Over the past few weeks, as Chinese health officials reported new “imported” coronavirus cases almost every day, foreigners living in the country have noticed a change. They have been turned away from restaurants, shops, gyms and hotels, subjected to further screening, yelled at by locals and avoided in public spaces.
“I’m walking past someone, then they see my blue eyes and jump a foot back,” said Andrew Hoban, 33, who is originally from Ireland and lives in Shanghai.
Experiences range from socially awkward to xenophobic. An American walking with a group of foreigners in a park in Beijing saw a woman grab her child and run the other way. Others have described being called “foreign trash”. A recent online article, under an image of ship stacked with refuse being pushed away from China’s coast, was headlined: “Beware of a second outbreak started by foreign garbage.”
As China moves towards getting back to normal after months of paralysis, authorities are focused on avoiding a second wave of infections from overseas.
Since 19 March, China has reported only two locally transmitted cases but dozens arriving from abroad. By last Thursday, officials had reported a total of 595 imported cases since the outbreak began, the main source being the UK. Observers say the focus on imported cases has led to an increase in anti-foreign sentiment, which according to some has been on the rise for years.
“There is an effect when state media are reporting this is a foreign virus,” said Jeremiah Jenne, an American historian living in Beijing. “It is a new variation of a familiar theme: don’t trust foreigners. If there is another flare-up in China, the blame will fall on people coming from outside.”
Last Saturday, the country temporarily closed its borders to all foreign arrivals. Officials have also ordered local airlines to maintain only one route per country per week.
Some say the focus on foreigners – surprising given that 90% of imported cases were Chinese passport holders, according to the country’s foreign ministry – is the leadership’s attempt to shore up its image.
“If there is an opportunity to make themselves look strong, competent and legitimate by capitalising on public anxiety, they’ll take it,” said Mike Gow of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. “If that happens to stoke xenophobia, so be it.”
Several foreign residents stressed, however, that their experiences were not akin to those of Asians in the US and elsewhere, who have been beaten and subjected to racial slurs.
Bill Aitchison, 49, who is originally from the UK and lives between Xiamen and Nanjing, said: “I haven’t been attacked and haven’t heard of any foreigners being attacked… but the virus has unleashed some ugly sentiments. When borders close and walls go up, it seems people everywhere are apt to see the virus in those who are unfamiliar.”
But some foreign communities are experiencing more harassment. An African couple in Beijing were made to wait for two hours at a restaurant before a worker let slip that they were not supposed to allow in heiren – “black people”.
“The combination of pre-existing attitudes to race and Africans, plus this new wave of fear of foreigners, is making things worse,” said Runako Celina, co-founder of Black Livity China, which documents experiences of Africans and people of African descent in China. “Despite us doing this work steadily throughout the years, I don’t think there’s been a single period of time when we’ve had as many racism [or] discrimination-related incidents from different people and provinces.”
Others describe more scrutiny and wariness. American David Alexander, 32, who lives in the southern province of Jiangsu, said his Chinese co-workers had been advised to stay away from foreigners. In a shop last week, a couple waited until he had left before entering. “There is a sense of fear around foreigners,” he said.
But several foreign residents said they did not feel unsafe, with the minor incidents they experienced not enough to make them reconsider living in China. Others said being treated like a pariah after having lived in the country for years was mostly disheartening.
Chris Lemos, 29, an American living in Shanghai, said he took a seat on the metro last week and a woman abruptly moved to the other side of the carriage.
Lemos, who had been in the city for three months, hunkering down at home to avoid falling ill or infecting others, had hoped for some solidarity. “I was in the trenches with them, so to speak,” he said.