There has been a growing wave of racist and xenophobic attacks around the world connected to COVID-19. In North America, these incidents have manifested themselves primarily in the form of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism. These disgusting attacks are simply the direct result of ruling class efforts to find foreign scapegoats for the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, national governments have fed the forces of bigotry and prejudice with incendiary claims and evidence-free conspiracy theories. U.S. President Donald Trump and White House officials have blamed China for the pandemic, suggesting among other claims that the Chinese government created the novel coronavirus in a lab in Wuhan and intentionally spread it to other countries. These claims have found an echo among politicians and media in other countries, including Canada. Meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson suggested that the U.S. Army brought the virus to Wuhan. Africans living in China have reported increasing discrimination and scrutiny, as Chinese state and social media reports suggest that new cases are being brought into China primarily from outside the country.
Xenophobia, nationalism and racism have long been favoured tools of the capitalist class as a means to deflect popular anger and divide working people. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought along with it feelings of fear and anger: fear of the virus, and anger against those seen as responsible for its spread. Governments that downplayed the threat of coronavirus early on, or who find themselves unable to effectively protect the population, have every interest in deflecting blame away from themselves and the ruling classes they represent. As in the past, the temptation is strong to shift responsibility away from the ruling class onto minorities or a foreign “other”.
Racist attacks in North America
In Canada, many racist attacks have taken place in Vancouver, which has a large Chinese and Chinese-Canadian population. As of May 1, Vancouver police reported that there had been 20 anti-Asian hate crimes in the first four months of the year, compared to 12 in the city during all of 2019. Besides residents of Chinese origin, the attackers have targeted Asian residents in general. In some cases, those assaulted are not Asian at all. A brief sampling of incidents makes clear that the attackers often draw a direct link between their targets and the spread of the coronavirus.
- On March 13, a man entered an East Vancouver convenience store and yelled racist comments about COVID-19 at a 92-year-old Asian man who police said was suffering from dementia. Outside the store, the suspect shoved the elderly man causing him to fall and hit his head, then left before police arrived.
- On April 2, surveillance cameras at the Chinese Cultural Centre captured two masked men writing racist graffiti over several windows, including ethnic slurs and calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing of all Chinese people. Messages included “Kill all”, “Let’s put a stop to [them] coming to Canada”, and “Drive them out of Canada”. The next night, two hooded figures smashed several windows.
- On April 15, a man boarded a bus in Vancouver and approached two Asian women wearing masks. “Go back to your country,” he said, according to police. “That’s where it all started.” When a woman nearby told him to stop, he attacked her, pulling out a clump of her hair and punched her several times before jumping off the bus and running away. (Transit police later reported that the suspect had died of a drug overdose one week after the attack.)
- On April 29, a man on the city SkyTrain approached a woman who later said he had been staring at her. When the woman—whom police later described as a visible minority, but not Asian—asked him what was wrong, she said he yelled at her, “You people are why my daughter is sick.” Police say he then grabbed her bag and repeatedly punched her in the face.
- On May 15, an Indigenous woman was walking her dog when a man nearby heard her sneeze. Assuming she was Asian, the woman said, the man yelled racist slurs at her and then punched her in the face.
Similar hate crimes are on the rise across Canada and the United States. In Ottawa, passing motorists shouted racial slurs at two Asian pedestrians. In Toronto, a white woman harassed an Asian TTC bus driver for “not looking Canadian” and a white man insulted an Asian female passenger for wearing a mask.
The New York Times reported that Chinese-Americans increasingly fear for their lives, with people spitting on them, yelling threats and racial slurs, and attacking them. Even celebrities are getting in on the act: Canadian musician Bryan Adams recently came under fire for social media comments blaming the pandemic on “bat eating, wet market animal selling, virus marketing greedy bastards”. He subsequently issued an apology.
U.S. and China seek scapegoats
This wave of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in North America has not occurred in a vacuum. Donald Trump has the dubious distinction of leading the country with the highest reported number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the world. As of May 27, more than 1.7 million cases of coronavirus were reported in the United States including more than 100,000 dead. As the crisis has worsened, Trump has become increasingly unhinged in his efforts to deflect all blame for the disaster onto China.
