China and the World

The mask slips

Contagion coverage unearths old European stereotypes


A rarer sight these days: Chinese tourists in Paris

They have yet to cause complete panic but the newspaper headlines that are following the coronavirus from one country to the next have stoked plenty of fear. And in Europe, one of those headlines also shone a light on a dark period of history which many would prefer to forget.

France’s tabloid newspaper, Le Courier Picard, got itself into a lot of trouble a few weeks ago when it published a cover photo of a Chinese woman wearing a face mask alongside the caption “Alerte Jaune” (meaning ‘yellow peril’).

The paper was slammed by critics, including a rebuke from Stephane Nivet from the International League Against Racism and Antisemitism, who told L’Express that no editor would have dared to publish the headline “Black Peril” if the virus had originated from Africa. So why was it okay to target China?

In truth there have been more articles debating actual or perceived racism than actually demonstrating it themselves. Such anxiety, of course, is another instance of the supposedly “woke” behaviour that exercises a certain section of Western media commentators. They say their compatriots would be better served talking honestly about the issues rather than worrying about offending others. But it was not that many decades ago when almost no one batted an eyelid at the sight of a Caucasian actor, Christopher Lee, playing the evil Chinese mastermind, Dr Fu Manchu. Lee played the role throughout the 1960s.

The character was first introduced to early twentieth century readers by the novelist Sax Rohmer, who were told to “invest him with the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect…. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

Novels like these played on fears about the end of European empires and the rise of the East. One of the leading protagonists of anti-Asian sentiment was Kaiser Wilhelm II, who did much to popularise the term after commissioning a postcard called Die Gelbe Gefahr (yellow peril) in 1895. This depicted a Germanic-looking angel rallying a group of women representing European nations, including the UK’s Britannia and Marianne, the symbol of Republican France, behind the Christian cross.

The object of their apprehension was a giant Buddha sitting astride clouds of fire and smoke. The caption read: “Nations of Europe join us in defending your faith and your homes.”

Some 125 years later, anxieties about China’s rise are more pronounced than ever. So it is not that surprising that they have resurfaced in some quarters as a manifestation of concern about the virus too.

In some cases, the racism has been dressed up as satire. The commentary which has drawn the most flak in this regard, including from the Chinese government itself, comes from Der Spiegel.

The German news magazine managed to offend on two fronts. At the beginning of this month, it published a cover story showing a Chinese man wearing protective gear and a surgical mask under the headline “Made in China: wenn die Globalisierung zur todlichen Gefahr wird [when globalisation becomes a deadly threat].”

This was accompanied by an editorial in the magazine – which was supposed to be ironic – in describing Chinese people as “yellow-skinned slit eyes”.

It asked: “Why do they all have to spoon bat soup, bite the heads off snakes and bathe in fresh rats blood at their markets?”

The Chinese government launched an official complaint and the state media published a number of scathing editorials.

“Certain Western media outlets and officials are generating a cacophony out of prejudice, rumours, discrimination and racism,” warned Xinhua.

It highlighted the Der Spiegel article specifically. However, many of the comments from the magazine’s readers were similarly disgusted, calling out the inherent racism in the coverage.

Europeans, particularly those of Asian descent, have also responded by launching a different kind of virus: a social media one. In Germany, it is called Ichbinkeinvirus and in France Jenesuispasunvirus, for instance.

In Italy, a young man called Massimiliano Martigli Jiang made the same point by standing in a busy Florentine square, sporting a face mask and a blindfold. Next to him was a sign that read: “Io non sono un virus: sono essere unamo: liberami dal pregiudizo”, or in English, “I’m not a virus: I’m a human: eradicate the prejudice”.

Jiang said he was surprised by how many people took off his mask and embraced him. Florence’s mayor also called on residents to embrace Chinese tourists to show solidarity in fighting the virus.

On the flip side, Italy was the first European state to declare a state of emergency on January 31 after two Chinese tourists tested positive in Rome. Since then, it has suspended commercial flights between Italy and China and launched a toll-free number for worried citizens. One rang up to ask whether it was safe to wear T-shirts made in China (it’s unclear if this was an act of mockery or a serious question).

Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper has also published articles highlighting discriminatory action against Asians. This included a bar near Rome’s Trevi Fountain, which put up a sign barring Chinese tourists until it was forced to take it down. Chinese restaurants in Milan are reportedly deserted as well, forcing one local newspaper to run a Q&A explaining that the ingredients are sourced from Italy and are therefore safe.

In Holland, a petition of complaint garnered 30,000 signatories (and counting) after a radio DJ joked that if people don’t want to get the virus they should stay away from Chinese food.

Over in France, one of Le Figaro’s social media commentators took a different stance, pointing out that in his country “a single Englishman has done more damage than legions of Asian tourists,” referencing the British skier who infected an Alpine cluster after flying in from a business trip to Singapore.

Yet if there is a common refrain across the European newspapers it’s less focused on racism and more about a lack of trust in Chinese government pronouncements relating to the virus.

There is also a degree of exasperation about the way European governments have handled the situation. Comments and contributions on the social media coverage highlight that many people don’t understand why there aren’t more travel restrictions, for instance. “I find it hard to understand why we are advised not to travel to certain countries when they can still come to us,” wrote one in Le Figaro.

In this kind of context, speculation spreads quickly too. The most read article in the Deutschland Kurier over the past week relates to a secret document reportedly prepared by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Health. It is said to examine the potential health threat from migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, “carrying disease in abundance to Germany”, then spreading it rapidly from their temporary accommodation.

Meanwhile, Der Spiegel has related the tale of an unnamed German politician who ran into a group of Chinese visitors in the Bundestag’s parliamentary buildings.

The politician could see the visitors were going to ask for a photo and that they would probably want to shake his hand. He wondered what to do. Could he ask if any of them were from Hubei? He decided that he couldn’t and willingly shook their hands. But he then raced off to the nearest bathroom to wash his own hands as quickly as possible.

The German publication came to a clear conclusion. If there is one thing spreading faster than the virus itself, it is the fear of catching it.

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