The headlines drew immediate outrage. Readers accused the paper of using ignorant and offensive language.
“Yellow Peril” was an old racist ideology that targeted East Asians in Western countries. The phrase embodies the worst of anti-Asian fears and stereotypes, which have plagued immigrant communities since the first waves of Chinese immigration to the United States began in the 19th century.
In the US, government propaganda and pop culture at the time spread wildly racist and inaccurate images of Chinese people as unclean, uncivilized, immoral, and a threat to society.
To invoke the term now, in a story about death and illness in Asia, seems thoughtless at best and blatantly racist at worst.
The escalating global health crisis has claimed more than 200 lives — all in China — and infected close to 10,000 people worldwide. As they seek to contain the virus, authorities in multiple countries are balancing the need for warnings against the risk of creating global panic.
However, there are signs that’s already happening, with face masks selling out in stores and people locking themselves at home. Some people in central China — the epicenter of the outbreak — are desperately taking any flight out, regardless of destination, as governments worldwide suspend flights from China and impose restrictions on travelers from the mainland.
But the panic has also taken another, more familiar form, with the re-emergence of old racist tropes that portray Asians, their food, and their customs as unsafe and unwelcome.
As panic spreads, so does racism
As news of the virus has spread, many people of Asian descent living abroad say they have been treated like walking pathogens.
A Malaysian-Chinese social worker experienced the same thing on a London bus this week. “A couple of people at an East London school I work in have asked me why Chinese people eat weird food when they know it causes viruses,” she told CNN.
These instances echo a long history of racism in the West. During the Yellow Peril era, anti-Chinese fears led to lynchings of Chinese immigrants, racial violence, systemic discrimination — even an outright ban on Chinese immigrants for 61 years in the US under the country’s Exclusion Act.
That’s why the term “Yellow Peril,” which contains centuries of trauma, is so charged — and why the use of it in a contemporary headline was so stunning.
Targeting Chinese food
Perhaps the most widespread form of xenophobia comes in fearmongering, sensationalist stereotypes about Chinese food.
What viral misinformation and breathless media coverage often miss is that only a small minority of people in China actually eat wild animals. Most people eat much of the same things you would see in other cuisines, like pork or chicken. Ultimately, what people like to eat is culturally relative — a lot of the Western disgust toward “weird” Chinese food is itself Eurocentric.
That’s not to say all criticism of Chinese food is invalid; the country does have a problem with badly-regulated trade of wild animals, which has led to previous outbreaks.
The deadly 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was traced to the civet cat, considered a delicacy in southern China. And though the government has introduced some measures limiting wildlife trade, it has been reluctant to take more aggressive action, and illegal trade continues.
It’s also difficult to end these practices because of the cultural significance and prevalence of traditional Chinese medicine. Many of these wild animals are thought to hold important medicinal properties — for instance, people drink snake soup for arthritis and snake bile for a sore throat.
There is undoubtedly a larger issue that needs to be addressed — how the government can balance tradition with safer regulations.
But the beliefs and customs that drive consumption of these foods are centuries old and interwoven in peoples’ lives — they are not so easy to undo, even less so when they are dismissed as primitive and unclean by foreign countries.
‘Standing with our Chinese community’
Right now, we are only seeing early signs of a xenophobic backlash against the East Asian diaspora — tasteless jokes online, bad headlines, people acting fearfully in public. But if the 2003 SARS epidemic is any model to go by, these strands of xenophobia could potentially escalate into more dangerous, explicit forms of racism.
Add the threat of a global pandemic, and a wave of heightened discrimination could be even uglier this time around.
In a statement confirming the first case of coronavirus in Los Angeles this week, the local health department stressed that “people should not be excluded from activities based on their race, country of origin, or recent travel if they do not have symptoms of respiratory illness.”
The head of Toronto Public Health also warned that misinformation about the virus had created “unnecessary stigma against members of our community.”
“I am deeply concerned and find it disappointing that this is happening,” said the head, Eileen de Villa, in a statement Wednesday. “Discrimination is not acceptable. It is not helpful and spreading misinformation does not offer anyone protection.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory also spoke out this week about the coronavirus panic. “Standing with our Chinese community against stigmatization and discrimination,” he said. “We must not allow fear to triumph over our values as a city.”
CNN’s Joe Sutton contributed to this report.