Updated: Aug 16, 2021
By NATALIE MEYER
Global Business Journalism reporter
Part 1 of a 3-story special report
“‘Did you bring bat soup for lunch today?,’ was one of the consistent jabs made by my [assigned] mentor at work,” says Vivian Yuen, a Chinese-American master’s student. “He would also point out anytime I cleared my throat and insinuated that I had COVID.”
Normally based in Beijing, Yuen is in the middle of completing her studies at Tsinghua University. Like many international students, she returned home to the U.S. during Chinese New Year break in January 2020, and has continued her studies remotely from California ever since.
In August 2020 she got a position as an accountant at a small construction agency. It wasn’t long before she decided to leave. “I only stayed with that company for about a month,” said Yuen, explaining how her supervisor made her feel she was being too sensitive about the racist comments.
Born and bred in California, which over 1.2 million ethnic Chinese people call home, Yuen says she was “definitely subjected to racism and “othering” in the U.S. before COVID,” but the pandemic made it more obvious.
Yuen’s parents are from China and immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s. Both her mother and father have received similar COVID-related xenophobia, she says. Looking back, Yuen remembers being teased as a child because of her race.
“I don’t know a single person my age who wasn’t bullied for their looks in elementary school,” she says, adding that “kids were just ignorant.”
Now 23 years old, Yuen is less forgiving when it comes to race comments made by American officials: “Any time I read Asian American stories about COVID-related racism, it leaves me feeling deeply upset and just angry that we live in a country that still promotes that, especially at the time with a president that promoted this.”
On former President Donald Trump’s final day in office, America’s COVID-19 death toll reached 400,000 people. The World Health Organization (WHO) gave the virus a generic name to avoid inciting discrimination against a particular country or group; Trump did the opposite. For two months after the first case of the virus was reported in the U.S. in January 2020, he referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” “China virus” and “kung flu.” Time Magazine reported that Trump stoked public hysteria and racist attacks by “normalizing anti-Asian xenophobia."
The impact of Sinophobia on “the development of Chinese nationalist consciousness” and individual identity
While these attacks were damaging to the mental and physical wellbeing of Chinese individuals, Pankaj Mishra wrote in a March 2020 Bloomberg Opinion piece that they strengthened the legitimacy of the Chinese government. The shared negative experiences of Chinese people around the world strengthened Chinese nationalism, he said.
Calling it a “wave of Sinophobia” that consolidates “what is proving to be the most successful nationalism of the modern era," he wrote that COVID discrimination added fuel to the fire of an “us versus them” dichotomy.
“What those hurling racist abuse at China and the Chinese (and people who merely “look” Chinese) may not realize is that the plight of Chinese people abroad has always been central to the development of a Chinese nationalist consciousness," Mishra wrote in his Bloomberg Opinion article. "The Chinese goal of becoming a globally respected nation-state emerged out of the experience of defeat and humiliation by Western powers in the 19th century – but also the racial prejudice endured by millions of Chinese migrant laborers who left home in the first hectic phase of globalization.”
The internet reacted to the story with mixed responses and heated discussion in the comment section. Away from netizen debate, the story provokes questions of how migrants identify, whether racial prejudice binds them together through their shared experiences and in doing so, whether it encourages consumer nationalism in solidarity against xenophobic treatment.
When it comes to the racism experienced by ethnic Chinese and Asian people in the U.S. from 2020 onwards, it’s important to note that these groups first started migrating to the U.S. almost 200 years ago. The first global wave of Chinese mass migration was from 1840 to 1940. Around 20 million Chinese emigrated in search of economic opportunities such as California’s gold rush in 1849, or because of war, hunger and corruption.
Chinese people and other people of Asian descent have visibly been a part of America’s collective identity for two centuries and in spite of this, they are still considered by some as “other.”
