The Politics of Virus-Naming, Mask-Wearing, and Remembering

Conversation with Wang Jing and Li Li

A face mask is not just a medical product. It is also a cultural artifact.

Wang Jing

Interviewers: Amy Decillis, Jingzhi Xu, Jiannan Shi
Interviewee: Jing Wang and Li Li
Translators: Xiaoyu, Natasha, Freya, Xue

Editor’s Note:

“Fear and discrimination will not take us far.” These words are shown on the homepage of “Sinophobia Tracker,” a website that archives and documents the information on sinophobia, its spill-over effects, as well as the counter efforts worldwide during the COVID-19 outbreak. Here, sinophobia is defined as racist or xenophobic sentiment against China, Chinese culture, or people of Chinese heritage. During the COVID-19 outbreak, sinophobia is particularly manifested in anti-Asian racism as in some countries people of East Asian features are often regarded as Chinese.

Also seen on the homepage is the shape of a thumbnail symbolizing the admonishing, policing and silencing of Doctor Li Wenliang. To Wang Jing and Li Li who created the “Sinophobia Tracker” project and built the website, the death of Doctor Li was a “wakeup” call, prompting them to do something to “record, remember and carry on.” Wang Jing is a postdoctoral fellow at Shanghai New York University (NYU Shanghai) whose work mainly focuses on globalization and Muslims in China. Li Li is a PhD candidate at the University of Tübingen. While COVID-19 is already an unforgettable epidemic, Wang and Li want to ensure that no one will forget the racism and sinophobia revealed by it.

The interview took place on February 26, 2020, conducted by three NYU Shanghai students Amy DeCillis, Jingzhi Xu, and Jiannan Shi. Since the interview, the outbreak continues to spread rapidly around the globe, and has been declared a pandemic by the WHO on March 11. The development of the outbreak in different countries as well as governments’ response to it informs our discussion on the outbreak in the political context. This is particularly true when it comes to questions of certain policies and measures taken at cross-national or local level with an aim of containment. Some of those questions are discussed in the interview and our readers may agree with the views presented here, or have their own. We encourage you to tell us your views via different platforms including Wechat, facebook, instagram or email. 


(The following transcript has been edited for the sake of clarity and brevity) 

J – Wang Jing
L – Li Li

What prompted you to start this sinophobia tracker initiative?

 The thumbnail image shown on the “Sinophobia Tracker” page
Souce: https://sites.google.com/view/sinophobia-tracker

J: The death of doctor Li Wenliang (endnote 1) was a kind of wake-up moment for me. I can’t even remember whether I slept or not that night. The news of his death got spread around the media like wildfire on February 7th. It was the most searched topic on Baidu (a Chinese search engine) and Weibo (a Chinese social media platform) and all the other social media platforms, but just after a couple of hours, its rank went lower and lower until it disappeared from the page. 

That was a very scary moment for me to see how fast memory disappeared from both the official platforms and the social media platforms in China regarding the coronavirus. By initiating this project, my purpose is to record and remember what is happening. If people want to go back and see what happened during coronavirus, what kind of racist reactions people had, they can. We can all remember and learn something from the past. This is why we started this, and we continue to believe in the power of memory.

L: For me, it was when the outbreak started right before the Lunar New Year, when the government announced the lockdown of Wuhan. One webpage on Baidu said that this was the first time in over a century that the Hankou train station in Wuhan had been shut down. I knew then that something was really wrong.

Staff disinfecting the Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan the day before it was shut down
Souce: https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/trad/chinese-news-51232433

When Jing approached me with the idea, I was really into it. While donating money might be a way to contribute, I didn’t know if the money would help because of the corruption. But (co-initiating the Sinophobia Tracker project) was something I knew I could do to make a difference, however little that difference might be.

Also, I worked in Hong Kong for two years, so I have some ex-coworkers there. I ended up unfollowing them on Facebook after a while because the stuff I saw them posting was just unbearable. So I think this project is a way to, first of all, tell people these racist comments are real. It’s also a way to remember that there are good people out there fighting against racism and supporting one another.


Why do you think that racist coverage is more prevalent during the coronavirus outbreak than it was with SARS back then?

J: The internet in China, first of all, was developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, perhaps only very few government bureaus, educational institutions, and companies in China had access to the internet. 

When SARS broke out in 2003, it was actually only two years after China joined the WTO and won the bid for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Today, the integration of China into the world is much deeper and more extensive than in the early 2000s. 

