Photo: Passengers wearing face masks and disposable ponchos get their passports checked at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. UN News/Jing Zhang - Photo: 2020

CORVID 19 – The Insatiable Urge to Bash China Surfaces Again!

Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona

The writer is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and former Foreign Secretary.

COLOMBO (IDN) — Historically, the West has always had an equivocal attitude towards China, not to mention the non-white world. A fear, a suspicion, a fascination, an uncertainty, a sense of superiority and even a loathing reserved for an undeserving competitor pervaded its dealings.

Perhaps, resulting from perceptions that evolved on the basis of the writings of 19th century visitors, missionaries, diplomats, traders, et al who came to China pompously full of their own socioreligious values and found a wealthy society that simply did not fit in to their preconceptions and that did not seem willing to accommodate their prescriptions.

Instead the Chinese stayed with their own values. These prejudices have lasted to this day and self-serving commentators and politicians have not missed any opportunity to embellish them, even in the midst of the CORVID 19 epidemic which is now threatening the world.

Marco Polo’s travels along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295 and his tales of wealth and grandeur of China, Cathay of the Yuen Dynasty, were largely dismissed with disbelief as fantasy. His record The Travels of Marco Polo (also known as Book of the Marvels of the World and Il Milione, c. 1300, a book that described to an incredulous Europe the mysterious culture and inner workings of the non-white and non-Christian Eastern world, including its wealth, superior organisation and the great extent of the Mongol Empire, provided the first comprehensive look into China, India, Japan and other Asian cities and countries.

Over the centuries, largely based on a lack of understanding, the common perception that took hold was that of the Chinese as a toiling, poverty stricken mass of untrustworthy sexual predators who needed to be treated with caution and suspicion.

Prejudice relating to China and the Chinese has undergone a recent revival. Many commentaries, including from journalistic sources and hastily compiled messages on the electronic medium have not missed the opportunity to revive the image of the nasty untrustworthy Chinaman.

It took two centuries and the painstaking work of intellectual giants like Joseph Needham and many university studies to almost convince a self-absorbed Europe and later the United States that a sophisticated, complex and powerful culture had been existing in the East for millennia and much of what we take for granted today, paper, gun powder, silk, tea, porcelain, the compass, cast iron, the ploughshare, the stirrupprinting, clockwork escapements and even the passport (paiza or paizi or gerege in Mongolian) were known to the Chinese centuries earlier.

According to Professor Mahbubani, Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the UN, China produced over 25% of the world’s production in 1840 and was incredibly wealthy but this share was to be reduced to less than 2% due to colonial depredations and the decline of the Chinese state.

The appallingly racist term “Yellow Peril”, which seems to be undergoing a revival, gained currency in the 19th century. This term became widely used in Europe and the U.S. during the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxer Rebellion gained momentum in 1900 and Beijing fell to the Boxers.

Kaiser Wilhelm II exhorted his soldiers to barbarism

In July 1900, Kaiser Wilhelm II gave the Hunnenrede (Hun speech) exhorting his soldiers to barbarism, “Imperial German soldiers depart Europe for China and will suppress the Boxer Rebellion, by acting like ‘Huns’ and committing atrocities against the Chinese (Boxer and civilian):

“When you come before the enemy, you must defeat him, pardon will not be given, prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands will fall to your sword! Just as a thousand years ago the Huns, under their King Attila, made a name for themselves with their ferocity, which tradition still recalls; so may the name of Germany become known in China in such a way that no Chinaman will ever dare look a German in the eye, even with a squint!”

The Kaiser ordered the expedition-commander, Field Marshal Alfred von Waldersee, to conduct himself barbarously, because the Chinese were, “by nature, cowardly, like a dog, but also deceitful”. The Kaiser’s best friend, Prince Philip von Euenburg wrote to another friend that the Kaiser wanted to raze Beijing, and kill the populace to avenge the murder of Baron Clemens von Ketteler, imperial Germany’s minister to China. In August 1900, an international military-force of Russian, Japanese, British, French, and American soldiers captured Beijing, before the German force arrived in the city.

