Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
The coronavirus outbreak in China seems terrifying. Drone video clips of a deserted Wuhan, its bustling streets emptied of pedestrians due to fear of contact with those who might be carriers, continue to pop up on my social feeds, along with mounting casualty numbers. Over 7,700 people are now infected with the illness; over 170 people have died, and the disease has popped up in at least 20 territories and countries around the world, from Australia to Vietnam.
But the disease isn’t the only thing that’s spreading – or the only thing causing harm. Across the internet, we’ve seen widespread eruptions of racist scapegoating, blaming Chinese for a disease that has so far only killed Chinese. The posts frequently claim or imply that the epidemic is the result of Chinese eating habits and hygiene, often pointing to a Chinese social media clip in which a female “influencer” is seen eating a bowl of bat soup, while saying that Chinese “eat anything and everything and infect the world with viruses,” calling Chinese a “dirty people who can’t keep order,” and warning people to “think twice before ordering anything Chinese.”
At the root of these reactions is something deeply insidious and very familiar. Throughout history, cultures have used ugly slurs on the savagery, backwardness or filthiness of foreigners as a way to rationalize excluding them, ejecting them or eliminating them; we’re seeing this today in the language that Trump and some in his administration often use to talk about Latin American migrants and other communities, framing them as bestial and subhuman, as violent and barbaric, as diseased and unclean, all to rationalize inhumane policies.
Food and hygiene slander have long been the spear tip of attacks by contemptuous (or envious) Westerners seeking to make Chinese seem impossibly alien, and thus unassimilable and inadmissible to their “civilized” countries. Back at the turn of the 19th century, Chinese were commonly regarded as “dirty, heathen rat-eaters”; vintage ads for a pest poison called “Rough on Rats” played on this perception; also by suggesting that it was nearly as effective at controlling vermin as hungry Chinese people, while op-eds took that stereotype and expanded and elevated it to fearful, monstrous proportions, with a typical editorial in the September 29, 1854 edition of the New York Daily Tribune calling Chinese “uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions,” and warning the federal government to ban further influx of Chinese into the United States.
Spurred on by these descriptions, some took it into their own hands to reduce the number of Chinese in the country, gathering vigilante bands to burn down Chinatowns and kill their residents. One of the bloodiest mass murders of Chinese took place right here my city of Los Angeles in 1871, as a mob of over 500 invaded the city’s old Chinese quarter and slaughtered and hung 20 men, mutilating their corpses in the deadliest known single lynching incident in US history.
By 1882, the tenor of Sinophobic rage was so great that the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning new immigrants from China entirely and making it unlawful for existing Chinese in America to ever become citizens. The Act is still the only law in American history to ever restrict entry to the US explicitly on the basis of race, and it wasn’t repealed for 61 years, when the 1943 Magnuson Act finally permitted an entry quota of just 105 Chinese per year.
Today, hostility toward China is experiencing in an edgy spike, fueled in part by Trump’s trade war and frothing fusillades of tweets. The impact is being felt by Chinese Americans, as researchers of Chinese descent, many of them US citizens, are being purged from universities and technology companies, and questions of loyalty that haven’t been raised for decades are creeping into public discourse. As the coronavirus epidemic spreads, Asians of all backgrounds are reporting that they’re being treated with unnerving suspicion, to the point where some are joking that they plan on coughing loudly in public just to “see who’s racist.” There are sotto voce whispers to avoid Chinatowns and other places where Asians congregate. There are calls from the fringe to ban the entry of Chinese to the US.
And it’s not just America where Chinese and other Asians are reporting this. Thea Suh, a friend of mine from Germany – a country with four confirmed coronavirus cases – says that news outlets there have featured commentators suggesting that Asians “deserve” what they’re getting, while she’s personally observed train passengers visibly covering their mouths and moving away from where she’s seated. “Racism against people of Asian descent has been subtle in Germany, but it has always been here,” she told me. “With this recent coronavirus outbreak, it has just gotten worse…we are basically stuck between getting ridiculed and being the recipient of disgust.”
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This coronavirus is new. But the diseases of xenophobia and racism are not. And as history has shown, outbreaks of the latter are potentially harder to contain, and far more lethal.