少出门, 小心, 多注意. Stay home. Be careful. Be more mindful.
This simple message began floating around Chinese social media sites and in family group chats as people across China reached out to their loved ones at home and abroad while COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.
Soon after, comments and jokes calling the deadly disease the “China-virus” began to circulate around the world — and with it came an escalation of anti-Chinese racism, otherwise known as sinophobia. While people in China watched the world battle COVID-19 with compassion, they were met with racism.
Asian Americans became targets of hate crimes all over the country in 2020 because perpetrators thought they were Chinese. At the same time, Asian American small business owners experienced a 21 percent loss in business, and foot traffic in Chinatowns across the country plummeted as much as 80 percent in February and March.
This anti-Asian racism does not materialize out of thin air, however. It’s built atop Americans’ negative perceptions of Chinese people, culture, and history as a whole. And it affects every single space, including university campuses.
At UC Santa Cruz, a graduate student posted sinophobic comments on her Facebook profile, writing, “there is a special place in hell reserved for the fucking Chinese and their archaic culture.” UCSC faculty released a statement condemning the post, but could not take any disciplinary action, citing that it was posted on her personal account.
Countless individuals deemed successful and important in the Asian American community, such as Andrew Yang, released op-eds and videos stressing all the same points: Chinese people are not their government, Chinese Americans are not at fault for China’s mistake, Chinese Americans can fight back by showing they are good Americans, and don’t commit hate crimes against any Asian American, since they might not even be Chinese.
But all these statements did was help fine-tune the way people talk about Chinese people, turning blatant bigotry into thinly veiled xenophobia. Even non-Chinese Asian Americans claiming “we’re not Chinese” suggests that Chinese people still deserve racial violence.
What feels like a new wave of sinophobia is a revival of age-old politics that won’t go away anytime soon. Though Trump left office, President Joe Biden has accused him of being “too soft on China.” Sinophobia seems to be a political line that unites all Americans, from progressives to conservatives.
Yellow peril is not new. Calling Chinese students spies is not new. Insinuating that Chinese people are diseased and dirty is not new. If anything, the pandemic serves as a scapegoat for Americans to hide their sinophobia behind. And there’s no promising that sinophobia will fade after our COVID-19 days are behind us.
After China had largely contained the virus and photos of a pool party in Wuhan surfaced in late summer, comments began suggesting that the pandemic was fabricated by the Chinese government. These comments erase the pain and trauma of citizens in Wuhan who saw their entire city shut down overnight, and of citizens across China who waited anxiously for updates on social media and the news.
Racist attitudes toward Chinese people, particularly those in China itself, will continue to proliferate if we do not push back against them in any and all capacities. This means understanding where our biases come from. This means understanding that our schooling and upbringing teaches us to view people in other countries as abstractions. Even when we know people in other countries to be real, it’s still hard to internalize the idea that they are people who live complicated lives just like we do.
Chinese people deserve our support not because they are our friends, neighbors, classmates and co-workers, but simply because we owe it to each other as people.
Contrary to what many Asian American figures suggest, solidarity does not mean we get to set new terms for who is deserving of allyship. Combating sinophobia takes far more than supporting Chinese restaurants, or visiting Chinatown, or talking to a Chinese American friend. It takes a lifelong commitment to unlearning our own racist and xenophobic biases, and the structures that teach us these values.
It means we hold space for people even if they aren’t American. It means we hold space for people who live an ocean away. Only then can we move forward.