From ‘yellow peril’ to sinophobia

Zhang Yun, associate professor at Japan’s Niigata University, observes how the “yellow peril” of old persists in the current jaundiced views of China amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.
With the Asian giant being the world’s second largest economy, no one today will call it a weak country. Yet, the yellow peril ideology does not seem to have disappeared. In this photo taken on 27 January 2020, a woman wearing a protective mask looks on at the Beijing railway station in Beijing. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
With the Asian giant being the world’s second largest economy, no one today will call it a weak country. Yet, the yellow peril ideology does not seem to have disappeared. In this photo taken on 27 January 2020, a woman wearing a protective mask looks on at the Beijing railway station in Beijing. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

As Covid-19 continues to spread, China, as well as other countries around the world, are adopting responsive measures of varying levels. Such responses are understandable and should be respected. Quite regrettably, however, in the media of some countries and on the internet, there have been expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment and insults associating the Chinese people with epidemics. These are reminiscent of historical references to the “yellow peril”.

It should be pointed out at the outset that such obviously racist talk has to be rejected by modern civilised society. At the same time, we must also be optimistic that any room for the yellow peril ideology to thrive can be gradually diminished.

Mutating from the yellow peril to sinophobia

The beginning of the yellow peril ideology can be traced to racist discourse that associated the Chinese with viruses and infectious diseases. From the 19th century to the early 20th century, China had been branded as the “Sick Man of East Asia”. Photographs of the country’s incessant unrest and conflicts were often displayed alongside images of famine and pestilence. As China declined as a nation, the sickness of its people loomed large — the two aspects became something like a pair of twins, a binary signifier that lodged itself in the memory of the world during that era.

Ironically, having mutated over a century, the new yellow peril ideology seems convinced that China’s ascendancy, strength and amplified international connections will only make matters worse.

The yellow peril ideology was even directly projected onto the diaspora beyond the shores of China. Early Chinese migrants who crossed oceans to work as “coolies” had settled into Chinatowns at different locations. Unfortunately, being limited by their economic conditions, these early Chinatowns and Chinese communities were often plagued by poor sanitation. Whenever disease was spreading around, these places would be suspected or even directly fingered as the source of the contagion, regardless of whether this was truly the case or not.

In some sense, the yellow peril ideology was the result of an overlap right from the beginning between China’s cumulative impoverishment and debility, and the diseased, pestilence-stricken Chinese. From America’s Chinese Exclusion Act to movements of discrimination against the Chinese elsewhere, hints of the same thought pattern in some degree or another are discernible.

In this photo taken on 2 February 2020, travelers arrive at LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal wearing medical masks for protection against the coronavirus outbreak. Foreign nationals who have been in China in the last two weeks and are not immediate family members of US citizens or permanent residents will be barred from entering the US. (David McNew/Getty Images/AFP)
In this photo taken on 2 February 2020, travellers arrive at LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal wearing medical masks for protection against the coronavirus outbreak. Foreign nationals who have been in China in the last two weeks and are not immediate family members of US citizens or permanent residents will be barred from entering the US. (David McNew/Getty Images/AFP)

After a century of ups and downs, China has completely grown out of its pitiable state of near-disintegration, disunity as well as cumulative poverty and weakness. With the Asian giant being the world’s second largest economy, no one today will call it a weak country. Nevertheless, the yellow peril ideology does not seem to have disappeared. A mutated version of it lingers on.

China in its developed state is more strongly connected to the rest of the world than ever before. The early Chinese “coolies” who had to go overseas in search of livelihood are long replaced by a plethora of business travellers, students and tourists from the country. And yet, when an infectious disease breaks out in China, the sinophobic ideologues apparently would still — almost as a conditioned reflex — see the Chinese people as the virus-carrying yellow peril.

Ironically, having mutated over a century, the new yellow peril ideology seems convinced that China’s ascendancy, strength and amplified international connections will only make matters worse. According to its adherents, the Sick Man of long ago will spread viruses and problems abroad as before or even more than before. 