While many migrants have said they maintain some connection, identity or otherwise, to their country of birth, those who identify more strongly as “Chinese” rather than “Chinese-American” or “Chinese-Australian” tend to be among the older generation. This is not surprising given that self- identity with respect to nationality is influenced by factors such as cultural heritage, reasons for emigration and time spent in one’s native versus new home country.
“Personally, I identify as Chinese-American. My parents probably identify more as Chinese, while my brother [identifies] more as Chinese-America [too],” said Yuen. Her parents aren’t alone.
“My parents, having grown up in China and established their identity in this country – they feel more comfortable identifying themselves as Chinese people,” said Hailin Wang, Yuen’s classmate who immigrated to Canada from China when she was nine-years-old.
Yuen and Wang’s parents are amongst nearly two-thirds of America’s 18 million-strong Asian descent population who came to the country following the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. As citizens of an allied nation in the Second World War, Chinese people were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. in limited numbers after the 1943 Magnuson Act was introduced. Prior to this they had been banned.
For at least two generations of America’s modern day population, the Traditionalists (born 1945 and before) and the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Asian Americans did not make up a large portion of the U.S. community in the early part of their lifetimes. With a 1960s population of close to 180 million, only three percent of U.S. citizens were of Asian descent prior to 1965.
A significant portion of Americans have come to see Asian people as part of their collective nationality as recently as half a century ago. The newness of their citizenship status in the U.S. and Canada, and society’s acceptance of this, or lack thereof, is reflected in the ongoing trials faced by Asian Americans through their personal identity crises, as well as the ignorant racism towards them that exists in continents like North America. Both have been exacerbated during the pandemic.
“I truly think that racism against Chinese Americans has always been a problem in the U.S., but it’s [just been] made more apparent because of COVID,” says Yuen. Having been born in America, Vivian feels connected to both her home country and her Chinese cultural heritage passed on by her parents and grandparents.
“It [the racism] didn’t necessarily make me more or less patriotic with the U.S.,” said Yuen when asked if she felt more connected to one part of her self-identity or the other following the racial attacks.
“But definitely during these [COVID] times of racism, I couldn’t help but feel prouder of my [Chinese] heritage because I felt like I needed to put that wall up. It was almost like a defense mechanism, where I needed something to anchor me,” said Yuen.
Watching from China as Sinophobia unfolds in North America: Hailin and Stella’s stories
Wang watched from China as the news report xenophobic attacks on the Asian community in Western countries. She had made the decision to wait out the pandemic with her family on the Mainland.
“As a Chinese Canadian person who hadn’t experienced COVID in Canada, I was surprised that this is what North America has turned into,” said Wang.
What was most disappointing for her, was seeing that the “progress that had been made with Canada becoming a more inclusive, multicultural country over the past few decades,” had suddenly “just gone out the door.”
Wang identifies as a third-cultured individual, and describes herself as being both from China and Canada – “the intersection between Chinese and Canadian,” but “not strongly one or the other,” she says. The pandemic also made her feel more in touch with her Chinese roots, although she thinks this is due to having been based in China since the start of her master program in the fall of 2019, rather than due to the COVID racism that she observed.
“I do feel less Canadian [now],” said Wang.
A handful of other ethnic Chinese students are in the same program at Tsinghua University alongside Yuen, Wang and their fellow international peers. Some, like Wang, immigrated from China to a Western country with their family when they were young. Others are like Yuen – born abroad to Chinese parents.
Stella Zhang, 25, was born in Sichuan, China, and immigrated with her parents and sister to Vancouver, Canada, when she was nine-years-old. Like Wang, she remained in China since the outbreak of the pandemic, which sheltered her from experiencing the discrimination faced by Asian Americans at the height of COVID-19 in the U.S. However, Zhang and Wang each admitted to having been exposed to racial stereotyping when they first moved to Canada with their respective families.
