Opinion: Coronavirus outbreak is no excuse for xenophobia against China and its people

Opinion: Coronavirus outbreak is no excuse for xenophobia against China and its people

Fear over the Covid-19 epidemic is fuelling bigotry, but now more than ever we need to show empathy

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Striking hospital employees and opposition lawmakers demand Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam close the border to the mainland because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Photo: EPA-EFE

Hong Kong has a xenophobia problem. In the midst of a public health emergency, when what we need most is empathy, far-right groups have hijacked the issue and used it to direct hatred towards our mainland neighbours. But while bigots might get momentary pleasure from feeling superior to those across the border, these attitudes will only come back to bite them.

Local hatred for mainlanders is well-documented. Certain media outlets have portrayed them as “locusts”, and only recently used the derogatory slur “shina”. This propagation of xenophobic attitudes has taken effect, with even those who identify as “liberal” making the occasional comment about how “swarms of mainlanders” are “ruining Hong Kong”. It is safe to say that we are not the most tolerant city in the region.

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The recent coronavirus outbreak has taken this hatred to new levels. Amid the wave of fake news that has provoked panic buying across the city, forums such as LIHKG have spread misinformation about mainlanders “secretly camping in North Point” and how face masks “were being withheld by Customs for political reasons”. And as social media platforms have grown in the 17 years since Sars, hatred now spreads much more easily than it did when that disease again originated in China.

Xenophobic attitudes also manifest themselves in more subtle forms. In the recent calls for the government to ban mainlanders from entering Hong Kong, members of the opposition have sought to justify this as a “public health” measure. Even though the virus infects people regardless of where they are from, the opposition has made an exception for Hongkongers returning from the mainland because “they are our own people”, and in doing so have exposed their own prejudice. While it’s one thing to discuss curbing immigration, we should be very cautious when people insist on measures that don’t seem to match their stated aim.

Even if you disagree with all of the above, there is incentive for us to put a stop to hateful attitudes. As many papers here and in the West have reported, the Covid-19 outbreak has led to the targeting of Chinese people, or even Chinese-looking people, abroad. In the most widely known case, a Chinese woman in Paris was kicked off a train by other passengers for wearing a mask.

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The attitudes in Hong Kong only perpetuate the idea that people of Chinese origins are diseased or “unclean”, thereby helping to justify the discrimination against Asians abroad. Even if you do not identify as Chinese, your appearance often dictates how people treat you. So other than being morally abhorrent, these attitudes do not even benefit those who support them.

At a time when lives are at stake, we need to show empathy towards one another. Regardless of what you think about Beijing, its people are not to blame for your misgivings. In the midst of crisis, we should all hope that kindness, rather than hatred, prevails.

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