In Paris, a Taiwanese woman complains about people moving away from her on a train because she is wearing a mask. In Hungary, Vietnamese shop owners put up signs saying that they are not Chinese. In South Korea, more than half a million people have petitioned the president to stop Chinese people from entering the country.
This week as the coronavirus that emerged in China spread to more than a dozen countries around the world, there have been instances of racial abuse and discrimination against people of Chinese citizenship and descent as well as those of other east or south-east Asian heritages.
Such prejudice echoes historical episodes of blaming ethnic groups for disease outbreaks and plays to contemporary geopolitical friction between Beijing and other capitals, in areas from 5G mobile to trade, said João Rangel de Almeida, a member of the epidemic response group at the Wellcome Trust, the London-based medical charity. “Diseases are a great tool to magnify social trends and tensions,” he said. “A catalytic force like an outbreak brings forth all this discourse. We see this fear and this panic generates an enormous need to pinpoint scapegoats,” he said, pointing to the discrimination against San Francisco’s Chinese community during an early 1900s plague outbreak.
The latest coronavirus outbreak prompted the Courrier Picard, a French regional newspaper, to run — and later apologise for — articles headlined “Yellow alert” and “New yellow peril?”, apparently playing to longstanding western racist tropes about Chinese people. French citizens of Asian descent have posted pictures of themselves on social media holding up signs reading “Je ne suis pas un virus”, “I am not a virus”, and have hashtagged the same phrase in response to reports of racist incidents, such as those experienced by a Taiwanese woman on a suburban rail journey.
“I sat down with my headphones and suddenly heard the word ‘Chinese!’ and a mother and child got off to change carriages. I realised the passengers were all down the other end. They were looking at me a bit weirdly,” said the 30-year-old, who works in a fashion store catering to Chinese and Korean tourists and asked to remain anonymous.
“And the other day I was in a shop, without a mask this time, and it was the same thing. I heard the word ‘Chinese’ and this woman pulled up her jumper to cover her face.” She added that some of her French friends of Chinese origin had been told “Why don’t you stay home?” when they had gone shopping in the fashionable 16th arrondissement of western Paris.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, tweeted critically about the announcement of the first cases of coronavirus in the country. He said: “And they said we were speculators and alarmists. Open borders, useless people in government. We pray to God that there are no disasters, but whoever has done wrong must pay.” Italian media have reported cases of Chinese tourists being verbally abused and spat at in Venice, and of a 13-year-old boy being forced out of a football match by insults.
In the UK, which confirmed its first two coronavirus cases on Friday, some parents of children of Chinese heritage have reported bullying including name-calling such as “China virus”.
Elsewhere in Europe, people of non-Chinese Asian heritage have felt the need to make clear they are not Chinese. At least two shops in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, where the government is stridently anti-immigrant, have put up signs reading “Vietnamiak vagyunk”, meaning “We are Vietnamese”.
Examples of discrimination have also been reported in Asian countries, some of which have longstanding political tensions with China.
In South Korea, which has seven confirmed cases of the virus, local residents have protested against the establishment of government-built isolation centres, citing fears the virus will spread. Several cases of restaurants, plastic surgery clinics and taxis turning away Chinese patrons have been documented by local media.
Japanese media have reported “No Chinese” signs being put up by food businesses, including a sweet shop in Hakone and a ramen restaurant in Sapporo. The stores’ staff have claimed this is to protect against infection.
A hotel in the coastal resort of Hoi An in Vietnam summed up the growing international prejudice with an apologetic sign in Chinese and English reading: “We must say no to Chinese [guests] these days”.
Additional reporting by Ben Marino in New York, Valerie Hopkins in Budapest, Robin Harding in Tokyo, Edward White in Seoul and Christian Shepherd in Beijing.