Moderated by Rui Zhong from the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, this event brought together three panelists to discuss “Cultural Timelines of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Diana Yeh, from City University of London, spoke about the West’s initial othering of the virus and problematically tokenizing media coverage of the pandemic in the United Kingdom. Beijing correspondent for The Telegraph Sophia Yan commented on the effectiveness of Beijing’s eventual narrative control over the outbreak and propaganda push to emphasize Western countries’ failures to control the virus. Yangyang Cheng, particle physicist and science writer, spoke about the coronavirus transcending borders and the importance of thinking about solutions beyond those that cater to individual states’ interests.
Professor Yeh spoke about the racial attacks and violence toward East Asians in the wake of the “Chinese virus” discourse. She made a point to emphasize that Chinese haven’t been the only Asian ethnic group being attacked and that anyone who looks of East Asian descent could be vulnerable in the current climate. Yeh also mentioned that many Asians in the U.K. have a “business over justice” mindset, wherein they would prefer to preserve their livelihoods and thrive economically than call out racism. In the context of the current Black Lives Matter movement, she said, some Asian voices in the U.K. have been disappointingly silent.
Clockwise from top left: Rui Zhong, Yangyang Cheng, Sophia Yan, Diana Yeh.
As Yan pointed out, the coronavirus outbreak might have been the first time many Westerners were really paying close attention to an evolving story coming out of China. The othering and racism might be a result of the underlying alienation of China from the West.
As part of her broader discussion about the new world that will emerge post-covid, Cheng emphasized the importance of pursuing science and reality over nationalism. This crisis might be the moment to mobilize China, the United States, and other countries to move past self-serving strategy and toward much-needed cooperation. In the context of national security and national interests, she said, “We have figured out how to kill each other so much better than we have figured out how to live together.”
— By Johanna Costigan