China has recovered more quickly than most Western countries from the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal

There is little doubt that China’s Wuhan city with a population of 11 million was the main platform for the global spread of the new deadly Covid-19 disease. Located in the strategic center of the country, Wuhan is a vital logistics hub that, until recently, also actively traded wild game meat in conditions ideal for the breeding and transmission of viruses.

Beijing is now waging a narrative war to avoid responsibility for the resulting pandemic, to the extent that it has accused the United States of creating the coronavirus and deliberately unleashing it in Wuhan. Some American politicians and journalists have been promoting the version that it was Chinese military scientists who had released the virus. The bioweapons angle is highly speculative, but China is unlikely to escape the fact that it was the epicenter of this outbreak.

As the world tabs up the cost, there is mounting anger to identify and punish those deemed responsible for the pandemic, the most deadly and destructive since the Spanish Flu of 1918.

An immediate and major collateral damage in the emerging blame game will be the large “Asian-looking” population living in the West, particularly the varied ethnic Chinese communities. They range from the local-born who have lived for generations in the US and other countries to the more recent wave of immigrants. While they share many physical traits, those classified as “Chinese” and “Asians” are far from monolithic in their political, cultural and religious beliefs.

But to the wider population, the various shades of Asianness matter little. In good times, Asian faces are mostly a blur of foreign cultures and strange languages in the background: In bad times, like now, the blur feels like dark malevolent forces emerging from the shadows.

Recriminations will happen. Like books, people are being judged by their covers, especially in the moment of fear and uncertainty. There are growing reports of racist acts and attacks against Americans of Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Filipino descent, mistaken for Chinese, on suspicion that they are all coronavirus carriers. The US may have just had its first Covid-19-linked case of attempted hate murders against an Asian family.

The ‘Chinese Virus’: Trump and Xi Jinping

For weeks, US President Donald Trump helped racialize the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus by insisting on calling it the “Chinese Virus.”

Then, possibly with an eye to the upcoming 2020 presidential election, he changed tune with a tweet on March 23 pledging to “totally protect our Asian American community.”

He suddenly sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal: “They are amazing people, and the spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way, shape, or form.”

Nevertheless, the idea of “Chinese Virus” has become embedded in the public consciousness. It will influence behavior, not just in the US, but around the world.

Factually, Trump isn’t wrong to link the virus to the location of its main outbreak. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola and Lyme diseases, among others, are named after places they were thought to have struck first or affected most.

But “Chinese Virus” has a particularly sinister sting for the diaspora, given how “China” and Chinese” are easily and often conflated.

As well, the pandemic is taking place amid the worst state of relations between China and the West since the 1950s. The timing couldn’t be worse for the diaspora.

“Chinese” is a problematic concept to begin with. It can interchangeably refer to the nationality, ethnicity and language of a people. An ethnic Chinese person holding a People’s Republic of China (PRC) passport would also be Chinese (in nationality). An ethnic Chinese person born and raised in Brazil would be considered “Chinese” as much as one born and raised in the US or Indonesia despite their nationalities, and their cultural and linguistic differences. If “Chinese Virus” prevails, all of them will forever be associated with a deadly disease.

Trump, not one given to nuances, empathy or introspection, all but affirmed the stigma when he later told Fox News that he did not regret his choice of words.

But the President is not solely to blame for the new Sinophobia sweeping across the US and beyond.

By refusing to accept any responsibility for the pandemic, the PRC government of President Xi Jinping has angered many around the world. The anti-China sentiments surrounding Covid-19, even when aimed at the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will eventually spill over and take on racial overtones.

Beijing’s alleged lack of transparency and suppression of whistle-blowing doctors in Wuhan in the early stages of the disease’s outbreak have clearly dented the party’s image. The US said China’s secretive ways aided the pandemic’s rise.

PRC diplomats are trying to shape the narrative as one of Western incompetence and US refusal to work with China. But they have sunk their own case and alienated the neutrals by locking Taiwan, which is successfully curbing the Covid-19 spread, out of the World Health Organisation.

PRC nationals living abroad have also helped fuel the rise of Sinophobia. Who can forget the hyper-nationalistic behavior of PRC nationals in cities across the world as they sought to silence the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers, and human rights groups protesting Beijing’s heavy-handed rule? Those images helped bury the message of a benign China leading humanity into a “Common Destiny” that Xi had propagated after he came to power in 2013.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing’s uncompromising stance has provoked a backlash from abroad.

Edgy Australians promote ‘Chinese profiteers

Some of Xi’s most hardline opponents today can be found in Australia. While small in population, Australia has emerged as an important voice in the global debate about China, and the place of the Chinese diaspora.

The country’s diverse ethnic Chinese communities comprise just over 5% of its 25 million population. They are now caught in an intense spotlight to prove that they are not disloyal to Australia. Some of Australia’s more recent successful immigrants are from the PRC who have close ties with Beijing’s political, business and military elite.

Just as the US President began tempering his language, Australian politicians and media launched the new provocative idea of “Chinese profiteers.” This concept broadly covers Chinese people procuring medical supplies for export to China as well as alleged Asian criminal gangs buying up household goods in smaller towns. Before that, for years, “Chinese profiteers” were accused of buying up Australian houses to the detriment of locals. (Chinese-blaming in the Australian housing crisis has parallels with the Canadian version.)

On April 1, Australia’s Daily Telegraph reported that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had imposed new regulations to ban the “exports of gloves, gowns, goggles, visors and alcohol wipes, as well as masks and hand sanitizer” amid the pandemic. It followed news that the Greenland Group, a Sydney property developer with Chinese shareholders, had “recently sent 10,000 masks, 30,000 protective gowns and 68,000 disposable gloves from Sydney to Shanghai.”