The Gate of Chinatown in Philadelphia, photographed in 2017. 
Source: https://www.phillymag.com/foobooz/2020/01/31/coronavirus-philadelphia-chinatown-restaurants/

This is not to say that during the SARS epidemic, there were no racist reactions. There was, and a lot of researchers have confirmed this. If you ask some Chinese restaurant owners in Chinatown in Philadelphia or in New York, they would perhaps tell you that they had few customers during and after SARS. 

Today the media plays a more important role. If you have read major Western media outlets like CNN, New York Times, Guardian, or BBC, you’ll easily discover their first reactions. Their undertone is quite negative. For example the New York Times would directly say “Wuhan Virus” and quickly every news outlet followed up, including social media. I’m not saying they are outright racist. But when they first reported, the journalists weren’t careful enough in the language they used. Later these reports and this terminology were picked up and circulated in social media or other news outlets, just like the reports about bat soup (endnote 2). 

Also, even before the COVID-19 outbreak, a very strong anti-China sentiment had already existed in some media. The biggest news back then was the trade war between China and the US – Not many talk about that now! 

A Fu (阿福,Thomas) in his video calls for fight against the virus, not against China
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4H7Kl2EjAuY&t=2s

Of course, there are journalists who are reporting on the sinophobic incidents. On social media, people are fighting against racism. For example, A Fu on Youtube during the coronavirus, he actually posted a video very explicitly saying do not fight against China, but fight against the virus (endnote 3). 

The “Chinese Against Racist Virus” group (endnote 4) also organizes activities online and offline to raise the awareness of people who don’t know what actually happened in Wuhan. They’ve been collecting the stories from ordinary people in Wuhan and translating them online. These are the efforts from ordinary people who come from different walks of life, and they are able to extend far beyond what the government and journalists can do. 


Before the 21st century, China was more like a mysterious political regime and even an enemy for a lot of countries. One might think that when China integrates more into the global economic and political system, people will understand and accept China more. But why is this kind of racism getting even stronger after the integration? 

L: I took a cultural anthropology course and one thing I remember from it goes: anthropology cannot debunk anthropology. That is, you can never understand others’ cultures if you only try to understand them through your own lens and by using your own cultural structure. 

When people from other countries didn’t know much about China and felt that this country was distant and mysterious, it was hard for them to make any comments and give negative or positive judgments. However, due to China’s integration into the world and the rapid traveling of information, people see more aspects of China that they never expected. They are also more likely to use their cultural norms to judge the Chinese culture when they can’t understand certain aspects of it.

For example, some of my foreign friends feel strange when they see me raising my hand to ask a question in class, because that’s not what they normally do. 


Have you personally encountered any racist incident? 

L:  I was looking for masks in a drug store in Germany and asked the salesperson whether they had any. There were two people waiting in the line behind me. The minute they heard me asking about masks, they started to laugh. I looked back and stared at them. Now I regret that I didn’t say something to them. At the time, I was just too shocked by their reactions. 

After that, I talked about this with my friends. Some friends told me to be careful of the law because in some European countries you are not allowed to cover your face in public space (endnote 5). If you do, you may be stopped by the police and have to show your ID. 

With the outbreak spreading, people in Italy started to wear masks in public places. February 25, 2020. 
Source: https://www.businessinsider.com/us-government-travel-warnings-for-coronavirus-outbreak-2020-2

There was a Chinese person who said that I was the one who should be more considerate towards the German people. I should not disturb them, scare them, or cause any inconvenience for them. I was so angry about this person’s comment. I know that in most European countries, people only wear masks outside if they are really sick, so they may get scared if you wear a mask in public. But at the same time, some people are also scared of getting infected if you don’t wear a mask. So it’s just so confusing because you’re damned if you wear it and also damned if you don’t. 


What do you think about the travel restrictions that the US implemented to restrict entry from China? Do you think it’s a racist policy? How do you compare it with the Chinese government’s lockdown of Wuhan?

J: I would be cautious in calling these policies racist. In order to fully understand them, we always need to go back to their local political environments to see what it means and what kinds of existing frameworks can help us to interpret them. In the US context, I think it is appropriate to call this kind of travel ban a policy backed up by racist politics in the US. 

When it comes to the lockdown of Wuhan, it’s another question. Is this policy a form of racist politics, or does it reflect the strong power that the government is exercising over its people? Admittedly it is a major public health crisis, but we’ve seen this kind of power exercised in different levels of regions in China, say, in Xinjiang Province where there were massive re-education camps. Similar surveillance techniques were used; similar approaches to self-isolation were used. The mentality behind these policies was somehow similar.