After downplaying the threat of the virus for months and witnessing an explosion of U.S. cases in March, Trump made every effort to associate China with the virus—referring to it as the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus”, even crossing out “corona” in the text of his briefing notes and writing “Chinese” virus instead.
When the number of cases in the U.S. surpassed 1 million, Trump began using the language of war to describe China’s role. The coronavirus pandemic, he said, was the “worst attack” in history against the United States, “worse than Pearl Harbor… worse than the World Trade Center.” He added that it “could’ve been stopped at the source. Could’ve been stopped in China,” then backtracked when a reporter pressed him and stated that he viewed the virus itself, “the invisible enemy, like a war.” But the connection with China had been made and his supporters heard the message loud and clear. At their most extreme, Trump and other White House officials have suggested that the Chinese government may have created the virus in a lab and intentionally unleashed it upon the world as an act of biological warfare.
Trump’s use of racist demagoguery for political gain is hardly surprising. The U.S. president rose to power in large part through his open demonization of immigrants, Muslims, and other groups. As such, his shift of focus to China merely marks the latest variation on a theme. But as the U.S. presidential election approaches, the Democrats are seeking to outflank Trump on the right. Both Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden have run dueling ads accusing the other of being too friendly towards China. Biden’s ad accused Trump of “rolling over for China”, failing to “hold China accountable”, and attempted to one-up his Republican rival in nationalistic bromides by claiming Trump “shipped China 17 tons of American masks and supplies. Our masks and supplies.”
In China, similar scapegoating has begun to develop as politicians suggest it was the U.S. that created the virus. On March 12, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, tweeted an article indicating that the novel coronavirus had originated in the U.S., then followed it up with suggestions of a cover-up. “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan,” Zhao wrote. “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” He later defended the tweets as a response to the stigmatization of China by U.S. politicians.
Within China, reports also began to emerge of discrimination against African and Black residents. In the city of Guangzhou, which the BBC describes as “a hub for Africans in China”, many Africans reported being forced out of their accommodations or refused service in businesses and hotels. McDonald’s in China issued an apology after a restaurant in Guangzhou barred Black people from entering. The U.S. Consulate General also issued a warning about discrimination against Black Americans in Guangzhou, alleging that, “police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin,” and that officials had launched a round of mandatory COVID-19 tests and self-quarantine for anyone with “African contacts”, regardless of recent travel history.
Meanwhile, in Canada…
Canadian politicians are eagerly following the lead of their American counterparts in attempting to scapegoat China and deflect from their own inability to deal with the crisis. As Fightback has explained, the chief response of federal and provincial governments in Canada has been massive handouts for big business, while millions of workers face layoffs, inadequate protections, and an overstretched health-care system weakened by decades of cuts. As of May 27, Canada had more than 86,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and had surpassed China in its death toll from the virus—with more than 6,600 deaths in Canada, compared to roughly 4,600 in China.
The federal Conservative Party has been a particular hotbed of anti-China sentiment. Outgoing leader Andrew Scheer was one of several Conservatives who signed an open letter accusing the CCP of trying to conceal the spread of the virus, which the signatories called China’s “Chernobyl moment”. Perhaps the most notorious incident of Sinophobia in the party thus far was a video posted on social media by rookie MP and Conservative leadership candidate Derek Sloan, in which he suggested that Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Theresa Tam works for China and is putting Canadian lives at risk during the pandemic. “Dr. Tam must go!” Sloan tweeted. “The UN, the WHO, and Chinese Communist propaganda must never again have a say over Canada’s public health!”
After his comments sparked accusations of racism, Sloan briefly faced expulsion from the Tory caucus. Conservative MPs gathered the required 25 signatures to do so, and Sloan addressed his colleagues in a caucus meeting. In the end, despite Sloan’s refusal to apologize, no vote was taken, suggesting tacit approval by the party of his comments. Such an outcome should be no surprise given Scheer’s continued agitation against China. Most recently, Scheer accused the Liberal government of following a “policy of appeasement” and failing to demand greater accountability from the World Health Organization (WHO)—“a body”, reported the CBC, “that some accuse of being beholden to the Chinese.” [our emphasis]
Prominent figures in the Liberal Party have also sought to scapegoat China for the pandemic or reinforced those seeking to do so. Perhaps most notably, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on May 3 that it was “too early to draw firm conclusions” on allegations that the coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan, thereby legitimizing the dangerous and evidence-free rhetoric of Trump, Scheer, et al.
