COVID-19: What Chinese Students Have Gone Through in the COVID-19 Pandemic A group of four individuals wearing masks, taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa

COVID-19: What Chinese Students Have Gone Through in the COVID-19 Pandemic

In many Asian countries, wearing masks is meant to protect the wearer. However, different understandings of the meanings of masks trigger questions on what exactly they are protecting. How does this perception of something that we all are living through affect the way masked subjects are viewed?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, China occupied a unique position as the “first” country where the pandemic broke out. Since the virus spread from China, it became known as the “Chinese virus”, and has been used as a joke against Chinese people [1]. This places overseas Chinese people in a difficult situation, with many facing discrimination. The term leads many to believe that China is responsible for the spread of the virus, which in return sparks hatred towards Chinese people.

In February and March of 2020, the Netherlands saw a range of attacks against Chinese students. From a humiliating song played by Radio 10 [2] to an assault against a young Chinese-Dutch student in a Tilburg University accommodation elevator [3], to the attack in Bornsesteeg in a student flat in Wageningen [4], such incidents are happening more and more. This has caused fear within the Chinese community, especially for young Chinese students in the Netherlands [5]. One Chinese Masters student at Leiden University said: “Around February when I lived alone, I heard lots of news about discrimination against Chinese in the Netherlands, either physically or verbally. I was super worried at that time when I was outside. I don't want to be treated unfriendly and I want to feel safe.”

A few weeks ago, the Leiden Branch of the Association of Chinese Scholars and Students in the Netherlands (ACSSNL Leiden) conducted a small online survey among the Chinese students of Leiden University. Based on the 10+ reports received within two days, we have found that most attacks were verbal, generally involving shouts of “coronavirus”, “corona”, or “Chinese virus”, etc. Some attacks, however, turned physical: one student was thrown at with a stone, and another student was spat on. Most of the incidents happened outside the university and in public. Though most of the aggressive behaviors were verbal attacks, physical attacks still happened.

Cultural Conflict

In China and many other Asian countries, masks are worn to protect not only the wearer but also the people around them. Chinese students keep receiving messages from either their families and friends, or news outlets in China, telling them that wearing masks is proven as one of the most effective ways to protect oneself and prevent the spread of the virus. For this reason, wearing masks in China was required as early as late January 2020, when the virus first broke out.

Many Western countries, in contrast, are dealing with the pandemic in a relatively relaxed way⁠—at least, in the eyes of the Chinese citizens living there. In the Netherlands, people are only required to wear masks on public transport, a policy which was only put in place on June 1st, 2020. Since people in Dutch society do not have the same understanding of masks as many Asians, they avoid those wearing masks, acting as if they are viruses themselves.

It has therefore become extremely difficult for Asians (Chinese included) living in the Netherlands to decide whether or not to wear masks in public. Recently, Chinese students from TU Delft sent a joint letter to their faculty to explain their reasons for wearing masks. They also illustrated that “wearing masks is a measure of preventing potential spread, not a symbol of disease” [6].

We at ACSSNL Leiden aim to build connections between Leiden University, the Chinese Embassy, and Chinese students⁠—especially in times of difficulty such as during the pandemic. We do our best to make sure that their problems can be voiced and solved in an efficient and effective manner. For example, in March and April 2020, we helped distribute medical supplies donated by the Chinese Embassy and Chinese companies, passing them out among the Chinese scholars and students of Leiden University. We also maintain close contact with the Diversity Office of Leiden University in order to promote anti-racism related activities together with the Chinese student community. In the meantime, we also provide an online platform where forums and activities are organized, in the hopes of helping reduce anxiety and keeping up social connections during the quarantine.

On June 1st, the Dutch government finally mandated that people wear masks on public transport [7]. Yet, even though wearing a mask became more acceptable, the discrimination against Asian people continued. In Western society, Asians, like black people and many other ethnic populations, are considered minorities, and have been subjected to racism and discrimination for a very long time [8]. The recent large-scale anti-racism protests are now calling for zero tolerance of racism and have gained incredible influence. If measures like this are not taken to address the problem, the situation may never improve. Therefore, on behalf of the community of Chinese scholars and students in the Netherlands, we would like to call for equality and respect in this critical situation. COVID-19 is a global difficulty not only for China. We sincerely hope that people from every corner of the world will unite and fight for the greater good. Together, the human race will eventually overcome this.

[1] https://theconversation.com/donald-trumps-chinese-virus-the-politics-of-naming-136796

[2] https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1178960.shtml

[3] https://nltimes.nl/2020/02/24/dutch-chinese-woman-attacked-asking-others-stop-singing-coronavirus-song

[4] https://resource.wur.nl/en/show/Coronavirus-related-bigotry-shocks-Chinese-students.htm

[5] https://www.erasmusmagazine.nl/en/2020/02/12/chair-chinese-students-association-discrimination-is-next-level-since-corona/

[6] https://www.delta.tudelft.nl/article/chinese-students-delft-want-combat-discrimination

[7] https://www.government.nl/topics/coronavirus-covid-19/tackling-new-coronavirus-in-the-netherlands/basic-rules-for-everyone

[8] https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/news/2020/06/karwan-fatah-black-on-black-lives-matter