes, insects, or mice started circulating. Stereotypes about Chinese being “filthy” and being dirty carriers of disease made a comeback.  

Similar Sinophobic racism had surfaced during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Yet, those were early days of 24-hour news coverage, and social media was almost non-existent. Today’s technology worsens the disease. 

Upon hearing the (unverified) story that the virus spread through bats, the Daily Mail, a racist British tabloid, published a video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup. It didn’t matter than the video was from Palau, not China, and was filmed in 2016. Children started being harassed in school just for looking Chinese. French Chinese started a Twitter hashtag - JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I'm not a virus) – to counter the racism. 

It’s not entirely fair to say that Yellow Peril was back. It never left. Racism has always been central to western culture. Why change now?

Racism Lite

Slightly ahead on the Sinophobic spectrum came the mainstream western media. While their “wokeness” prevented them from succumbing to their natural orientalist tendencies – they filled the gap with Schadenfreude and White Superiority complex.

The more people the virus killed (425 at last count), the more the media killed their journalistic values. The New York Times led the horde, braying that the Chinese government’s response exposed “core flaws”, assuming perhaps that “democracies” handle health crisis better. Another article bellowed that the crisis could “humble China’s strongman” (their favorite word to describe President Xi Jinping). The Wall Street Journal was more direct, simply saying that China’s censorship helped spread the virus.  

Yes – there was some censorship in the beginning. Yet, today, few have been more forthcoming about this censorship than Chinese officials themselves, with the Supreme Court dropping the charges against the whistleblowers and praising them. The mayor of Wuhan admitted his mistakes and even offered to resign. 

In the initial days of an epidemic, obtaining accurate data is difficult.  Everything cannot be irresponsibly released without verification. Moreover, in this case, symptoms matched normal flu symptoms, making the virus difficult to detect. This obvious reluctance (and sometimes incompetence) of local officials was interpreted as some sort of nefarious conspiracy to silence critics at the cost of public health.  

Yet - do “democracies” handle health crises better? One way to find out is by focusing at what the western media won’t: facts. 

When they preach about “free speech”, do they mean the US, where Flint officials initially hid the true extent of lead poisoning, and where children and adults continue drinking poisoned water even today? Or where basic flu kills tens of thousands of Americans annually? 

Or do they mean India, where 67,000 people have been diagnosed so far with a preventable disease like dengue? Where 1108 children on average have died every year since 2014 in a single hospital in the city of Kota?

In China, by contrast, the response was sanctioned and mobilized at the highest level of government (a level which, in “democratic” US, is generally reserved for killing civilians using drones). More than 50 million people and 15 cities were quarantined. A 1000-bed hospital was planned to be built in 10 days, with workers being paid three times their normal wage. 

China put people over profits, taking the most un-American, un-capitalist steps to battle the outbreak:

  • Extending the Lunar New Year holiday
  • Banning online sellers from raising prices of masks
  • Canceling or delaying movie releases
  • Refunding train and flight cancellation charges
  • Suspending the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges
  • Accommodating delays in loan repayments
  • Prioritizing virus-related insurance claims

In the US, this is unthinkable. Imagine the corporate losses if whole cities and stock markets were shut down. US banks would probably increase interest rates in such a crisis.

Of course the Chinese system is not perfect. It is simply the least bad. 

And it paid off. While deaths have been rising (425 at last count), patients are also being cured. Experts estimate that the peak of the outbreak could be reached in 8-10 days. The WHO has praised China’s efforts relentlessly – denting celebrations in western newsrooms. 

The crisis will pass, but the Sinophobia won’t. They’ll always find something else. The western media will continue questioning the legitimacy of the Chinese government. As China succeeds and rises, it will experience more jealousy. More Sinophobia. More Schadenfreude. And that’s a disease that will prove difficult to cure. 

A redacted and edited version of this article was published in China Daily.