Editor’s Note: Matthew Bossons (@MattBossons) is managing editor of the Shanghai-based online publication Radii. He has lived in China since 2014. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
When word began circulating on social media and in group chats in mid-September that one of China’s top health officials was warning citizens to avoid physical contact with foreigners as a precaution against monkeypox, the news hit me with an unshakable anxiousness.
The recommendation was the first of five issued by Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in response to mainland China’s first monkeypox case in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing.
Wu blasted the advice out to his nearly half a million followers on Weibo, China’s heavily censored version of Twitter, and it was quickly picked up and further publicized by state-backed media outlets.
Wu’s choice of words was a far cry from the World Health Organization’s advice, which recommends “limiting close contact with people who have suspected or confirmed monkeypox” and avoids singling out any nationality as at risk of spreading the disease.
Having lived through the wave of xenophobia that accompanied the closure of China’s borders in the spring of 2020 – when Covid-19 was largely under control in China and running rampant abroad – Wu’s proclamation associating foreigners with disease immediately triggered alarm bells.
I moved from my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, in 2014 to live and work as a journalist in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou. In April 2020, I watched as the city’s expatriate population began to find themselves shunned by locals concerned about imported Covid-19 cases, despite the vast majority of imported cases being brought in by returning Chinese nationals, the foreign ministry said at the time.
Infamously, many of the city’s African residents were expelled from their residences and denied access to hotels despite having not left the country since the pandemic began. Out of fear of contracting the virus, taxi drivers refused to pick up foreigners, gyms turned away non-Chinese patrons and expats on the subway found themselves with more personal space than usual as local commuters fled for the neighboring carriage.
These memories came flooding back in the wake of Wu’s social media post. And while I pondered how local commuters may receive me on the bus to work the following Monday, a bigger concern loomed: How would my five-year-old daughter be treated by her peers at the local kindergarten she attends in our new home base of Shanghai. (We had moved from Guangzhou to Beijing in July 2020, and from Beijing to Shanghai in July 2021).
Despite having Chinese ancestry, my daughter, Evelyn, does not look particularly Chinese, a fact that is often pointed out to my wife, who hails from Jiangsu province in eastern China. As such, she stands out among her classmates, who are all ethnically Chinese.
My worst fears were seemingly confirmed the following Monday evening when Evelyn returned from school and told her mom that she wanted more than anything to “look Chinese.” Visibly upset, she said that some of her classmates had taunted her with calls of “waigouren,” meaning ‘foreigner’ in Mandarin Chinese.
Did Wu’s advice about foreigners make it into dinner table conversation at her classmates’ homes over the weekend? It was the first time she’d said anything like this, and as a parent, I was crushed to learn my daughter felt uncomfortable in her own skin.
Evelyn was only three years old and not yet attending school in the spring of 2020, helping to insulate her from Guangzhou’s wave of Covid-induced discrimination. This time around, however, she is much more vulnerable to health-related hysteria.
Throughout the rest of the week, I was given a much wider berth than usual on my commute to and from the office. Online, I watched as a seemingly large and unquestionably vocal group of Chinese internet users spewed xenophobic comments on social media. Some encouraged their compatriots to “wash your hands after touching a foreigner,” while more extreme voices claimed “racism against foreigners is justified” and called for China to close its borders to outsiders.
Words from power carry weight, and careless comments or malicious statements risk othering segments of society and fueling xenophobic attitudes. We saw this clearly with former US President Donald Trump’s repeated use of terms like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” which provided cover for the racists on Twitter and likely contributed to the rise in anti-Asian incidents in the US and other Western nations.
As an authoritative health professional, Wu’s statement was beyond careless, and the state-backed media’s willingness to run his advice unchallenged was irresponsible at best and malicious at worst. It has inflamed anti-foreigner sentiments online and has put China’s diverse expat community at risk of further public discrimination.
The Chinese CDC’s chief epidemiologist has since revised his original social media post to clarify that only “skin-to-skin contact with foreigners who have been in monkeypox epidemic areas in the past three weeks” should be avoided.
This adjustment, though, seems redundant considering Wu’s second piece of advice is to avoid close contact with anyone coming from or transiting through monkeypox epidemic areas. It also still needlessly targets foreigners in the country, a demographic that has either been in China since the pandemic began or undergone the nation’s required Covid-19 quarantine upon entry.
To be clear: I’m cognizant that Evelyn’s experience of being singled out by her classmates for her physical appearance pales in comparison to the verbal harassment and outright violence experienced by Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the US and other Western nations during the pandemic. Still, this incident, coming on the back of health advice from one of China’s top medical experts that otherizes foreigners, doesn’t help me to feel welcome in the country I’ve called home for the past eight years.
Several months ago, my wife and I decided it was time to prepare to join the throngs of expats and locals fleeing a China that’s increasingly difficult to recognize, mired by rigid Covid lockdowns and rising nationalism. The decision to relocate to my home country, Canada, was made after considering several factors, chief among them: the discrimination dished out against foreign residents in many Chinese cities during the pandemic.
This latest episode tells me that the lessons about xenophobia that the Covid-19 pandemic offered have not been learned here and that leaving Shanghai is the right decision for my family and me.
After all, if my daughter, a Chinese citizen, is being made to feel unwelcome in the country of her birth, then perhaps it’s time to find a new home.