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Ten Tips on Talking about China, Chinese People and COVID-19

A quick read for organizers on how to talk about China, Chinese people and COVID19. The rise of xenophobia and the onslaught of China bashing is just another right wing political and narrative strategy to deflect responsibility of COVID-19 by Trump.

People wearing face mask walk across a street in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan 21, 2020., Photo/China Daily

This is a quick read for left organizers on how to talk about China, Chinese people and COVID19. The rise of xenophobia and the onslaught of China bashing is just another right wing political and narrative strategy to deflect responsibility of COVID-19 and consolidate Trump’s base to win the White House in 2020. This is strikingly similar to the attacks on Muslims and the Latinx community in 2016.

1. China is BIG and the people are very diverse.

This might be a very obvious point, but it needs to be said because… I guess people still lump all Chinese people together. There are 1.4 billion people in China, the largest city is Shanghai at 26 million people (San Francisco is only 800,000 people). It is still the largest working class in the world… So when you talk about “China” or “Chinese people,” please do not overgeneralize.

2. Chinese identity is complex, to say the least.

I am not the greatest fan of Confucianism, but on our sabbatical in Vietnam, I was reminded by a Vietnamese OG revolutionary that Chinese (East Asian) thought came long before Western thought (i.e. Socrates and Plato) on the role of the people (“man”) and state. Over thousands (I mean thousands) of years many Chinese have struggled, died over and killed others to defend and advance that identity and state. Yet, it is still one of the most contested identities in the modern world. For example, while officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, the Hong Kong democracy movement has faced repressive measures from the government and formed their own version of Hong Kong nativism and nationalism, albeit not always progressive.

3. The Chinese government is also very big and not monolithic.

Contrary to what many have been told, the people in the Chinese government are not authoritarian robots. They are people with diverse views and a set of complicated relationships and interests.Although the government has consolidated more under Xi Jinping, there are capitalists, feminists, socialists and Maoists and others. It is not just a left-right spectrum of politics but a multidimensional and geopolitical one. And please, don’t believe the hype. Let’s not fall for the anti-China Trump-backed Falun Gong or Epoch Times, or for “China-can-do-no-wrong” tankie groups dismissing the anti-blackness in China. Just be a little more rigorous about what you post.

4. Critiques of the Chinese government are valid but not in a vacuum.

COVID-19 may have originated in China and there is evidence of initial mishandling, but blaming and shaming is not the solutionU.S. government and corporate elites have their own failings and lies and man-made wars that have killed millions. For example, the U.S. government waited 70 days after initial warnings and targeted only Chinese in New York when studies now show the majority of cases came from Europe. And, not that we should, but it does not appear that anyone is blaming Italians or any other Europeans for their poor handling of the coronavirus.

5. China’s wildlife and traditional medicine industry is a product of global capitalism.

Although some practices root from Chinese traditional medicine, it is now a $70-plus billion industry that preys on global poverty and, Chinese culture for profit. A single pangolin is worth up to 3 month’s wages for rural villagers in Thailand. This is a product of global capitalism not “Chinese culture.”

6. In the end, U.S. transnational corporations will benefit the most from Coronavirus Capitalism.

Last week, 10 billionaires added a total of $51 billion to their fortunes. Meanwhile, unemployment claims in the US soared to 30 million. From insider trading to corporate bailouts, we should follow the money and monitor how disaster capitalism flows through this crisis. This should not be a surprise. Even before the COVID19 crisis, U.S. transnational corporations profited not only from cheap labor but also domestic consumerism in China. Last year alone, Apple brought in more than $260 billion in revenue; China is also Apple’s 3rd largest market behind the US and Europe accounting for 20% of its revenue. KFC and GM sell more chicken and cars (separately) in China too.

