Coronavirus, anti-Asian racism and sinophobia

Coronavirus outbreak spreads fears and anxiety around the world and the constant exposure to the news has triggered an infodemic. More than 35 000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 724 people have died. There is a great concern, so great that racist incidents have multiplied across several countries. Anti-Asian racism and sinophobia are becoming acceptable again. Since the virus is originated in China’s Wuhan, Asian communities are stigmatized. People put masks on themselves in front of Asian people as we can see in the video below, for fear of having the coronavirus.

Asian restaurant visits in Paris have fallen by 30%, Chinatown is turning into a no-go zone, insults are becoming commonplace and anti-Asian racism and sinophobia are justified. The psychosis on this virus has revealed anti-Asian racism, often underestimated and denied. Fear and paranoia bring out the worst in people and media take advantage of it, as was seen on the front page of the Courrier Picard, a French newspaper, with the headline ‘Chinese Coronavirus, Yellow Alert’; this infodemic has made many people confident to be openly racist.

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Sinophobia and the ‘yellow peril’

Through the coronavirus, the ‘yellow peril’ is making a comeback. This term came to be used since the end of the 19th century to describe the fear of Chinese and Japanese domination and influence in the world. It was introduced by William II, in German by die ‘Gelbe Gefahr’ ‘as a legend of a lithograph opposing Christian Europe and Buddhist Asia – suggesting a military and religious peril’.

This term is then applied in an economic context, at the beginning of the capitalist era. It exacerbated the tension and worry of many about the possible decline of the white race in Europe, which went through several economic crises during the 19th century. This anxiety and tension will create the imagery of the ‘Chinese worker’ who does better and is cheaper than others, thus representing a real threat.

This concern for white supremacy over the yellow race was expressed in many writing pieces in western countries, as for instance with Désiré Descamps, declaring in the Revue socialiste, a French socialist review: ’[This competition] is a perpetual threat to the white or European-American people exposed to economic assaults by the representatives of the yellow race. The latter, as we know, are very sober. They make do with derisory salaries, which earn them the self-serving sympathy of all the exploiters all over the world’.

The ’yellow peril’ is today defined in both economic and demographic levels. The economic boom in China in recent decades, which is now one of the world’s leading powers, has once again aroused fears of the decline of Western countries. This fear is reflected in media platforms denouncing everything that can tarnish China’s image: an aurian regime, cheap and dangerous manufactured products, a lack of hygiene. The generalization of facts about China in order to further generalize anti-Asian racism and sinophobia are the consequences of the China-bashing.

China-bashing inherits from the ‘yellow peril’

Many stories about China published in diverse media platforms have a negative slant. China-bashing ‘refers to the favored sport of Western media of all tendencies—including the left, unfortunately—that consists of systematically denigrating, even criminalizing, everything done in China’. From China’s denunciation of its business practices during the US presidential 2012 elections to an ambient pessimism by political experts about the Chinese economy, China-bashing has become widespread in the mainstream media. Everything is being done to ensure China loses credibility at the economic, social and cultural levels to reduce its influence.

Chinese restaurants are one of the favorite targets of China-bashing. Lack of hygiene and dirtiness often label Chinese restaurants.

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Yet the lack of hygiene is not more serious than in other restaurants. According to a French newspaper, in 2015, out of 980 Asian restaurants in Paris, 350 of which offered Chinese food, only 6 had the lowest score of 1 (out of 5), i.e. 0.6%, two had a score of 1.5, and 9 had a score of 2. Similarly, if we look at the comments made on Asian restaurants in Paris on Tripadvisor in 2015, the lack of hygiene is not the most mentioned.

The most three common adjectives used in comments for Asian restaurants are super, delicious and clean

These stereotypes reinforce suspicion and mistrust and provide a rational explanation for the development of the coronavirus in China. This fear of the coronavirus, the prevailing sinophobia, and anti-Asian racism, reminds us of what happened just a few years ago when the same panic occurred with the Ebola virus.

Virus fears fuel racism and hostility

The Ebola virus had also given way to paranoia and racism. Several Italian municipalities had adopted ‘anti-Ebola’ orders, providing for the banning of non-documented persons without a medical certificate, or even a university refused a Nigerian student to avoid any contamination with Ebola and raised controversy.

Several voices raised against the generalisation and racism against afro-descendant people, including Shoana Cachelle, an entrepreneur.

Fear is epidemic

The virus cannot be controlled, there are no borders, it is invisible and one knows very little about it. Misinformation spreads and fear and panic sets in. ‘Fear often occurs under the growing effect of self-persuasion. It finds its reason in the explanations we find rational’. The explanations founded blame the other, the foreigner, the one who carries the virus and represents a threat.

They are easy to identify and one does everything possible to distance themselves the virus carriers at all costs. ‘Exacerbating the risk of dying en masse, the collective representation of the contamination is regularly supported by the mainstream media as if it is likely to happen’. The media play on fears and sensationalism helps to awaken this fear and motivate racist acts and attitudes.

This fear does not only affect Western countries. In South Korea, for example, where several restaurants decided to ban Chinese people from entering.

Faced with anti-Asian racism and sinophobia, many French Asian descent people denounce anti-Asian racism under the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus.

Denouncing Anti-Asian Racism through #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus

Many French Asian descent people vocalize on social media their racist experiences since the outbreak coronavirus.

The hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus has become viral and translated in many languages.

History repeats itself, a scapegoat is sought as soon as a possible threat could endanger the humanity and comfort of Westerners. Ignorance cannot excuse anti-Asian racism. Find out about the coronavirus, question yourself and make up your own opinion. There is nothing more dangerous than stereotyping human persons because of their race. It is time for many to confront their conception of racial superiority and their racist preconceived judgments by removing their blinkers.


I’m Aissa Sica, founder of the blog, Womxn of Color, sharing stories from different perspectives of transgender and cisgender women of color in the world. You can follow me on Instagram.


China 2013, Samir Amin, 01/03/2013

Henri-Pierre Jeudy, La peur virale, dans Lignes2004/3 (n° 15), pages 78 à 88

Léa Guedj, Coronavirus : le blues des restaurateurs asiatiques à Paris, 4/02/2020

Clara Tellier, Une université américaine refuse un Nigérian par peur d’Ebola, 15/10/2014

«Divieto di dimora a chi è senza documenti e certificato medico» Il Tar boccia l’ordinanza anti-ebola, 15/07/2015

Coronavirus, anti-Asian racism and sinophobia