As coverage and concern around the coronavirus grows, Chinese students have been most affected Wikipedia

The latest student demographics show that in 2018/19, the University of Cambridge welcomed 1,288 Chinese students ( 5.7% of the total student body) – of which 458 were undergraduates, and 830 postgraduates. While it is not possible to acquire data on how many students for this academic year are from Wuhan specifically, it is certain that nearly all Chinese students have been affected by the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

For Cambridge students that went home to Wuhan for Chinese New Year, which fell on Saturday 25th January, it has been impossible to return to Cambridge. At 10am, 23rd January, all public transportation including outbound trains and flights were halted within the city of 11 million. The plethora of information, rumours, words of hate and love made things difficult to navigate, let alone the countless memes and proliferation of fake news. One particularly worrying example of fake news included a widely shared academic article (not peer-reviewed) that speculated the virus’ makeup “unlikely to be fortuitous in nature” - in other words, speculating the virus had been engineered.

Moreover, identities of being Wuhanese, a Hubeier, and Chinese have been tangled together, mutating in confusing variations. As many families have decided to self-quarantine, netizens began venting their frustration. One Weibo post against regional discrimination has been shared by thousands. It reads, “Wuhanese are not (the) virus. They are just you, in the most unfortunate situation”. The most liked comment reads “The way you see Wuhanese is just the way the rest of the world see [the] Chinese”.

“Being cautious is one thing, but overstepping that fine line into the realms of racism is another.”

One Cambridge graduate, who is stuck in Wuhan and preferred to remain anonymous, expressed her concerns: “For me, the pressures are two-fold. I’m worried about all the inconvenience to my college and my department caused by my being away from Cambridge. What if I go back to Cambridge being isolated and feared as a Wuhan-born Chinese? At this point, I’m confused about my identities. I love my home city, I hate to see her being sick like this. It seems people are eager to help, but also frightened about the virus. But there’s nothing we can do regarding this paradox”.

China is composed of 23 provinces - including Wuhan - and 34 administrative divisions. Whilst a nation home to 1.4 billion may seem incomprehensible to many - the variation of cultures, dialects and mannerisms within each are profound. Naturally, when inquiring as to “Chinese” sentiment about the spread of the Coronavirus, 1.4 billion different opinions, subjectivities and unique experiences emerge.

One MPhil student at Trinity told Varsity, “It is dangerous to generalise China as a whole since cities are so unique, however I would say that in response to the BBC video of people singing to one another from within skyscrapers, this is our community culture as Wuhanese, and not Chinese people. Perhaps those from Wuhan don’t have a good reputation as their dialect sounds somewhat aggressive, but in reality people in Wuhan are warm and friendly. I was a kid when SARS broke out; people said that “refugees” from Guangdong (where SARS broke out) were warmly welcomed to Wuhan at that time. Yet during this period people from Wuhan or Hubei were badly treated within the country, let alone outside the country.”

In an effort to debunk certain myths surrounding the Coronavirus, which have become a sadistic means to justify racism towards Chinese people, many students have expressed outrage at ignorance surrounding Chinese culture. What China eats has become a point of fascination, exacerbated by the widely shared video of Wang Mengyun (the host of an online travel show) eating bat soup. The fact that the video is 3 years old and was filmed at a restaurant in Palau, an island in the Western Pacific, seems to have been deemed irrelevant by bored netizens.

Yan, an MPhil Education student told Varsity, “In reality it’s only a very very very small amount of people in China who eat wild animals. For most of us, we just eat things like beef and chicken. Nationwide, Chinese people have expressed huge dissatisfaction and anger towards those who ate and sold wild animals in the market (where the virus started)”. It is worth pointing out the exact origins of the outbreak remain hazy - and that bats are not part of the local Wuhan cuisine.


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Cancellation of Cambridge Chinese New Year events branded “racist”

Tales of racist outbursts aren’t solely limited to China’s eating habits. Reaction among the Chinese community of the Lion Yard Shopping Centre cancelling its Chinese New Year event on January 31st has been mixed. One Facebook user pointed out that the Foreign Office mentioned nothing about cancelling public gatherings, declaring “Chinese people are not a threat to the public and treating them as such is discrimination”. Once it had been confirmed that the decision was in fact made “after discussions with committee members of the Cambridge Chinese Federation”, the user retracted to say that the way the original post had been phrased “alienated many Chinese and East Asian people in Cambridge” in addition to “emboldening racist and xenophobic elements of the local population who might have taken this decision as evidence that all Chinese people are a threat to public health”.

As the UK reported its first case of the Coronavirus on January 31st, thorough but sensible measures should be taken - of which do not include cancelling public Chinese gatherings. Being cautious is one thing, but overstepping that fine line into the realms of racism is another. In France, the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus has garnered attention on social media, reminiscent of similar attitudes during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Countries around the world are bathing in ignorance - some refusing to serve Chinese customers and others going as far as to boycott Chinese businesses.

Joseph Needham, one of the greatest scholars of Chinese History, once said, “Chinese civilisation has the overpowering beauty of the wholly other, and only the wholly other can inspire the deepest love”. For many, the answer in reaction to the Coronavirus is simple: a call for mutual understanding and dignity.

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