Published: 00:23, February 28, 2020 | Updated: 07:17, June 6, 2023
PDF View
Coronavirus outbreak has already promoted intolerance and bigotry
By Richard Cullen

Using a Chinese metric, one can credibly describe the long era of European history following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476 until 1945 as, more often than not, a “warring states” period. Before and after that fall, powerful tribes invaded by land from the north. Vikings later did likewise by the sea. Within much of Europe, numerous kingdoms were recurrently engaged in conflict with one another. Then came the Reformation in the 16th century. Christianity was split as never before. Still, more savage levels of warfare followed.

Martin Luther, the man who did most to trigger the Reformation, was deeply hostile to the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. In due course, he also became militantly anti-Jewish. Here we encounter another severe Western religious divide — one which dates back over 2,000 years to the dawn of the birth of Christianity.

In the 20th century, Europe brought us World War I, from 1914 to 1918 — the “war to end all wars”. That war did not secure this outcome. World War II followed from 1939 to 1945.

The most infamous aspect of WWII was the Holocaust — the name given to the horrific Nazi-German scheme where millions of Jews and other “undesirables” were exterminated in a series of central European death camps. As it happens, Luther’s anti-Jewish legacy helped lay important foundations for this genocidal project.

The propagation of misleading and false information, for example citing the dangers of eating regular Chinese food, about the disease is epidemic. Highly discriminatory discussion and treatment of Chinese people is increasingly rampant in places like Australia, the UK, and the US

The lead-up to this overwhelming terror encompassed years of fearsome Nazi attacks on Jews, which included Kristallnacht, in November 1938, when hundreds of synagogues were wrecked, thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed and some 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

The extreme revulsion felt around the world — after the totality of these unspeakable Nazi projects was revealed — helped energize a powerful desire to create the United Nations. In early 1946, the first meeting of the UN General Assembly was held in London. In late 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a pivotal part of the project to protect individual rights against horrific abuse.

This seminal international instrument states in its title that it is a universal declaration. In the preamble, it goes on to proclaim the essential need for “the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

These are admirable aims. Since 1948, a vast human rights movement has evolved around the globe, standing on the shoulders of the UDHR. This movement has asserted the crucial need to protect human rights and its readiness to do so.

The outbreak of the new coronavirus in China, in Wuhan, in 2019 has, however, conspicuously tested this readiness on a global basis.

At this point, we need to consider some facts. The human infectious disease arising from this virus is now known as COVID-19. Although COVID-19 may be no more dangerous than a bad seasonal flu, like all influenzas, it can still be lethal. Those whose existing state of health is compromised are most vulnerable. Notably more concerning is the fact that this is a new human viral infection. There is no vaccine. There will not be one for some time. The precise mode of the development and the effects of COVID-19 are not yet fully known. It is, though, significantly contagious.

 Now we need to consider the increasingly grim reaction to Chinese people globally which has gathered such pace in the wake of the onset of this viral outbreak. The propagation of misleading and false information, for example citing the dangers of eating regular Chinese food, about the disease is epidemic. Highly discriminatory discussion and treatment of Chinese people is increasingly rampant in places like Australia, the UK, and the US. This menacing narrative has also been readily endorsed by certain groups within Hong Kong.

In Australia, long-established Chinese restaurants are closing and Chinese people have been locked out of their rental homes, to take just two examples. The impact of this massive stigmatization exercise is global. It includes malevolently recycled references to China being the “sick man of Asia” and the onset of a new “yellow peril”.

We should remember, too, how in Hong Kong over recent months, conspicuous numbers of China-related businesses have been trashed, some repeatedly, and Chinese mainland students, visitors and residents have lived in increasing fear of localist intimidation and violence.

We have witnessed shocking levels of basic rights abuses directed at people from the mainland and China-linked businesses in Hong Kong and, now, after the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, against Chinese people generally, worldwide.

But has that world-spanning human rights movement risen with all the vigor it can regularly display to denounce these abuses? With some limited exceptions, the answer is no, it has not.

In 2012, as the London Olympics progressed, an article by Ross Clark appeared in The Spectator, a British weekly, entitled Sinophobia, the last acceptable racism. Clark argued that unfounded, critical responses to Chinese success at those games reflected an irrational suspicion of China.

Unhappily, this analysis retains robust traction. After recently urging the world to show sympathy and express solidarity toward Chinese people at this very difficult time, former prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, went on to observe that: “These are ugly times and the racism implicit (and sometimes explicit) in many responses to Chinese people around the world makes me question just how far we have come as a human family.”

After decades of copious human rights discourse, preaching tolerance, enacting hate crime laws, praising multiculturalism, we have come to this: The overall response of the global human rights movement to the comprehensive abuse of rights outlined here has been shamefully minimalist.

It seems, more than 70 years since the passage of the UDHR, some people are still less universal than others.

The author is a visiting professor at the Faculty of Law, at the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.