“I have heard of some stories [of COVID-related xenophobia] from both my Chinese friends and Chinese Canadian friends. Though there aren’t as many anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada [as] there are in the U.S.,” said Wang, adding that the news had recently reported an increased number of attacks in Vancouver.
Wang says that while COVID has strengthened Sinophobia in the West, the pandemic has just provided an outlet or scapegoat for people who harbor racism towards Asian-Americans to express their anger. The most vulnerable of targets, she says, are the elderly especially given “the stereotype of [Asians] being less outspoken.”
According to Zhang, those who engage or contribute to the racist attacks are uninformed and undereducated on the topics that they are arguing.
“I think if someone is rational and they understand science and they understand how disease control works, they wouldn’t blame something like this on a certain color or race – that’s not how it works," she said. "If you understand novel diseases, if you’re educated, then you’re not going to be racist, even under these types of conditions. People who are manifesting that – it’s because they were always racist, not because of newfound racism.”
Zhang is a chameleon in both China and Canada and says she feels more Canadian when in China, and more Chinese when in Canada. She has kept in touch with her Chinese migrant classmates in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, but is unaware of their experience with racism during the pandemic. She counts herself lucky for having avoided that kind of abuse at this time due to being in Beijing and being Chinese-looking herself. When asked about what she’s seen or heard about COVID discrimination, Zhang gives a balanced answer.
“In the news I read specifically about American-Chinese people being treated really badly in the United States," she said, "but I've also read articles about bullying within China where foreign students or workers who remained in China during this whole were discriminated against [too].”
She feels the same way about having been bullied as a child, both in Canada and China.
“Being bullied is like a necessary element to your experience...that’s part of literally every migrant student’s experience,” she said.
Fortunately for Zhang, while she remembers being bullied in Canada during her elementary school years, she says her English was very limited at the time so she couldn’t really understand or remember the negative things that were said to her. It was only once she was in high school that she realized the extent of it:
“I think I was in grade 10 when one of my previous elementary friends told me that I was being treated badly by my teacher and I had no idea that was happening,” she said.
When it comes to her childhood memories of being bullied in China, her recollection is much clearer. Left crying as she sat in the corner of the school gymnasium, Zhang says she had no friends and was teased by her hyper-competitive peers for not being amongst those at the top of her class.
“I was bullied really badly in China – way worse than when I was in Canada,” she said.
This comparison has allowed her to view her experience and those of others being targeted more objectively: “I don't think that [discrimination or exclusion] is necessarily something that only exists when it only pertains to a cross race context. I think it happens everywhere, even within the same culture.”
Having lived 11 years of her life in China, and 14 in Canada, Zhang only came back to China in 2019 to commence study at Tsinghua University. She’s fluent in Mandarin and comfortably uses e-commerce apps unlike many of her foreign peers in China. Naturally this means she is used to purchasing both foreign and local brands and is able to compare and search for products more so than her Western friends who don’t speak Chinese, but are studying the same master’s program.
As a millennial, Zhang loves traveling far and wide whenever she gets the chance. “I think that’s the only thing that's changed about my purchasing habit – anything related to tourism and travel,” she answered when asked about changes in her consumer behavior during COVID.
While Anti-Asian xenophobia at home in Canada concerns her, it hasn’t changed her approach to Canadian or other foreign brands.
“You know [with] personal, everyday products I don't recall a single incident where some racist event changed my purchasing habit. I don't think that happened,” she said.
Like her experience of being bullied as a child in both China and Canada, Zhang takes it all in her stride and doesn’t treat incidents as interrelated. When it came to lockdown panic buying in bulk, her family followed the crowd in stocking up on staples before supermarket shelves were cleared.
“Everything I buy [today] is of the same quality and the same price [as before COVID]” said Zhang. “In terms of quality and price, I don’t feel like there was that much of a change within China,” she says.