The Eight-Nation Alliance sacked Beijing in vengeance for the Boxer Rebellion; the magnitude of the rape, pillage, and burning indicated “a sense that the Chinese were less than human” to the Western armies. About the sacking of the city, an Australian writer said: “The future of the Chinese is a fearful problem. Look at the frightful sights one sees in the streets of Peking. … See the filthy, tattered rags they wrap around them. Smell them as they pass. Hear of their nameless immorality. Witness their shameless indecency, and picture them among your own people – Ugh! It makes you shudder!”

The attitude of superiority, loathing and suspicion adopted then, seems to have persisted mostly below the surface and erupts not so infrequently. The façade of Western civilization appears to be only skin deep!

Sinophobia given a fresh boost

Despite this history, and the tribulations visited on China by Western Powers, today China having pulled itself up by its bootstraps, has become the second biggest economic power in the world but the Western world and its glassy eyed admirers in the East continue to look at China and the Chinese with the same historic mistrust.

Sinophobia, that is the feeling of being hostile to China, its people, overseas Chinese, or Chinese culture, including food habits, is alive and well and has been given a fresh boost since the outbreak of CORVID 19 and is thriving in the West with its colonial and imperialist legacies, and generations of racism. Today the Western media, and their outlets which depend on them, subtlety and not so subtlety pander to Sinophobia. The deeper prejudices and the ready willingness to blame the Chinese Government, its people, their food habits, etc, exposed by the coronavirus epidemic are symptomatic of a long history of demonising the Chinese people.

On 26 January 2020, two of Australia’s highest circulating newspapers, Melbourne’s Herald Sun‘s headlined, “Chinese virus pandamonium”, an insensitive misspelling of “pandemonium” (alluding to China’s pandas), while Sydney’s Daily Telegraph‘s headline read, “China kids stay home.” One of the outcomes of these headlines was a petition of over 51,000 signatures demanding an apology. Good people still inhabit this earth.

In France, Le Courrier Picard featured an Asian woman wearing a mask on its front page on 26 January with a headline “Yellow Alert”. The paper also titled an editorial “A New Yellow Peril“. The expression Yellow Peril has a long and wicked history. The publication drew condemnation from French Asians who started the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I Am Not A Virus”). One begins to wonder whether the liberal façade of the West is just skin deep.

Chinese businesses in the United Kingdom, including the busy Chinese takeaway segment and businesses in Chinatown, London, recorded significantly reduced customers in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak compared to usual elevated sales during the Chinese New Year celebrations, due to fears of coronavirus spreading through food or unhygienic working practices. In general, there was a widespread rise in anti-Chinese sentiment reported in all forms of public transport.

The racist commentary used following the COVID 19 outbreak, persisted despite the WHO reminding the world of the commitments that all countries undertook at its creation. On 30 January, the World Health Organization‘s Emergency Committee issued a statement advising all countries to be mindful of the “principles of Article 3 of the IHR [the International Health Regulations],” which the WHO says is a caution against “actions that promote stigma or discrimination,” when conducting national response measures to the outbreak.

Britain’s first sustained attempt to build ties with the Qing imperial court, initially rebuffed, in the eighteenth century was focused primarily on trade. Over the next 150 years, Britain was at the forefront of some of the most painful experiences of Chinese encounters with the outside world, from the Opium Wars, the sacking of the Summer Palace, and the reparations imposed on China for the Boxer rebellion of 1900 and the rape and pillage of Beijing, to the maintenance of Hong Kong as a colony. The Chinese call this the century of humiliation.

Since the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, while clamouring for democracy for Hong Kong which the British never conceded, policies of engagement have gradually replaced those of confrontation. As China’s economy has eclipsed that of the UK, the transformation of that relationship has become imperative for the UK. The roles having changed, now it is Britain that is the supplicant at the gates of Beijing.

