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Sinophobia unmasked: the racism pandemic

In the shadow of Covid-19, bigotry paints the Chinese identity as synonymous with disease and subversion — discriminatory policies, from visa restrictions to TikTok bans, have been ramped up ever since, writes FIONA SIM

IT is often said that when we name something, we give it power. This week we marked the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — now is the time to to name sinophobia as one of the most insidious scourges of our time.

It has seeped into the mainstream media, stories of Chinese spies and Chinese subterfuge becoming as natural as the daily weather forecast. China’s rise as a global economic powerhouse and a challenge to Western capitalist hegemony has triggered a “new cold war.” With it has come the rise in sinophobia on a worldwide scale which even the Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has pointed out.
 
Especially in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, sinophobia manifested as accusations of China manufacturing the virus as a bioweapon and the dehumanisation of Chinese people globally as harbingers of disease. It was around the same time that the number of reported hate crimes against Asian communities skyrocketed.
 
The phrase Stop Asian Hate became a powerful rallying cry to raise awareness of the wave of violence against East and South-east Asian communities.

The slogan makes sense in the US context where Asian Americans bring visuals of East and South-east Asian communities, but not so applicable to the British one — where Asian usually refers to South Asian communities, and “Chinese” has been used as a catch-all for anyone of East Asian descent.

In both contexts, Stop Asian Hate was a convenient way to obscure the sinophobic roots — that East and South-east Asians were targeted because they were assumed to be Chinese or affiliated with China, not simply because they were Asian.
 
It could be argued that the impact of the Stop Asian Hate movement is the greater visibility of the issues faced by East and South-east Asian communities. The proliferation of hate crimes in the US, for example, quickly rose to the attention of Congress.

The Biden administration signed the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act into power, targeted at tackling so-called anti-Asian hate. Yet, since the signing of this Bill, the US has only ramped up its discrimination against the Chinese-US diaspora and Chinese immigrants. In 2022, 1,764 Chinese scholars were denied visas to the US because of the Chinese universities they attended — a presidential directive from the Trump era that Biden has retained.

In 33 states, Bills have been passed to restrict Chinese nationals from buying agricultural land or property. In fact, a new poll showed that a third of Asian US and Pacific Islanders have experienced racial abuse in 2023.
 
Now, the US’s move to ban TikTok and the pressure on Britain to do the same, citing national security concerns from China, has only rekindled the anti-China hysteria. Much like the framing of China as responsible for Covid-19 resulted in the scapegoating of East and South-east Asians, it seems inevitable that this will only heighten the hostile environment against all those perceived as Chinese. China the country and the Chinese people are not mutually exclusive, nor should the distinction between the two be discouraged.
 
The limitations of framing racism as an interpersonal issue are clear. Politicians telling people not to commit sinophobic hate crimes is ludicrous when they, in the next breath, pass policies that incite fear of China and all things Chinese.

The dilution of sinophobic racism into atomised incidents of discrimination and criminality — which, in the liberal discourse, can be resolved through unconscious bias training and the checking of privileges — comes at the cost of obfuscating the geopolitical origins of sinophobia.
 
In reality sinophobia and imperialism are intertwined. From the years of the Opium War to the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, sinophobia has been the weapon of choice to instil a fear of the Yellow Peril during times of political instability and uncertainty.

The Yellow Peril has provided an easy target for the masses to direct their frustrations toward an identifiable group and away from the failures of government. In the modern age, turning China into the Yellow Peril stops the masses from seeing China’s rise as an objective good for the world and enables the West to justify maintaining its imperialist hegemony.

Both the left and right are culpable of feeding into the moral panic about the Chinese. Whether it’s far-right ideologues like Laurence Fox harping on about Biden taking “Chinese money” or Labour Party MPs stoking fears of Chinese spies and Chinese-made CCTV cameras threatening national security, the spectre of sinophobia continues to haunt British politics.
 
The attacks on China correlate with the rise in attacks on people of East and South-east Asian descent. One only has to look to the 20th century’s epidemic of Chinese pogroms in south-east Asia for an example of how imperialism-fuelled sinophobia can have the most devastating and in some cases lethal consequences.

Thus, the most effective way of combating sinophobia is analysing it within the geopolitical scope of imperialist hegemony. One must challenge the new cold war on China and look past the political theatre to pick apart the logics of anti-Chinese sentiment, fighting against narratives that seek to cause fissures in the relationship between China and the rest of the global South.

The defeat of sinophobia requires interrogating centres of Western knowledge production and pushing back against how China is constructed as the perpetual villain in the public consciousness.

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