The late nineteenth century was a difficult time for the Chinese people. The corrupt Manchu court lost several wars against Western powers, leading to treaties compelling China to pay large sums of indemnity to the West and Japan; the cession of territories such as Hong Kong to foreign control; and the forced opening of ports and cities to overseas businesses. Rather than holding the Manchu court responsible, some Chinese directed their hatred and resentment toward foreigners. In 1900, a group of poor rebels, calling themselves “the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” started the Boxer Rebellion, which aimed to support the Manchu government by killing foreigners and Chinese Christians. The goal was to erase all Western influence.
The Boxers claimed to hold magical powers that could withstand foreigners’ firearms. Within a year, however, the movement was crushed by multinational forces from the West and Japan. The rebellion was ultimately responsible for the death of about 30,000 Chinese, 200 foreign missionaries, and the destruction of many churches, railroad stations, and other properties. The gruesome chapter destroyed whatever goodwill the rest of the world had for China.
Remembering that dark period is necessary today, for a new Boxer movement is emerging in China, driven by the Chinese Communist Party’s policies and disinformation campaign regarding the Covid-19 outbreak. Like its predecessor, the new movement has incited open hatred toward foreigners and “traitors”—ethnic Chinese who criticize Party officials for their mishandling of the pandemic.
Covid-19 has scarred the Chinese psyche. The CCP’s draconian response to the outbreak upended lives and devastated the economy. Correcting previously fabricated data, the Wuhan government recently increased its official death toll by 50 percent. The Chinese naturally want to know the pandemic’s source, who should be held responsible, and how to prevent future outbreaks. Yet the rest of the world already understands that the virus originated in Wuhan, where the CCP’s coverups turned a containable situation into a global crisis.
The CCP launched a well-coordinated propaganda war, spreading disinformation to deflect any blame and instead demand praise for its response. One Chinese official, for example, tweeted that the U.S. military planted the virus in Wuhan. Though his outrageous conspiracy theory drew laughter internationally, a portion of China’s domestic audience seems to have believed the claim. Then, after Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Wuhan on March 10, the country declared victory in the “people’s war” on the virus, claiming that all new cases came from foreign visitors.
On March 26, China banned most foreigners from the country, including those holding Chinese visas or residence permits. In the past, Beijing had accused other countries of racism when they issued similar restrictions for Chinese visitors. The Chinese government, however, called its travel ban “responsible and necessary” to prevent a second wave of infections, though most imported cases involved returning Chinese nationals. Then, in early April, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked foreign diplomats not to return to Beijing. Personnel rotations at foreign embassies were postponed until May 15—a move that diplomats considered disruptive. In mid-April, the Chinese government announced that any foreigners who disobeyed the quarantine rules could lose their visas, risking expulsion and a ten-year ban for re-entry.
Though the CCP didn’t directly call for discrimination against foreigners, its restrictive policies—combined with lies about the virus’s origin—generated fear and anger among the Chinese people, reinforcing xenophobic beliefs that foreigners are dirty and prone to spreading disease. Foreigners soon reported being denied services at hotels, restaurants, shops, and gyms. In one instance, a Chinese villager told a group of foreign hikers outside Beijing that “We are afraid of being infected. We are scared you have some disease.” Shortly before his expulsion from Beijing, Paul Mozur, a New York Times correspondent, tweeted that a Chinese man called him “foreign trash” and cursed Mozur’s Chinese colleague at a McDonald’s.
After five Nigerians linked to restaurants tested positive for Covid-19 in Guangzhou, the local government subjected all Africans to virus tests and 14-day quarantines—even if they hadn’t traveled outside China in recent months. Many were evicted from their homes and denied service from hotels. Now approximately 100 Africans are living on the city’s streets. At one McDonald’s, a sign stated that “Black people are not allowed to enter” (the sign was later taken down). Such treatment has become so widespread that the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou warned African-Americans to avoid the city. A group of African ambassadors in Beijing wrote to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, demanding the immediate “cessation of forceful testing, quarantine, and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans.”
As with the Boxer Rebellion, this new wave of anger and discrimination toward foreigners doesn’t spare the Chinese who criticize the government’s mishandling of the outbreak. Chinese authorities have ensured that its most outspoken critics “disappear.” State media have created an alternative reality, exaggerating the suffering in the West from the virus while remaining silent about China’s own struggles. In addition, the media highlight each case of discrimination against Chinese immigrants due to the crisis. Anyone who dares to challenge the official narrative gets attacked on Chinese and Western social media.
The Beijing government’s international reputation and credibility stand at historic lows. Measures to contain the virus, moreover, have devastated China’s economy—its first-quarter GDP contracted for the first time since 1976. Beijing now needs foreign markets for its products and foreign direct investment to help revive the country’s economy. But a new wave of xenophobia and racism against foreigners will only further damage the nation’s international standing, drive away investors, slow China’s economic recovery—and deepen its isolation.
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