The politics of naming the virus appear to be interesting as well. It reminds us of the Ebola virus, which was named after the Ebola River where one of the outbreak took place. When it comes to the recent coronavirus outbreak, WHO named the virus and the disease with specific intention not to bring in Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease. How would you comment on the naming politics?

J: Indeed, there were lots of reports about racist reactions during the Ebola outbreak in 2013. Even for the current virus, we first called it the Wuhan virus. Later, it was quickly changed to “novel coronavirus.” Now we finally call it COVID-19 as named by the WHO (SARS-COV-2 is the name of the virus and COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the virus —Endnote 6). One of the intentions behind the name change is to delink a place from a virus, so that people wouldn’t use it as a kind of racist excuse like Chinese virus or Spanish virus, etc.

When it comes to the Ebola virus, that’s how we are still calling it today. And the Wikipedia page is still calling it the Western African Ebola virus epidemic. The naming itself implies that it is related to a specific region, Western Africa. When people call it, they automatically associate it with Africans. I think this is one part that causes so many instant racist reactions, saying, oh, it’s blacks and Africans who have everything to do with this virus.

The Ebola River, roughly 250 km in length, is located in the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. 
Source: https://www.facebook.com/USAfrika.gov/photos/pcb.1151785381625273/1151784061625405/?type=3&theater

However, this is a myth and misrepresentation. The Ebola outbreak that we are more familiar with today happened in 2013. It happened indeed in West Africa, in countries like Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But like HIV/AIDS, the first case was actually found long ago in 1976 in Central Africa, not in West Africa. Ebola was first found in Congo and South Sudan. And it was named after the Ebola River. It’s not a place in West Africa. 


Not only is sinophobia happening around the globe, but some people inside China were also spreading “xenophobia” against people from Hubei province. What does it connotate?

J: It reminds me of a comment from my friend. He used the term 地域歧视 “di yu qi shi”, which is a kind of discrimination based on geography. The discrimination against Wuhan people is one example.

Zygmunt Bauman. (2016). Strangers at Our Door. Polity Press
Source:https://www.amazon.co.uk/Strangers-Our-Door-Zygmunt-Bauman/dp/1509512179

But I think there’s actually a deeper meaning in this kind of prejudice or discrimination, both inside and outside of China. There’s a sociologist, called Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote a book called Strangers at Our Door (2016)(endnote 7). In his analysis, the people who are the most anxious and the people who are very outspoken both online and in daily life, are not the poorest people or elites. They’re often the middle class. 

As you can see in online comments, lots of people in China who can access Weibo and are very articulate are neither very wealthy nor very poor. They increasingly become precarious in their everyday life: squeezed by the top 1% and fearful of those who are poorer than them. They are afraid of any uncertainty that can threaten their stability, their own lives, or their health. Digital media such as Facebook and Twitter are adding fuel to such anxiety as well. 

On June 16, 2015, in the announcement of his campaign for the presidency, Trump first mentioned his idea of building a southern border wall between the U.S and Mexico.
Souce: https://time.com/3923128/donald-trump-announcement-speech/

In Chinese, we have a term for it, called “精致的利己主义” (jing zhi de li ji zhu yi), redefined as egoism among the middle class. You can see such phenomena exist not just inside China, but also in almost every country in the world. There are self-centered xenophobic walls being constructed everywhere. That’s why, in the US, for example, Donald Trump is continuously calling to build a wall between the US and Mexican border as if the Mexicans were viruses.


There were reports of violence against Chinese who wear masks in public. Wearing face masks now is becoming a symbol of “being Chinese,” and the sinophobia because of the virus may come successively. Why could a simple act of wearing a mask get such a violent response?

Jing: Wearing a mask is not just becoming a symbol of being Chinese but also a symbol of being Asian now. A face mask is not just a medical product. It is also a cultural artifact. By knowing its history, we can start to see the disruptors and inconsistency in the changing meanings of face masks. 

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, about 500 million people were infected, and at least 50 million died. Masks became “an emblem of public-spiritedness and discipline,” (endnote 8) and a symbol of Western civilization. Japan adopted this and further developed the culture of face masks. In the Japan-occupied colony of Taiwan, face masks were introduced as part of the public health system to fight against the flu and other pandemics. This is a symbol of both colonization and development. 

After SARS, face masks became popular in Asia, especially in Hong Kong and Japan, as a public health measure. Mask-wearing can also be a fashion statement, a polite way to keep to oneself, a reflection of peer pressure, or even a way of protest and demonstrate civic resistance.