Those engaged in the “Chinese takeaway” trades during a national emergency now face jail sentences of up to five years, said the Daily Telegraph. The story of Greenland Group and another PRC-backed firm, Risland Australia, “raiding” local medical supplies to help meet China’s needs was also splashed across the Sydney Morning HeraldSky News, and other local media.

Analysts Gabriel Wildau, Adam Ni, and James Laurenceson took to Twitter to denounce the reporting as fear mongering.

Wilder, a senior vice president at consulting firm Teneo, slammed the “sensationalist fearmongering” reporting on China that “has unfortunately become normal in Australian media.”

“By ‘secretly raided in bulk’, they mean ‘legally purchased’. Australia also ‘secretly raided in bulk’ China’s supply of mobile phones,” Wilder, a former Financial Times and Reuters journalist, tweeted.

Adam Ni, a co-editor of the online China Neican which focuses on policy issues, described the reporting as “pandemonium.”

Laurenceson, Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), made a sarcastic observation:

All Chinese companies are CCP authoritarian vultures, waiting to pick off our assets in a crisis. Just as they did our supply of medical goods in January.”

Just before this episode, the Australian media and social media were on fire with reports that “busloads” of Asian shoppers had been touring the country’s smaller towns to buy up household essentials. The stories fanned anti-Asian and Sinophobic sentiments at a time when Australian supermarkets were hit by panic-buying sweeping the country as well as other parts of the world.

“It’s a busload of Asian Australians…with a trailer on the back, just going to these shopping centres and shops… and clearing the joint out,” said the agitated popular radio host Ray Hadley on 2gb’s Ray Hadley Morning Show.

“They’re profiteering out of the coronavirus,” said Hadley, who claimed he had received “photographic evidence” to prove the existence of the alleged shopping gangs. Home Affairs Minister Dutton went on the show to bolster Hadley’s claim that these shopping trips were the work of organized crime.

But the story was quickly exposed as sensational fiction when The Guardian and other regional Australian media found no corroborating evidence of any gang, Asian or otherwise, raiding the various supermarkets cited by Hadley, The Daily Mail and the Melbourne Age. It is not known if he has yet released the “photographic evidence.”

“I’ve spoken directly with the managers of both Paterson and Dungog IGA stores, who say it’s ‘absolutely not true’,” tweeted Eliza Goetze, a journalist with Australia’s ABC news.

Responding to Goezte, Lisa Hay, who describes herself as a rural resident, wrote: “These rumours just don’t ring true. A coach full of people parking outside country supermarkets would be extremely conspicuous.”

Social policy analyst Marie Coleman was pointed in her conclusion about the story: “Racism.”

Loyalty in a time of crisis

At his inauguration as US President in 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most recent memorable lines about patriotism: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

While the false reporting about Asian shopping gangs was racial, the issue of loyalty to the nation, especially during a crisis, will prove to be more enduring and controversial.

The Daily Telegraph’s “Chinese profiteers” headline was rightly condemned by Neican’s Adam Ni as racist and Sinophobic. Like “Chinese Virus,” this name-calling has the effect of villainising the majority of Australia’s ethnic Chinese population who have little political, business or family ties with China.

But for a small and influential group of first-generation Australians who came from the PRC, President Kennedy’s speech is pertinent, especially when “your country” is in crisis.

The question for Greenland Group and Risland, exporting Australia’s scarce medical supplies to China in the moment of crisis: which is “your country”?

The optics aren’t great.

It would be disastrous if the two groups are found to have profited financially or gained political favors from the PRC government for their gifts.

The companies do not appear to have satisfactorily explained their actions, judging from John Rolfe’s skeptical reporting in the Daily Telegraph.

Ni prescribed this perspective: “Replace Chinese-Australian with ‘Australians with Italian heritage’ or ‘Australians with US background’, and read the article again,” he tweeted.

Wildau, the political risk consultant, sees it as strictly business: “It’s called global trade.”

Neither suggestion will mollify the critics.

Australians may have donated medical supplies to friends and relatives at risk in Italy and the US, but the scale of their giving and the organization of their efforts are unlikely to be anywhere near those mounted by Greenland Group and Risland. Furthermore, the two companies’ links to the PRC government will serve only to stoke Australian fears that Beijing has hidden tentacles extended deep into their country. These tentacles can be called into action when the bosses in Beijing summon.

The export of medical supplies in the current life-and-death situation is not a business-as-usual transaction either, annulling Wilder’s opinion. Indeed, one of the biggest criticisms against those favoring engagement with China is that they are far too focused on business, and not enough on the non-business aspects of a relationship that has gone awry.

In this crisis moment, the two companies cannot evade the question of whether Australia or China is “your country.”

For the majority of the Chinese diaspora, the question – and the questioning process – will cast an unfair shadow about their place in Australian society, and in the West in general.

They must push back hard against Sinophobia. For a start, it is to affirm their beliefs in the liberal western system, the defense of the values of fair play, free speech, and equality, and their own place in the West.

At the same time, they must guard against the CCP’s promotion of Xi’s totalitarian, race-based beliefs. In his call to Chinese abroad to help build the “motherland”, Xi is appealing to blood ties. It is a form of Sinofascism that has no place for diversity, multiculturalism, and the rights of “other people.”

With the collapse of the old world order, the rise of both Sinophobia and Sinofascism will challenge the diaspora. Its diverse members must find a new path as Covid-19 adds to the long bitter decoupling of the PRC and the West.