Similar to her peers, Zhang says she was “angered” and “sickened” by Trump’s comments about Asian Americans and his decision to call COVID “a Chinese virus” but she believes he isn’t a reflection of all Americans: “I don’t blame that on the entire American public. I just think that is his own problem, just like I said before – he was always racist. It’s just a chance to manifest that.”
Chinese students return home during the pandemic
“I have experienced COVID-related racism,” says 19-year-old Michaela from China, who declined to give a family name. Michaela was studying overseas during the pandemic but recently returned home.
“When I was in the U.K. in December , a drunk man yelled at me and my friends on the train and said that he will bring a bomb to China and explode the country. I got really scared even though I knew that man had a problem.”
As a teenage undergraduate studying abroad in London, Michaela was confronted by negative news articles when COVID started to spread globally. “I constantly saw news that Asian people were [being] hit in the face because other people thought that the virus was from China and [that] all Chinese people carry the virus,” she said.
Jiahui Xu, 25, was also in London in February 2020, but unlike Michaela, she says that neither she nor her friends experienced COVID-related racism.
“I’m not surprised as I know there is always racism towards Chinese/Asians,” said Xu.
“I think the discordant sound has always existed between China and Western countries,” agreed Siyao, a 28-year-old Chinese student who asked not to have her family name included. Like Michaela, Siyao recently returned to China from her studies at Oxford University during the pandemic.
From a local Chinese perspective, neither Jiahui, Michaela or Siyao said they had felt motivated to shift their consumption from foreign to local goods as a result of COVID-related racism directed at ethnic Asian communities.
For Xu, consumption was occasionally driven by her sense of patriotism, but against a brand rather than a certain country.
“I won’t buy products from some particular companies that showed racism and disrespect to Chinese people,” said Xu. “I have feelings that Chinese people will be more united.”
For the most part she said that she didn’t think her consumption had been affected during the pandemic, but she did admit to spending more on masks, sanitizer and alcohol wipes due to the “need for safety and hygiene.”
“I don’t feel less inclined to buy products from a particular country,” agreed Michaela. “I always focus on the quality of the product. I know a lot of Chinese cosmetics brands are making their way. If I see recommendations, I would love to try those Chinese brands, but what keeps me buying [a local or foreign brand] is still the quality.”
Siyao says that her consumption of Chinese and foreign products was more affected by her current location and safety perceptions related to the virus:
“When COVID occurred, I was in the U.K., so I bought things originating from the U.K. or Europe," she said. "Last year when I came back home, I selected to buy local products because they seemed to be safer from the virus. But sometimes, I will also buy some foreign products that are not sold in China.
"On the one hand, I was afraid of the shortages of necessities; on the other hand, I found consumption could help to relieve anxiety.”
Siyao, Michaela and Jiahui’s experiences paint a mixed opinion of pandemic-fueled attacks in the U.K. during COVID. And while pandemic-fueled racism towards ethnic Asians have been occurring globally, they have been largely concentrated in the United States since the start of the outbreak.
Attacks on Asians in the U.S. on the rise since the outbreak of COVID
Yuen’s experience with discrimination in the workplace was limited to verbal comments, but during the COVID outbreak there has been a broad spectrum of abuse towards Asians in the United States.
In April 2020, Philadelphia-based public media organization WHYY published an article by Rob Buscher about how Asian Americans are grappling with racism amid the pandemic. Buscher reported that 1,100 incidents were documented by Stop AAPI Hate reporting center in just the last two weeks of March 2020, ranging from verbal assault to violent physical attacks. Amongst the worst incidents at the start of the outbreak was a March 14 stabbing of a Hmong American family in Texas and an acid attack in Brooklyn against a Chinese-American woman only a month later on April 5, he said.
Social media has been a powerful tool in raising collective awareness of the severity of racist attacks during the pandemic. Hollywood and celebrity heavyweights have thrown their support behind members of the Asian American community who have been targeted in cowardly incidents of pandemic-related violence, and they are using their voice and audience to call for protection against the attacks.