Britain now anxious to keep Chinese cash flowing

Britain, nervous with Brexit jitters, is more anxious than ever to keep Chinese cash flowing. Critics have commented that London is already less willing to criticise Beijing because it is aware how much it will need Chinese funds.

The British sense of superiority, vis a vis China, began with the victory in the First Opium War 1839-42. After bombarding Canton from its fleet causing thousands of civilian deaths, Britain forced on the Chinese the Convention of Chuenpi, which was never ratified. In 1842, the  Treaty of Nanking ended the war and Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British, and five treaty ports were opened to international trade. (For the British, it meant the right to sell opium to the Chinese).

In 1843, the Treaty of the Bogue supplemented the Treaty of Nanking by granting extraterritorial status to British subjects in China and most favored nation status to Britain. 1856-60 consequent to the Second Opium War, the Treaty of Tientsin was signed by Lord Elgin on behalf of Britain (who, incidentally, took the Elgin Marbles to Britain). In October 1860, the Old Summer Palace was looted and burned by British and French troops, resulting in the Convention of Peking and the cession of the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain and Britain opened a Legation in Beijing (Peking). In the following years British consulates were opened throughout the Chinese Empire, including Hankou (Wuhan!), Takao (Kaohsiung), Tamsui (near Taipei), Shanghai and Xiamen.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. has existed at least since the mid 19th century when Chinese migrants began arriving in the United States and contributed significantly to building the First Transcontinental Railroad. Thousands died in this effort. It surfaced with a vengeance in the 1860s and culminated in the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (repealed only in 1943), prohibiting Chinese immigration and naturalization.

Its origins are traceable to the American traders, missionaries, teachers and diplomats who sent home from China relentlessly disparaging reports of the “inscrutable” people they encountered. These attitudes were transmitted to Americans who never left North America, triggering talk of the Yellow Peril, and continued through the Cold War during McCarthyism.

During this period, the phrase “yellow peril” was popularized in the U.S. by newspapers owned by newspaper moghul Randolph Hearst. It was also the title of a popular book by an influential U.S. American Adventist pastor, G. G. Rupert, who published The Yellow Peril; or, Orient vs. Occident in 1911. Based on the phrase “the kings from the East” in the Christian scriptural verse Revelation 16:12,  Rupert, who subscribed to the doctrine of British Israelism, suggested that China, India, Japan and Korea will be attacking England and the U.S., but that Jesus Christ would stop them.

The Naturalization Act of 1870, extended citizenship rights to African Americans but barred Chinese from naturalization on the grounds that they and other Asians could not be assimilated into American society. Chinese immigrants were prohibited from voting and serving on juries, and dozens of states passed alien land laws that prohibited non-citizens from purchasing real estate.

In particular, even in his lone dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), then-Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote of the Chinese as “a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race.”

The Trump administration’s an inexplicable hostility to China

The Trump administration has demonstrated an inexplicable hostility to China, but Beijing’s increasingly authoritative approach at home and assertiveness abroad has also alarmed many. The West is unfamiliar with Asians who strike back.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the administration’s most vocal China critic, took China to task for its apparent failure to be open and transparent when Corvid 19 hit, saying, “It took us too long to get the medical experts into country. We wish that could have happened more quickly.”

The effort to gain propaganda mileage is obvious but the same reservations could be applied to the current lack of cohesion in the U.S. policy approach and the uncoordinated response to the increasingly menacing spread of Corvid 19 in the U.S.

The China hawks say privately that they see the virus weakening the Party’s legitimacy (and hoping) but this may be a vain hope.

The expression of such hostility in the midst of a global health emergency was unfortunate. The Administration’s lack of sympathy for China was quickly picked up by the Western media and accusations of a lack of transparency, a belated and high handed response, paucity of medical care, etc, were freely bandied around in the media despite clear statements to the contrary issued by the World Health Organisation. Critical and derogatory videos produced for propaganda purposes were freely disseminated on the electronic media.

