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Coronavirus and Sinophobia: Fear Along the Belt and Road

Mar 06, 2020

With the ongoing outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), health issues are back on the international agenda as a matter of high politics. Originating in Wuhan, China, the new coronavirus has already claimed more than 2,700 lives, spread to more than 30 states, and been declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization. Even though Chinese authorities resorted to extraordinary measures to halt the spread of the virus, the outbreak of the disease exposed deep-rooted sentiments against Chinese in many parts of the world. While the implications of the coronavirus are yet to be assessed, it is already apparent that the relations of China with its partners will require a major overhaul.

Most importantly, the outbreak of the coronavirus exposed the sinister side of China’s grand flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China-led infrastructure connectivity will entangle Beijing’s neighboring states with roads, ports, and railroads, and will accelerate the flow of goods, services, capital, and people. However, China’s neighbors will also become exposed to the negative effects of greater connectivity, which can range from increases risks of cross-border crime to adverse environmental impacts on natural habitats and livelihoods of local communities.

As the outbreak of COVID-19 exposed, greater infrastructure connectivity also means an increased risk of contagion. The more interconnected the world is, the higher the risks of a pandemic are. Diseases can spread much quicker now and to other parts of the world, where there are different levels of healthcare infrastructure. While it is still uncertain whether this new coronavirus will become pandemic, the spread of the virus has already sparked another outbreak: Sinophobia. 

The outbreak of the disease was followed by a surge of misinformation about the disease through social media, including videos of Chinese residents consuming bats to loaded conspiracy theories, which in turn contributed to growing sentiments against China and its people. Days after Italy announced its first coronavirus cases, Italian residents and tourists of Chinese and Asian origin began reporting acts of violence, harassment, and discrimination. The incidents ranged from physical assaults to calls to boycott Chinese businesses in Italy. Some Italian influencers were amongst those who further spread misinformation about the disease that Italian President Sergio Mattaralla had to personally intervene to address growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the country. 

Sinophobia itself is not a new phenomenon, but multiple accounts of virus-related anti-Chinese manifestations around the world expose increasingly complex relations of China with other states. While Beijing views itself as a benevolent actor with full responsibility for shaping the international environment and building ‘a community of common destiny’, in many instances there is resistance to Chinese outreach on both local and national levels. Recipient communities predominately worry about impacts of Chinese investments on existing governance problems, environmental risks, and debt traps. As the coronavirus epidemic showcases, even the prospects of sustainable and inclusive growth through BRI cannot mitigate some deeply rooted fears and sentiments. 

For instance, Kyrgyzstan, China’s lower-middle-income neighbor with a population of 6 million, is in dire need of foreign direct investment to realize its economic potential. The leadership of the country emphatically welcomed the unveiling of BRI and the prospects of greater economic cooperation with China. Yet, on the ground, Chinese investments were not particularly welcomed. Although being the most isolated region of Kyrgyzstan with the lowest income per capita, the Naryn region emerged as one of the active sites of anti-Chinese protests. The anti-Chinese protest of August 2019 resulted in violent clashes between Kyrgyz residents and Chinese workers and halted the work of a Chinese owned gold mine, while a series of anti-Chinese meetings in February 2020 ended the prospects of building a $280 million joint Kyrgyz-Chinese logistic venture. There were also unconfirmed reports that local residents did not allow Chinese road construction workers to carry out their work this past weekend, fearing the Chinese were infected with COVID-19. 

Accordingly, irrespective of the outcome, the outbreak of coronavirus will have a toll on Chinese initiatives. While the Chinese government is fighting the spread of the disease, the pervasive racism against Chinese people is growing. This situation is aggravated by China’s shortage of soft power despite Beijing’s efforts to lead by example. The narratives of the Chinese dream of the common and harmonious future are not being well transmitted to a broader audience, and, for many, China remains ‘the sick man of Asia’. 

The implications of the virus outbreak on business can only further amplify grievances and anxieties. While it is yet too early to discuss an economic meltdown in China, it is evident that the novel coronavirus is impacting global supply chains. Multinational corporations found themselves extremely over-reliant on Chinese factories and thus exposed to supply-chain shocks. Shipping goods across and out of China turns out to be a mammoth task at the moment due to effective lockdowns imposed by China and neighboring states. It appears that commodity exporters will be the most affected, but in reality all of China’s trading partners will be affected by these disruptions. This will certainly hurt the world economy. While current levels of disruption are manageable, this blockade will force businesses working with China to reevaluate their operations. 

Beijing is currently projecting the image of a unified and strong China. China is building new hospitals rapidly, imposing unprecedented quarantine measures, and engaging the high-tech industry in the fight against the virus. As some observers suggest, China’s reaction to the coronavirus epidemic may become one of the most important tests for President Xi Jinping and his power. Thus, we are yet to see whether China can lead the world towards ‘a community of common destiny’ and what this destiny will look like.

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