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Collectively Under Suspicion

The corona virus causes hostility towards Asians - what images of China does the reporting create?

Freiburg, Feb 07, 2020

They are shunned, insulted and even report physical assaults: All over the world, Asians are making themselves known in the social media under the slogan "I am not a virus". They criticize that they are collectively held responsible for the spread of the coronavirus. Which images of China are produced by newspapers, magazines and TV shows? Mathias Heybrock talked about this with junior professor Dr. Lena Henningsen from the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Freiburg.

“I am not a virus”: Under this slogan Asians criticize the revival of old resentments against China. Photo: thanakorn/

Ms. Henningsen, after the first cases of the corona virus in Europe were confirmed, there have been increasing reports that fear of the virus is leading to hostility towards Chinese people.

Lena Henningsen: And not only towards Chinese people, towards Asians in general. I think it’s really embarrassing. As always, when individual cases are attributed to a whole population group and they are held collectively responsible. It reminds me of the debate on the refugees. Now, Asian shops are being avoided, and at the very sight of a Chinese man, you try to protect yourself with a scarf. Recently, a young Chinese woman was even beaten up in Berlin. That is not only irrational. It’s openly racist.

Where does the fear come from?

Good question, because in Germany all patients who have become infected are well. These are mild cases, nobody is seriously threatened. Nevertheless, it is now called "the yellow danger". This is where age-old resentment, fears and the resulting anger arise once again, in part through the media hype. Fortunately, not all of them are participating in the frenzy. I found a cover of Der Spiegel interesting.

Which one?

On the cover it reads: “Made in China - how globalization has become a deadly danger.” The photo shows a man in a protective suit and breathing mask; he is staring at a smartphone. I think this is heading in the right direction. We really love doing business with China; we love the goods from there. But the virus, which may be traveling with this merchandise management system, is being demonized - and with it the entire population.

Have you noticed any more positive media reports?

A caricature in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which became famous through the Mohamed cartoons at that time. The cartoonist painted the red Chinese flag on which there are five corona viruses instead of the five yellow stars.

A rather controversial discussion ensued.

Right. The Chinese ambassador in Denmark demanded an apology for insulting the Chinese people. One may or may not find the cartoon successful, but it is in the nature of the genre to make things more pointed. I think the cartoonist wanted to use the symbol of the national flag to refer to a state which, because of its non-transparent information policy, has encouraged the regional, national and global spread of the virus. From the Chinese point of view, however, such a drawing is a defamation of a national symbol. The five stars stand for the unity of the Chinese people under the leadership of the Communist Party - or for the five largest population groups in the country. I believe, however, that the cartoonist is not aiming at the people, but at a dictatorship that attaches little importance to transparency.

Lena Henningsen criticizes the Chinese government’s lack of transparency with regard to informing the population about the corona virus. Photo: Thomas Kunz

What could have gone better in terms of information policy?
Eight Chinese doctors warned of the virus at a very early stage - but they were banned from talking about it by the authorities. Instead of reacting quickly, the government withheld information from its own people - and from the world - for a long time. In my view, measures such as the harsh quarantine in Wuhan are also a bit of symbolic politics. In this case the government would have had the chance to react in a completely different way.


Thanks to its surveillance apparatus, the government knows all about the population. Would this not have been an opportunity to show the whole world that this highly controversial system can also do some good? Respond immediately at the first suspicion, identify people from the surrounding area - and then ask them to have themselves checked out at a hospital. Then one would have reacted quickly and selectively instead of belatedly cordoning off a city of eleven million people.

Do you have contacts in Wuhan?

No, but I also hear of restrictions from other cities in China, and the fear is great. The universities are still closed. Conferences have been cancelled. Or classes are taking place via internet so students can stay at home. Of course, this is only possible thanks to the excellent equipment of the Chinese universities - in some of our classrooms an overhead projector is considered a high-tech solution.

Do you know anyone who's been infected?

Also no, but a Chinese staff member of our institute was with her family during the New Year celebration. Back in Freiburg, she immediately volunteered to be quarantined. She didn't even go out to food shop.

How is she doing?

She is doing well. She hasn’t shown any symptoms. We tease her a little, call her our model heroine. But, of course, we admire her responsible attitude. When you have such an exemplary colleague, it is all the more shocking to hear and read how the collective fear of the Chinese is now being stirred up in our country.