For now, what can we do? Ordinary people and social media can have a huge impact. Examples include 海豹王xx’s cartoons in Weibo, selfies with face masks with “不能,不明白 (bu neng, bu ming bai)” (endnote 9) after Li Wenliang’s death, and Chinese rappers who sing about face masks, e.g.“口罩” (kou zhao) by 马思唯 (Ma Siwei) and “守护” (“shou hu”) by 幼稚园杀手(you zhi yuan sha shou) (endnote 10). 

In daily life, we need to respect individual choices of whether or not to wear face masks when it is not absolutely necessary. We also need to see racism as an interconnected phenomenon. Do not be passive or indifferent bystanders. Do not discriminate against others, because the same discrimination may affect ourselves.


Endnote 1: Li Wenliang (12 October 1986 – 7 February 2020) was a Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. On December 30, 2019, he warned his colleagues in a WeChat group about a new “SARS-like pneumonia” – which was later proven to be COVID-19. On 3 January 2020, Wuhan police summoned and admonished him for “spreading rumors on the Internet.” Later, when his early warnings were exposed to the public, he was recognized as the “whistleblower” (chui shao ren 吹哨人) for the novel coronavirus epidemic. In its original Chinese context, this epithet is a praise of Li’s foresight and alertness that alarmed many of his colleagues when critical public attention was meager. Not long after returning to work, Li contracted the virus from an infected patient and died from it on February 7, 2020.

Endnote 2: The video of someone having the bat soup dish was meant to suggest the origin of the 2019 novel coronavirus. But it was actually filmed in Palau, a Pacific island nation, by a famous travel blogger Wang Mengyun in May, 2016. 

Endnote 3: A Fu (阿福, Thomas) is a German living in Shanghai. On Feb 3, he posted a video on Youtube in response to a message he received earlier from a Chinese student who suffers from homesickness and racism when studying abroad. In the video, A Fu shared his observation of how people in China and in other parts of the world fight the virus during the epidemic and called for global citizenship and for stopping the racism. The video has over 250k views and has received 24k likes. Link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4H7Kl2EjAuY&t=2s

Endnote 4: “Chinese Against Racist Virus” is an anti-racism campaign organized by a group of Chinese students studying in the UK. Having witnessed the increased discrimination during the epidemic against Chinese as well as the wide East and South-East Asian communities, they decide to launch the campaign, protesting against racism and promoting worldwide actions in fighting the racism. Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/197075558354980/

Endnote 5: According to Widipedia, in France for example, face coverings are prohibited in almost all public places, as regulated by the most strict 2010 French ban on face covering. Other European countries have been implementing legal restrictions on face covering with different provisions. A non-exhaustive overview of the anti-masking legal restrictions in different countries and districts can be found here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-mask_law

Endnote 6: On Feb 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the official name of the new coronavirus disease 2019 to be COVID-19. Before that, the disease was called 2019-nCoV by the WHO. The virus that causes COVID-19 is called COVID-19 virus, which some scientists refer to as SARS-CoV-2 virus. For more information about COVID-19, check WHO’s page: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

Endnote 7: Zygmunt Bauman. Strangers at Our Door. Polity Press, 2016.

Endnote 8: Nancy Tomes. “‘Destroyer and Teacher’: Managing the Masses During the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic”. Public Health Reports 125(Suppl 3), p48–62. 2010. 10.1177/00333549101250S308

Endnote 9: “不能,不明白” (“bu neng, bu ming bai”, which means “cannot, don’t understand”) represents the counteraction in response to the admonishment of Dr Li Wenliang. In the admonition letter, Dr Li Wenliang signed “能” (“neng”, which means “can”) and “明白” (“ming bai”, which means “understand”) to let the authority know that he would obey the rules and could understand the consequence of breaking the rules. By saying “I cannot, I don’t understand”, netizens try to defend against the injustice and power as put on Dr Li Wenliang.

Endnote 10: 海豹王xx is a blogger on Weibo who continually creates and posts cartoons about the coronavirus issues with a seal and other marine animals as characters. 马思唯 (Ma Siwei) is a 27-year-old Chinese rapper from Chengdu. He is a member of a Chinese Hip-hop group, Higher Brothers. On Feb 19th, he, with another member of the group, released their new song “口罩” (“Mask”). 幼稚园杀手 (Kindergarten Killer) is a Chinese rapper who released his new song “守护” (“Guardian”) online on Jan 25 toexpressing his hope and courage to fight the novel coronavirus.


Proofreader: Carly, Lili, Joyce
Editor: Joyce, Lili
Typesetting: Acker

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