By Stanley Widianto and Khanh VU
JAKARTA / HANOI (Reuters) – The coronavirus outbreak has sparked a wave of anti-China sentiment worldwide, from shops denying access to Chinese tourists, to online vitriol, which mocks the country’s exotic meat trade, to surprising health checks on foreign workers.
The Chinese-borne virus has spread to more than a dozen countries, including many in Southeast Asia, which have sensitive relationships with China given concerns about the enormous infrastructure spending and political influence in the region, and sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.
But as far away as France, a newspaper has come under fire because of its “Yellow Alert” heading, which is a historical western racist term “Yellow Peril” that was voiced with fear of Asian influence, while authorities and schools in Toronto, Canada, have warned against discrimination against Chinese Canadians.
“Orientalist assumptions, political distrust, and health concerns are a pretty strong combination,” said Charlotte Setijadi, an anthropologist who teaches at Singapore Management University.
The Chinese authorities said the virus originated from a market that sold illegal wildlife. China’s demand for exotic delicacies and ingredients for traditional medicine has been largely derided on social media.
“Stop eating bats,” said a Twitter user in Thailand, the top travel destination for Chinese tourists. “No wonder the Chinese are getting new diseases,” another Thai user posted next to a video clip showing a man eating raw meat.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment. China has said the virus outbreak should not be politicized.
“Because your country is beginning to spread disease … we do not accept that guests from China will be served,” says an English sign in front of the Danang Riverside Hotel in the central Vietnamese city of the same name. The authorities later asked the hotel to remove the sign, the manager said in a Facebook post.
Vietnam, which was under Chinese occupation centuries ago and which denies Beijing’s far-reaching maritime claims in the South China Sea, maintains particularly intensive relations with China.
But it is not alone in the region.
More than 60% of respondents who took a survey of representatives, academics, and other professionals from Southeast Asia said in a survey this month that they distrust China. Almost 40% said China was “a revisionist power and intends to transform Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence”. The virus was not mentioned in the survey.
Many countries have imposed visa restrictions on travelers from Hubei Province, the epicenter of the virus, while some airlines have all canceled direct flights to mainland China.
However, this is not enough for hundreds of thousands in South Korea and Malaysia who have signed online petitions asking authorities to prohibit Chinese people from visiting their countries.
In an unusual train, Samal Island in the southern Philippines on Thursday banned not only tourists from China, but from all countries affected by the corona virus, to the popular beach.
China’s overseas tourism boom has created an unprecedented pattern of international travel in human history and has fueled the growth of businesses to serve Chinese travelers around the world. After a decline in the 1980s, the number of Chinese tourists rose to an estimated more than 160 million in 2019.
Earlier this week a group of Chinese tourists in Padang, Indonesian West Sumatra was greeted by locals with a banner that read, “We, the West Sumatra communities, are refusing to allow Chinese tourists to visit.”
In Myanmar, officials carried out surprising health checks on Chinese workers in the northwestern Sagaing region after local lawyers accused them of spreading the virus.
Aung May Yee, a regional MP, announced on Facebook that five cars filled with Chinese workers had come from across the border to a copper mining project near Letpadaung City, and it was her “national duty” to alert the authorities.
“At first, I suspected they were coming illegally and hiding there because of the virus,” she told Reuters over the phone, adding that controls had shown that they were traveling with legitimate documents and had no signs of illness.
(Reporting by Stanley Widianto in Jakarta, Khanh Vu and Phuong Nguyen in Hanoi, Chayut Setboonsarng in Bangkok, Karen Lema in Manila, Thu Thu Aung in Yangon, Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur and Josh Smith in Seoul; letter from John Geddie in Singapore; Edited by Nick Macfie)