[Column] Again Yellow Peril

Posted on : 2021-04-06 17:03 KST Modified on : 2021-04-06 17:03 KST
The objects of fear and loathing have grown to include all East Asians
Kim Woo-jae
Kim Woo-jae

By Kim Woo-jae, science columnist

“Our failure to properly deal with Germany and Japan early cost the world dearly later on. We dare not make the same mistake with China.”

So said Steve Forbes, publisher of the US financial magazine Forbes. The battle for dominance between the US and China dates back to before the Donald Trump presidency.

Trump was merely a boorish president who made no bones about showing his antipathy toward China. The belief that China “needs to be reined in” is shared by most US elites.

The attempts by the US to contain China have been branching out into various areas.

It has added companies like Huawei and even universities like the Harbin Institute of Technology to its blacklist, restricting them from using US technology. These measures bar students and faculty at that institute from entering the US and using MATLAB and other educational software developed by US companies.

Chinese scientists and engineers working at US universities and institutes have been suspected of espionage, and the number of Chinese doctorates visiting the US for studies has rapidly dropped. The same US scientists and engineers who used to perform joint research with China now shy away from such interactions. Science and technology are central to the power battle between the US and China.

At the societal level, the two sides’ conflict has manifested in the form of racism.

The recent horrific victimization of Asian women in the US signifies that hatred toward Chinese people — an issue left unaddressed by the US government since the Trump administration — has spiraled out of control throughout US society.

By neglecting to deal with the growing racism in society, the administration secures legitimacy in its national rivalry.

No politician is going to defend racist violations of human rights at a surface level. But when a society has been thrown into disorder by war or plague, state authorities may always opt to use racism as a means of staying in power.

The Nazi party in Germany and the immigration laws in the US are examples of how states can legitimize racism for purposes of power.

Hatred toward China has been a feature of the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning. People talked about “Wuhan pneumonia,” while Trump publicly referred to the “China virus.”

The objects of fear and loathing have grown to include all East Asians. The US is merely the Western society where these attitudes are most starkly apparent.

But anti-Asian hate has also been bubbling to the surface in Europe — even in France, a country that prides itself on liberty and human rights.

Kim Jin-ri, a scholar at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, has traced xenophobia in France during the recent pandemic, publishing a dissertation titled “The Return of the ‘Yellow Peril’: Anti-Asian Hatred in French Society during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

In it, she claims that the combination of the pandemic with past positive perceptions of East Asians as a “model minority” has led to a new “Yellow Peril” discourse surfacing, as people voice fears of a future where East Asians threaten majority-Caucasian Western societies.

Popular in Europe during the late 19th century, “Yellow Peril” discourse was essentially a fear that Europeans might be “conquered” by East Asians. The term was first used by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who used it to demand that the tsar of Russia go to war with Japan to protect Europe and Christian culture from the East.

With Germany then colonizing Qingdao in China, Wilhelm II delivered his “Hun speech,” which stirred up fear and hatred toward East Asia. Japan responded with its “Pan-Asianist” ideology.

After the Russians lost the Russo-Japanese War, Germany derided them as “Huns” and “Pan-Asians.” Europe in the late 19th century was a chaotic place, and racism was rife.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has been ushering in a return of Yellow Peril discourse in the West. It’s a revival that has been in the cards ever since China began emerging as a major power.

Not only that, but China was both the origin of the pandemic and the first country to rid itself of the virus. East Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have been models of disease containment success.

The same Asian phobia that swept Europe in the late 19th century is rearing its head again. We must stop this tragedy. Discriminating against people for the color of their skin is foolish.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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