With anti-Chinese—and, more broadly, anti-Asian—racism spreading around the world just about as fast as the deadly new coronavirus, there are many examples China’s foreign ministry could have singled out to express the collective outrage of the 1.4 billion people who live in China, as well as the more than 50 million who make up the Chinese diaspora.

In the United Kingdom and Canada, Chinese people have been ridiculed and harassed for wearing surgical masks in public.

A cartoon in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicted the Chinese national flag with crown-like images of the coronavirus in place of the usual five stars (fair enough, perhaps), but two Covid-19-related headlines run by Le Courrier Picard in France clearly evoke a darker racist past: “Alerte jaune” (Yellow alert) and “Le péril jaune?” (Yellow peril?).

A DJ for the Netherlands’ oldest radio station, Radio 10, thought it would be amusing to play a coronavirus-themed song about “stinky Chinese” whose lyrics included the line, “If you don’t eat Chinese [food], you have nothing to worry about because prevention is better than Chinese.”  The intended funny part apparently comes from the fact that, in Dutch, the words for “cure” and “Chinese” are virtual homophones.


The DJ and the station have since apologised, but still . . .

And the anti-Chinese sentiment has not been limited to Western nations. Restaurants in Japan and Vietnam have reportedly refused to serve Chinese people, and my own 26-year-old daughter tells me that, travelling in the South Korean city of Busan over the Lunar New Year, she passed by a local eatery prominently displaying a sign in its window reading: “No Chinese allowed.”

At that point, South Korea had only a handful of Covid-19 cases; now they are second in the world to China with over 2,000 infections, and Koreans are themselves facing global blacklisting and stigmatisation.

With all these glaring examples of racism spanning the globe, however, who did the Chinese foreign ministry choose to target?

Strangely, the ire of Chinese people everywhere should be directed, according to ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, at three Wall Street Journal reporters who did not even write a (decidedly non-racist) op-ed that has so affronted Chinese authorities.

The offending article, headlined “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” and published earlier this month, was written by Walter Russell Mead, a professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College, and contains not one rhetorical scrap of anything that could fairly be deemed racism. Indeed, Mead presents a cogent analysis of how China’s huge economic imbalances could prove a greater danger to the world than the new coronavirus.

Wall Street Journal. File Photo: Jennifer Feuchter, via Flickr.

Alluding to the probable source of the virus, a Wuhan wet market that sold seafood and wild game meat, Mead writes:

China’s financial markets are probably more dangerous in the long run than China’s wildlife markets. Given the accumulated costs of decades of state-driven lending, massive malfeasance by local officials in cahoots with local banks, a towering property bubble, and vast industrial overcapacity, China is as ripe as a country can be for a massive economic correction.

Tough, pointed, incisive—yes. Racist?—no.

But it seems Chinese officials did not even read the piece, which Zhao denounced this week as “malicious” and “smearing,” demanding an apology from The Journal and even questioning whether  the newspaper was acting as “an agent for the US state department.” The Chinese leadership, along with hordes of indignant Chinese netizens, were more upset about the “Sick Man” headline that evoked painful historical memories of China being labeled the “sick man of East Asia” during its virtual colonisation by imperial powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

So, yes, for many Chinese people, that particular phrase is historically fraught and even downright insensitive. That helps to explain why 53 members of The Journal’s China staff signed an e-mail sent to its parent company in New York City, Dow Jones, pressing for an apology.

Journalism, however—at least good journalism—is a contact sport, and this is especially true of op-eds. Although Zhao claims the newspaper has “admitted its mistake and engaged in self-reflection,” Dow Jones bosses so far have offered no public apology, nor should they.

Hurt feelings come with the territory, and to expect otherwise is perhaps wilfully to misunderstand the purpose and the practice of a free media.

In the end, however, this story may be less about wounded Chinese pride and sensibilities and more about tit-for-tat politics under the veil of overblown charges of racism.

After all, the decision to expel the three reporters—US nationals Chao Deng and Josh Chin and Australian Philip Wen—from China was made only hours after the US designated five Chinese media outlets, including Xinhua and the People’s Daily, as “foreign missions” under the control of the Chinese government—which, of course, is true but, until that designation, had been left politely undeclared.

The new designation means that US officials can restrict the movements of employees working for these outlets, limit the property they are allowed to own or rent and also require them to register all personnel with the US government—all this no doubt with the aim of curbing Chinese spying on American soil.

And that hurts the feelings of the powers that be in Beijing far more than any Wall Street Journal article ever could.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.