The future of the yellow peril ideology 

We need to see first of all that, according to the trends of the development of modern civilisation, the racism-based yellow peril ideology will fundamentally be less and less tenable in any moral sense. The development history of human civilisation has proven to us time and again that racism can only lead to conflicts and wars. It will never be a solution to any problem. Although many countries have adopted some measures against the current outbreak, the great majority of them are simply for the purposes of epidemic control — that is to say, essentially no different from the measures taken within China to control human movement.

Passengers arriving from China wait in line to be checked by health officials at the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar Es Salaam on 29 January 2020. (Ericky Boniphace/AFP)
Passengers arriving from China wait in line to be checked by health officials at the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar Es Salaam on 29 January 2020. (Ericky Boniphace/AFP)

In contrast, the incidents of anti-Chinese discrimination and insult are of a different nature altogether. Even so, we must also realise that the international community takes a clear stance on this matter. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it, anti-China sentiments are impulsive, “foolish and illogical”, and “unhelpful to the cause of fighting the outbreak”. Japanese health officials also made it clear at a media conference that lashing out at the Chinese is an infringement on their human rights. No doubt there are many lessons to be learnt from our combat against the new virus, but to associate the Chinese with epidemics is an act of racism, an abomination at odds with modern civilised society. We need to be confident of this.

As the country progresses in its development, a scientific and hygiene enlightenment campaign that holds the big picture in its purview has to be put on the agenda.

Secondly, China itself needs to change the dietary and hygiene habits of a very small minority of its people completely, so that the yellow peril ideology would have less soil for putting down its roots. This ideology in its contagion-associative form is very heavily founded on the perception that the Chinese have poor hygiene habits. There are reports that identify bats as the origin of the proliferating coronavirus, while the SARS of 2003 was supposed to have come from civets. That animals like these are sold as food in Chinese markets is thought to be an important reason behind the new outbreak.

What people put on their plates has actually always been a sensitive subject. That the Koreans eat dogs draws contempt from animal protection groups across national borders. We see the same reaction when it comes to the Japanese dining on whales. Even so, trading in wild animals as food in the marketplaces — given that the hygiene issues of such places have come to light — is in itself in disagreement with modern civilisation indeed, not to mention that it has already caused public health problems. Dietary and hygiene habits of this sort have to be prohibited.

This file picture taken on 26 May 2003 shows a policeman watching over a civet cat captured in the wild by a farmer in Wuhan. The animal-borne SARS virus 17 years ago was supposed to be a wake-up call about consuming wildlife as food, but scientists say China's latest epidemic on 26 January 2020 indicates that the practice remains widespread and a growing risk to human health. (STR/AFP)
This file picture taken on 26 May 2003 shows a policeman watching over a civet cat captured in the wild by a farmer in Wuhan. The animal-borne SARS virus 17 years ago was supposed to be a wake-up call about consuming wildlife as food, but scientists say China's latest epidemic indicates that the practice remains widespread and a growing risk to human health. (STR/AFP)

What needs to be highlighted even more is the following fact: the vast majority of the Chinese people do not consume such wild animals in their day-to-day meals. What’s going on is that the entire population is being implicated by the acts of a very small minority. In addition, we must also recognise that there is still much room for improvement as far as the public health conditions in China’s rural areas are concerned. As the country progresses in its development, a scientific and hygiene enlightenment campaign that holds the big picture in its purview has to be put on the agenda. The active promotion of the “toilet revolution” (a campaign to improve toilet sanitation) by China’s leaders, for example, is an important indication. It signifies that the country is working hard to move in the right direction.

If anything, the international impact of the current outbreak shows us that whatever happens in the now-empowered China affects the whole world. When all this is over, the world will still have to work with China, and the Asian giant will still not veer from its commitment to openness. A century ago, talk of the so-called yellow peril could keep the Chinese quarantined in their Chinatowns. The sinophobia of today, however, can never hope to sever the ties between China and the rest of the world.