Like their counterparts in the United States, the Canadian bourgeois media have worked to create an atmosphere of fear and hostility towards China. Op-ed columnists in the country’s leading newspapers have railed against the WHO for its supposed fealty to China; against the Chinese government for opposing an “independent inquiry” into the pandemic; and against Trudeau for insufficient bellicosity, suggesting his reluctance to criticize China is related to hopes of a non-voting seat for Canada on the UN Security Council.
Governments deflect blame from failings
Attempts of governments in North America to blame China for the pandemic, however, ignore the similarly poor response of Washington and Ottawa to the virus early on. In the United States, Trump consistently downplayed the threat of the virus even after the WHO’s warnings became more strident. At various times he claimed that the virus was “under control”, that it was no worse than the flu, that it was a “hoax” by the Democratic Party, and that it would disappear “miraculously” by April. In typical xenophobic fashion, his main response in the early stages was to close the border to China in February.
After the virus exploded across the United States, Trump’s response was to attack the media, promote scientifically unproven “miracle cures”, suggest injecting disinfectant, and continually push for the reopening of the economy, including tweeting his support for far-right protests in various states demanding the same. The lack of a coordinated response by the federal government—combined with a for-profit health-care system which was already in crisis long before the start of the outbreak—has left the U.S. by far the worst afflicted country in the world by the virus.
In Canada, too, capitalism has revealed its inability to stop the pandemic. Decades of cuts and privatization have left the Canadian health-care system desperately unprepared for the massive pressure that the virus is putting on its resources, resulting in overburdened health workers and a severe shortage of tests, hospital beds, ventilators and protective equipment. Now the pressure of the bosses to quickly “reopen the economy” threatens a second wave of the virus even more devastating than the first. In such a context, the eagerness of governments to find a foreign scapegoat becomes all the more appealing.
International working class solidarity!
Unable to protect the majority of the population from this frightening disease, North American ruling classes have chosen the path of scapegoating a foreign “other” to deflect the blame from themselves. Instead of learning from China’s successes, they demonize the country and its people. Yet it is not China’s fault that health services in North American and Europe have been cut and privatized for decades, leaving these countries dangerously unprepared for a pandemic. It is not China’s fault that the bosses are forcing employees back to work in the middle of a pandemic, or leaving workers without adequate safety measures or protective equipment. It is not China’s fault that Western capitalists for decades chose to send manufacturing jobs overseas to boost their own profits with cheaper labour.
Capitalism has a long history of using racism and other forms of discrimination to divide workers and keep them from recognizing their common foe. In the 19th century, Canadian and U.S. capitalists exploited Chinese labour while using racism to keep wages low and set workers against each other. In the United States, Chinese labourers helped build the First Transcontinental Railroad and were rewarded with passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned all immigration of Chinese workers. A similar process took place in Canada, where the use of Chinese labour in building the Canadian Pacific Railway was followed by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 placing a head tax on all Chinese immigrants entering Canada.
Shamefully, some labour leaders at the time encouraged animosity against Chinese workers. The question of Asian migration was a key debate at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Second International, where left-wing delegates actively opposed any such migration controls. In 1913, Vladimir Lenin wrote, “The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited”. Instead, Lenin urged, class-conscious workers should organize together with workers in other countries.
These words are just as relevant today. Workers in all countries have far more in common with each other than they do with their respective ruling classes. When they recognize this fact and act together as a class, no force on earth can stop them.
The incapacity of capitalism to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the need for a planned economy run under democratic workers’ control. The hate and division nurtured by the capitalists to distract from the failures of their own system underscores the need for workers to unite against racism and xenophobia in all its forms. Both of these goals require maximum working class solidarity. As we say in the labour movement, an injury to one is an injury to all! Organizing together as a class, workers can fight back against racism, stop the pandemic, and put an end to the capitalist system that fosters such ills.