On March 16, 2021, eight people, including six Asian women, were shot dead by a white gunman at three Asian-owned massage parlors in Georgia. A day later, Award-winning actress Viola Davis shared nine images on her personal Instagram account which told the story of the most recent case of racist harm inflicted on America’s Asian citizens. Davis captioned the post “PROTECT. ASIAN. LIVES,” and in the images were written the following statistics:
“There were 3,800 anti-Asian attacks this past year alone, and xenophobic violence has spiked by at least 150%. Based on NYPD data, in the first quarter of 2020, 23 arrests were made for racially motivated crimes – 39.1 percent of which were of an anti-Asian bias nature, compared to 6.1 percent in 2019. There were 122 incidents of anti-Asian American hate crimes in 16 of the country’s most populous cities in 2020 – an increase of almost 150% over the previous year, according to data compiled by California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.”
COVID-related racism hasn’t driven Chinese migrants like Vivian, Hailin and Stella, nor Chinese citizens like Siyao, Michaela and Jiahui towards Chinese nationalism in the demand for goods and services, but it has for some others, said China-based professional Alistair Bayley.
The impact of anti-Asian discrimination on China’s domestic consumption
“This year there was such an overt appearance of it [xenophobia] all. It became so visible and so tangible that this started to become a much bigger issue,” said 27-year-old Bayley, who hails from Australia and has one million fans on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
As a Chinese social media influencer, Bayley has been living in Beijing for the past two and a half years and says he has noticed a significant increase in Chinese demand for locally made products since the coronavirus outbreak.
Working for a social media start-up, Bayley’s role combines being a key opinion leader (KOL) on e-commerce in the Chinese market, with doing sales livestreams for both foreign and local products.
“Historically in China there has been a tendency to support locally made goods,” said Bayley. “That may have been something that was [most obvious amongst] people who were middle-aged, [whereas] the youth were always more willing to accept overseas and the West. Now I think there has been more of a marked step in the other direction for sure.”
Bayley believes that xenophobic behavior experienced by Chinese people living abroad at the start of the outbreak has been an important driver behind the increase in Chinese consumer nationalism.
“Especially with youth in China in first and second tier cities... whether it’s [affected] them personally and they’ve been overseas studying and personally impacted by xenophobic or racial attacks, or whether it’s been someone that they know who’s been directly exposed to these sorts of attacks or this sort of abuse on a public level,” said Bayley.
In an article published in The Diplomat in May 2020, Brian Wong wrote that COVID-19 has fuelled a nationalistic response from the Chinese government. Earlier that same month, the Chinese government had introduced a new policy called 国内消费内循环, which translates to “internal cycle of domestic consumption” but has also been referred to as China’s “dual circulation” strategy. With an objective of “reducing China’s dependence on overseas technology in the long term,” China’s commerce ministry committed to boosting consumption and developing a strong domestic market, according to Reuters.
From Wong’s perspective, the Chinese government’s reaction to the pandemic has been to broadcast “state-sanctioned nationalism” and endorse “grassroots-initiated nationalism.' By doing so, he says that the Chinese Communist Party has been able to “tactically pivot” Chinese consumers towards domestic consumption through harnessing the negative stories and experiences of racism faced by the Chinese diaspora across the world during COVID. According to Wong, a new consumer group has developed; that which he calls “China’s COVID-battered population.”
News stories over the past year have agreed with Wong, but none of the Chinese students or migrants interviewed for this article did.
Their consumption of foreign and local Chinese products during the pandemic, they said, had been unaffected by stories of COVID-fueled racist attacks on ethnic Asian communities. What the pandemic had taught them though, was the importance of helping to keep local brands afloat and thriving.
“Racist foreign things are not enough [to influence my choices as a consumer]. Some factories in China are major producers for global brands,” said Siyao. “But I am inclined to make more of an effort in [helping with] the development of local brands, from consumption to brand operation or policy making.”