Western reports on COVID-19 have overwhelmingly been produced under a simple banner of ‘China’. It’s a homogeneous label that ignores the human face of Chinese people everywhere.
Like almost every westerner with connections in China I have a WeChat account. It is both a direct messaging service and a posting platform like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
With estimates of up to 760 million having their movements restricted by COVID-19, Chinese people are spending a lot of time on their phones. In recent weeks I’ve been messaged by a great number of people with whom I rarely have contact.
One of the messages I received struck me hard. A tour guide in the eastern Chinese province of Fujian, a popular destination for inbound tourists, messaged to ask how I was going.
Her name is Madeline.
There ended up being 33 messages in that thread. For me a typical conversation would not extend beyond four messages, a very long one might extend to seven or eight.
It’s been almost five years since we’ve been in contact. She told me that, since January 26, she’s not left her home other than brief trips to pick up essentials. She says she’s fine as there’s only been a few reports of COVID-19 infections in Fujian, and no deaths, among a population of 38 million people.
Madeline tells me the price of fresh vegetables has gone up and that her retired parents are upset because they cannot partake in their three-hour daily walk.
After a few messages it dawned on me. She was lonely, isolated and uncertain of her immediate future.
Her entire working life has been taking English-speaking people around her province, perhaps through me this conversation was a re-connection. Madeline just wanted somebody to talk to.
Now, multiply that story by 760 million people…
Chinese people are collateral damage in war or words
Not too many people could comprehend the above equation; others seemingly have no desire to.
Of China’s bid to isolate its population from this virus, New York Times technology reporter, Paul Mozur, took to Twitter (in a post that now appears to have been deleted) calling it “one of the largest social experiments, ever anywhere, even in China.”
Calling this an “experiment” suggests the Chinese people are guinea pigs. His is a familiar tone that feigns interest in the plight of ordinary Chinese people, when he is really only using them as a vehicle to push an anti-Chinese government agenda.
Only 6.5 percent of the Chinese population are members of the Communist Party, according to the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations, China has more practicing Christians.
Many media outlets and journalists, particularly in the United States, are fervently anti-communist; and they have every right to hold and express those views.
The question I ask – more importantly Chinese people ask – is why is the tone of their reports overwhelmingly anti-Chinese?
Words and tones bordering on racist
It’s not just anti-China stories since the COVID-19 outbreak. In November, former prime minister, Paul Keating accused the Australian media of ongoing anti-China bias, saying, “the whispered word ‘communism’ of old, is now being replaced with the word ‘China’.”
To many China observers a, largely economic, Cold War between the US and China has already broken out and the west is relying on Soviet-era type rhetoric to combat China’s rise.
On last week’s Q&A program on Australia’s ABC network, journalist, author and filmmaker Stan Grant criticized the tone of western media reporting on China noting that words like ‘frontline’ and ‘battleground’ had crept into the language.
According to Grant, “When you use language of war it is emotional language. When you give impressions of hordes of Chinese bringing illness it doesn’t take much to touch those buttons. Those racist buttons that are always there in our society.”
Headlines looking for stories
While it’s legitimate the world questions the Chinese response, there’s a sense that a few too many reports began as headlines in search of a story.
Major media outlets, including the Daily Mail, have peddled fake ‘bat soup captions’ on images suggesting the Chinese population en masse is responsible for this coronavirus. One idiot on Twitter fired off at me, saying the Chinese people got what they deserved because they “eat koalas in Wuhan.”
On March 1, Australia’s Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Jason Wood MP posted on Facebook: “#WARNING: Apart from being disgusting, Asian wildlife markets will lead to pandemics in the future. When will they learn?!”
Accompanying the post was an image of bats in a food market in Indonesia, that post garnered more than 200 comments, the overwhelming number of them highly racist attacks on Asian and Chinese people.
In February the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece under the headline China is The Real Sick Man of Asia, though the text was not inflammatory the headline was shared millions of times across Chinese social media and it caused enormous offence to the Chinese people.
The WSJ refused Chinese Foreign Ministry demands for an apology, as a consequence three of its Beijing-based correspondents were expelled from China for a story which they had nothing to do with.
Whether it comes from austere publications like the Wall Street Journal or trolls on Facebook and Twitter, there is an overt message that if something is wrong in China the entire population is complicit.
There is an overt message that if something is wrong in China the entire population is complicit. The subtext of such messages is that it is somehow okay to pick on Chinese people in the midst of a crisis. It’s no okay, it’s the textbook definition of racist.
Everybody hurts sometime
The simple fact is offence is being caused, on a very large scale, and Chinese people are hurting.
Friends within China have expressed dismay at insensitive attitudes towards their plight, whilst the distress of Chinese Australians is at a level I’ve never seen before.
The atmosphere hanging above Chinese people is palpable.
In her hopes and fears my friend Madeline is far from alone. She’s become a nameless face in a crowd that includes one in every five people on this planet. Their names are a not a virus.
Marcus Reubenstein is the editor of, China-focussed news site, APAC News. Formerly he was a senior correspondent with SBS World News Australia and a news producer with the Seven Network.