Now that China appears to have brought the spread of Corvid 19 under control and the virus has begun to seriously affect Western countries, Western media has modified its commentary. It has begun not to use the same harsh, derogatory and unsympathetic commentary. On the contrary, the reporting has become more balanced and should have been used when China was first confronted with CORVID 19 in early December.

China’s rise as a major world economic and military power, which followed neither the economic nor the political prescriptions of the West, clearly appears to have contributed to the contemporary anti-Chinese sentiment. The emergence of China has been seen to be at the expense of countries such as the U.S.

In April 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that China posed a “whole of a society threat”. In May 2019, Director of Policy Planning Kiron Skinner said that China “is the first great power competitor of the U.S. that is not Caucasian. Of course, he appears to have forgotten Japan which not only challenged the U.S. but was nuclear bombed in 1945. In the 1980s, Japan was the target of U.S. ire for its relentless economic outreach.

The U.S. position may sometimes appear to be contradictory and difficult to explain. It was the U.S. that pushed for China (the Republic of China, ROC) to be given the status of a veto wielding member of the UN Security Council. The ROC had collaborated with the U.S. in its war against Japan. But were there other factors?  Did the U.S. want a non-European state to balance the three veto wielding Europeans already in the UN Security Council?

There were effective people to people and missionary ties with China. President Chiang Kai-shek was a Methodist. Did these factors influence American thinking at the time?

However, relations soured rapidly once the godless and non-cosmopolitan Communists under Mao Tse Tung took over China and evicted Chiang to Taiwan. Added to the pain, Communist China militarily thwarted U.S. ambitions in the Korean Peninsula. The thought of nuclear bombing China did cross the minds of some U.S. decision makers at the time. In Vietnam, Chinese support was a critical factor in the eventual defeat of the U.S. backed South Vietnamese regime in 1975.

Despite the Nixon-Kissinger rapprochement with Communist China, essentially as a counter to the Soviet Union, suspicions appear to have remained. China used the warming up of relations to seek investments and technology from the U.S. and the West and create the most impressive economic miracle in history. Not only that, it has deployed its newly gained wealth to create a zone of joint prosperity in the wider region, extending to Africa, expanding its diplomatic clout way outside its traditional sphere of influence.

China is now a major economic competitor of the West. Unfortunately, this development has been openly interpreted as a threat to the West and the U.S., in particular. The thought of a non-European competitor on the world stage may be unbalancing the thinking of European and U.S. policy makers. The U.S. has begun to employ each and every means available to vilify and counter China. The U.S. has now begun to identify China and Russia as strategic competitors making U.S. relations with China a discomforting factor to others who wish to benefit from China’s munificence.

CORVID 19 used as another weapon to vilify China

It is against this background that CORVID 19 has been used as another weapon to vilify China. David Fidler, Council for Foreign Relations, says, “we are seeing the weaponisation of the outbreak in the misinformation being circulated for different political purposes. For me, this outbreak is different in that the weaponisation has connected to the change in geopolitics, with the rise of China and worries about China’s growing power and influence sharpening and broadening criticism of China’s response to the outbreak. Here, unlike Ebola in Africa, we have the outbreak entangled with the increasing rawness of balance of power politics between the United States and China”.

The deterioration of relations between the U.S. and China is unfortunate and is unlikely to benefit either country or, for that matter, the world. Both possess enormous potential to collaborate for the good of each other and the rest of the world. But history and deep rooted suspicions of ambitious politicians who play on the uncertainties and fears of ordinary people may result in misery for the vast majority who might get sucked in to an unfortunate confrontation unwittingly. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 March 2020]

Photo: Passengers wearing face masks and disposable ponchos get their passports checked at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. UN News/Jing Zhang

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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