7. Spread solidarity not blame, fear or hate.

While Chinese and Asians appear to be the most visible scapegoats right now in the U.S., the Chinese government is blaming Africans, the Hindu right is blaming Muslims for the coronavirus, and the white nationalists are also blaming the Chinese government and Jews for the coronavirus, the list goes on. We need to end the cycle of hate. This only helps white nationalism and white supremacy! Let’s thread a new kind of international solidarity in these times.

8. Protect “essential” and ALL workers.

From medical workers to food service, farm and factory workers, we need sufficient worker protections to slow the spread of this virus. Workers are dying literally to keep this economy goingAlso, public institutions that feed and educate our communities are often forgotten until a crisis like this. Let’s remember the role of all workers when they are not seen as “essential” anymore in the new normal.

9. Global cooperation and interdependence is the solution! Lift up U.S.-China cooperation that is already happening.

Eddie Wong said it best in his latest article: “Let’s take our lead from the hard-working doctors, nurses, and support staff struggling to save lives despite inadequate protection and equipment. Let’s promote the doctors and scientists who are cooperating internationally to find ways to stop the pandemic.”

Here are some examples from Eddie’s article:

  • Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequencing code of Covid-19 to the world scientific community on January 10, 2020. This has enabled the design of diagnostic kits all over the world and provided the basic research scientists need to develop a vaccine.
  • Harvard University doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital are working in conjunction with peers at Xijing Hospital and two other hospitals in northern Italy on the use of nitricoxide to treat coronavirus patients.
  • BioNTech, a German company, is working with Pfizer, an American-owned multinational corporation, and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical on developing four vaccines that will undergo human trials with 200 subjects in May.

10. A linked fate.

The SARS crisis hit 17 years ago and was easier to contain at a time when global capitalism was less developed. In the 21st century, we are more interconnected and global than ever. As tensions rise between China and the U.S., workers on both sides will be the ultimate losers. Like in the U.S., there are many in China that are angry about how their government is handling the COVID-19 crisis. But the solution is not hate and blame. Beyond this, there are plenty of internal contradictions in China like state surveillance, repression of Uyghurworkers, and feminists. However, there is much work ahead to build a strategy of solidarity based on people to people relationships and diplomacy. We have a lot to learn from innovative and nimble activism in China and just because there is criticism, it doesn’t mean people want to “overthrow” the government. The Chinese people and people around the world have a linked fate. We need to begin creating a new “we,” a new bloc of solidarity. That is where the solutions and strategies lie. Let’s build and focus our energies here.

STAY FOCUSED IN THIS DANGEROUS TIME

There is a lot of COVID-19 angst and it makes sense because of all the uncertainty but we all need to stay focused and chill out! There will be a new normal and it will be a long time before things stabilize or flatten. The economic recession will have lasting impacts that will alter generations. We need to be like water and, like water, be prepared for anything. Just as capital is so nimble we need to learn to navigate the crisis and conditions in front of us. But, more than anything, we need to be extremely grounded, be prepared to govern and be the majority. We also need to account for every unit of energy and agency from our ancestors. As the good people at the Highlander Center said, we need to tap into the legacies of our resilience, mutual aid, and self-determination that has existed in our communities for hundreds, if not more, years. We must do all this while keeping our eyes on the prize.

Please read my earlier piece, “We are the Majority: Remembering Grace in these times,” which focuses on building a new kind of solidarity in these times. I’ve also been inspired by W. Kamau Bell’s “Me and Bruce Lee Would Like to have a word with you” and Eddie Wong’s “WTF Stop Anti-Asian Hate.”

For more left perspectives on China, here are some additional resources:   

Chuang Blog

The Lausan Collective

Justice is Global

China Labor Bulletin

[Alex T. Tom is the former Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco. Currently, he is the Executive Director of the Center For Empowered Politics, a new capacity-building project that aims to train and develop new leaders of color and grow movement infrastructure. Last year, Alex received the OSF Racial Justice Fellowship to develop a toolkit to counter the rise of the new Chinese Right Wing in the U.S.]