Since the media reported “an unfamiliar pneumonia spreading in China” earlier this year, with this giving way to the current worldwide coronavirus pandemic, a wave of sinophobia has been unleashed in Western countries, with US President Donald Trump even threatening to sanction Beijing if it could be proven that China was behind the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump has gone so far as to halt US funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing it of “siding with China.” The move has been an important blow to the UN body at a critical time.
Since February this year, many social-media platforms have been registering complaints by Chinese nationals and people of Southeast Asian origin living in Europe and the US saying that they have been discriminated against. Some media headlines have contained the words “yellow peril” or “Chinese virus” in reference to Covid-19, making many Asians furious.
Sinophobia waned for a few weeks when the epicentre of the pandemic shifted from Wuhan in China to Lombardy in northern Italy, making Europe its new centre in mid-March.
However, accusations then resurfaced against China, claiming that it had not done enough to curb the spread of the coronavirus. China “was not transparent” about the number of infected cases, some writers in the Western media said. Trump claimed that China “might have” spread the virus intentionally, though he still seems to be mulling over this hypothesis.
Trump has stated that his administration is investigating whether coronavirus could “have been leaked intentionally or accidently” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. The director of the Institute, together with the Chinese authorities, have strongly denied the accusations.
On 30 April, Trump said he had seen evidence that showed that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab, accusing Chinese officials of “covering up” the virus early on and saying that they could have stopped the disease from spreading.
The WHO has consistently denied reports that the virus could have originated in a lab.
However, when the pandemic was just beginning earlier this year, Trump was not pointing an accusing finger at China. He even commended Beijing for “doing a good job” in the fight against the virus.
Last week, the European Union said there had been evidence of “secret Chinese operations on social media” in connection with the coronavirus, a claim immediately denied by China.
The EU said a number of governments, including those of China and Russia, had been responsible for publishing wrong information about Covid-19, Reuters reported.
Similar accusations against Beijing were voiced by French President Emmanuel Macron in mid-April, and it seems that the majority of Western capitals believe China “hid the truth” about the coronavirus and that it allowed travel by people to and from Wuhan even though it had known about the virus since December.
The West has accused China of banning domestic travel on 23 January to and from Hubei Province, where the coronavirus originated, to prevent the spread of the disease within its territory, while still allowing international flights.
The Western media has reported that China’s civil aviation authority encouraged its nationals on 4 February to resume travelling to countries that had not banned flights to or from China. But after the first week of February, one country after another suspended flights to and from China, severely impacting Chinese trade.
During that time and for two weeks afterwards, Beijing “partially contributed” to the spread of the virus on a global level, according to Western accusations.
Many countries have also accused China of suppressing those who tried to warn against the coronavirus during its first weeks, such as ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who died in early February from infection with the coronavirus.
They say that China did not communicate soon enough with the international community to inform it about the dangers of Covid-19 and that the Chinese authorities rejected a visit by a WHO delegation to Wuhan until the number of infections had reached 40,000 cases.
Many observers believe that the accusations exchanged between the US and China have nothing to do with the pandemic, however. A tug-of-war between the two countries was initiated once Trump stepped into the White House in 2016 and has been part of the trade war with China, which Trump has accused of “stealing American jobs.”
Trump earlier imposed tariffs on many US imports from China in a bid to restrict Chinese trade. Many US consumers buy cheap Chinese products that are manufactured according to US standards.
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that the Western world now depends heavily on Chinese products and that there is no alternative to them.
Such a focus of global production in one large industrial centre, namely China, would have been impossible had there been other producers, and the result has been that Beijing has gained exceptional commercial influence over the past 20 years as the world’s pre-eminent exporter.
Some now say that the US should shift some of its investments to neighbouring Mexico, which is ailing under the influence of drug gangs and internal conflicts.
Many observers believe that pumping US investments into Mexico would reduce Mexican immigration into the US from a country that has a population of 115 million.
Directing US investments to Mexico, a member of the G20 group and a leading oil exporter outside OPEC, would be a political and strategic move tied to US national security and could bring multiple benefits.
Many in the West still discriminate against the Chinese in a way that goes back to the colonial era.
The Chinese themselves have also been discriminating against Africans living in China, something that drove Moussa Faki, chair of the African Union Commission (AUC), to summon the Chinese envoy to the African Union to explain discrimination against African nationals in China.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly