Editor’s note: Matthew Bossons (@MattBossons) is the managing director of the Shanghai-based publication Radii. He has been living in China since 2014. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.
When word began to spread on social media and group chats in mid-September that one of China’s top health officials had warned foreigners to avoid physical contact with foreigners as a precaution against the monkey, the news hit me with an unshakable sense of urgency.
The recommendation was the first of five issued by Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in response to mainland China’s first monkeypox case in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing.
Wu posted the advice to his nearly half a million followers on Weibo, China’s heavily censored version of Twitter, and it was immediately picked up and spread by state-backed media.
Wu’s choice of words was a far cry from the World Health Organization’s advice, which recommends “limiting close contact with people with suspected or confirmed monkeypox” and avoiding singling out any nationality at risk of spreading the disease.
After experiencing the wave of xenophobia that accompanied the closing of China’s borders in the spring of 2020 – when Covid-19 was largely under control in China and raging abroad – Wu’s claims linking foreigners to the disease immediately raised alarm bells.
I left my hometown of Vancouver, Canada in 2014 to live and work as a journalist in the metropolis of Guangzhou in southern China. In April 2020, I saw the city’s expatriate residents begin to be shunned by locals concerned about imported Covid-19 cases, despite the majority of imported cases being brought in by Chinese returnees, the Foreign Ministry said at the time.
Famously, many of the city’s African residents were evicted from their homes and denied access to hotels even though they had not left the country since the pandemic began. For fear of contracting the virus, taxi drivers refused to pick up foreigners, gyms turned away non-Chinese customers and foreigners on the subway found themselves with more personal space than usual as local passengers fled to the next carriage.
These memories came flooding back after Wu’s social media post. And as I pondered how local commuters might catch me on the bus to work next Monday, a bigger concern emerged: how my five-year-old daughter would be treated by her peers at the local daycare she attends in our new home. Shanghai. (We went from Guangzhou to Beijing in July 2020, and from Beijing to Shanghai in July 2021).
Despite her Chinese ancestry, my daughter, Evelyn, doesn’t feel particularly Chinese, as she often points out to my wife, who comes from Jiangsu Province in eastern China. Thus, he stands out among his classmates, who are all ethnically Chinese.
My worst fears were apparently confirmed the following Monday afternoon, when Evelyn returned from school and told her mother that she wanted more than anything to “look Chinese.” Visibly upset, he said some of his classmates mocked him by calling him “waigou”, which means “foreigner” in Mandarin Chinese.
Did Wu’s advice about foreigners make it into the dinner table conversation at his classmates’ homes over the weekend? It was the first time she had ever said something like that, and as a parent, it frustrated me to know that my daughter was uncomfortable in her own skin.
Evelyn was only three years old and had not yet gone to school in the spring of 2020, helping to insulate her from Guangzhou’s wave of discrimination caused by Covid. This time, however, he is much more vulnerable to health-related hysteria.
Throughout the week, I was given much more space than usual on my way to and from the office. Online, I saw a seemingly large and undoubtedly vocal group of Chinese Internet users spewing xenophobic comments on social media. Some encouraged their countrymen to “wash their hands after touching a foreigner”, while extremist voices claimed “justified racism against foreigners” and called for China to close its borders to foreigners.
The words of power carry weight, and careless comments or ill-advised statements run the risk of affecting other segments of society and fueling xenophobic attitudes. We saw this clearly with former US President Donald Trump’s repeated use of terms like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu”, which provided cover for racists on Twitter and probably contributed to the escalation of anti-Asian incidents in the US and other Western countries. the nations
As an authoritative health professional, Wu’s statement was beyond reckless, and the state-sponsored media’s willingness to pass his advice without question was reckless at best and malicious at worst. It has fueled anti-foreigner sentiment online and put China’s large foreign-born community at risk of further public discrimination.
China’s CDC chief epidemiologist has revised his original social media post to clarify that only skin-to-skin contact with foreigners who have been in monkey epidemic areas in the past three weeks should be avoided.
This adaptation, however, seems redundant given Wu’s second piece of advice is to avoid close contact anyone coming from or passing through monkey epidemic areas. It still targets expats from the country unnecessarily, a demographic that has been in China since the start of the pandemic or when the nation’s Covid-19 quarantine was introduced.
To be clear: I know that Evelyn’s experience of being singled out by her peers for her physical appearance pales in comparison to the verbal harassment and outright violence faced by Asian and Pacific Islander communities and other Western nations during the pandemic. However, this incident, due to the health advice given by a foreigner to others from one of China’s leading medical experts, does not help me feel welcome in the country I have called home for the past eight years.
A few months ago, my wife and I decided it was time to join the throngs of foreigners and locals fleeing an increasingly difficult-to-recognise China, engulfed by rigid Covid lockdowns and rising nationalism. The decision to relocate to my home country of Canada was made after considering several factors, the main of which was that discrimination against foreign residents was widespread in many Chinese cities during the pandemic.
This last episode tells me that the lessons about xenophobia offered by the Covid-19 pandemic have not been learned here and that leaving Shanghai is the right decision for me and my family.
After all, if my daughter, a Chinese citizen, is made to feel welcome in her home country, maybe it’s time to find a new home.