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Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’ comments fuelling backlash against US Asians

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Some Asian Americans say his language fuels backlash against them, playing into centuries-old stereotypes of the community as unclean

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump's insistence on speaking of a "Chinese virus" has a dark historical precedent for some Asian Americans, who say his word choice is fuelling an at times violent backlash.

Speaking daily on the global pandemic, Mr Trump has incessantly called the coronavirus the "Chinese virus", with one photo even showing his notes in which he had crossed out clinical terms preferred by health professionals.

Asian American advocates say such language plays into centuries-old stereotypes of the community as perpetually foreign and unclean - and signals, incorrectly, that individuals of one ethnicity are responsible for spreading illness.

While US incidents appear to be fewer than in Europe, New York police said a man last month chased and beat an Asian woman wearing a protective mask on the subway, calling her "diseased".

Last Thursday, civil rights groups launched a website for Asian Americans to report bias crimes linked to the pandemic to see how widespread the problem has become.

The site received 36 submissions in its first 24 hours, said Ms Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council.

She pointed to one incident where a middle school bully in the Los Angeles area punched an Asian American classmate in the head some 20 times, accusing him of carrying the coronavirus and telling him to "go back" to China.

Ms Kulkarni said she saw the violence as part of a wider history in the US dating back to the "Yellow Peril", when suspicions about Asians led the US in 1882 to ban all Chinese immigration.


"I definitely think it will get worse, partly because of the President's relentless effort for weaponising hate against communities," Ms Kulkarni said.

"He has the bully pulpit. With that comes tremendous power. People listen to him," she said.

Mr Trump rose to power on vows to keep out Latin American and Muslim immigrants but has signalled that his intention in saying "Chinese virus" may be more about geopolitics.

"It is not racist at all," he told a news conference.

"It comes from China. I want to be accurate."

The US has wide-ranging tensions with China, and Mr Trump voiced anger over a Beijing official who promoted an unfounded conspiracy theory that the US military brought the virus to Wuhan, where cases were first reported.

China's Foreign Ministry has accused Mr Trump of seeking to shift blame over his own response to the pandemic.

Professor Frank Wu, at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and author of Yellow: Race In America Beyond Black And White, acknowledged that diseases were long given geographical names and said it was fair game to criticise Beijing's actions.

"What is important here isn't the intent. It is the consequences. And these words matter because this is a time of incredible stress," Prof Wu said.

He said Asian Americans have long been associated with dirtiness, pointing to contemporary perceptions of Chinese restaurants.

"Cleanliness has always been a metaphor for whether you are a morally deserving, good individual and part of a good community," he said.

"So this isn't actually about just disease and the source of disease. It is symbolic of much, much more." - AFP