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The Wall Street Journal criticized for op-ed with derogatory reference to China in title

The phrase “sick man of Asia” has been historically used to perpetuate the stereotype that Chinese people were disease-ridden and unclean.
People wearing masks walk along a business street in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2020.Wang Zhao / AFP - Getty Images

An op-ed that appeared this week in The Wall Street Journal, comparing China’s financial markets to a market linked to the coronavirus outbreak, has prompted social media users to accuse the outlet of perpetuating anti-Chinese sentiments.

The article, written by Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, was published under the headline “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” in the outlet’s editorial page. The derogatory phrase “sick man of Asia” has been historically used to perpetuate the stereotype that Chinese people were disease-ridden and unclean.

Social media users slammed the piece for resurrecting an archaic stereotype while making light of a serious outbreak, which has seen more than 31,000 confirmed cases and 677 deaths reported so far, mostly in China.

“The consequences of publishing an opinion like this by mainstream media include stoking more fear and anxiety, and increasing hostility against Chinese and other Asians throughout the world,” Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told NBC News. “This is extremely harmful and wrong.”

Mead’s tweet, sharing his article, was met with hundreds of critical responses, along with a formal response from China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.

“Walter Russell Mead, you should be ashamed of your words, your arrogance, your prejudice and your ignorance,” Hua said.

The Journal declined to comment.

Choy explained that the “racist association of Chinese bodies as disease carriers” has roots in white supremacist and nativist fears of Asian migration in the late 19th century. White labor unions weaponized the stereotype to drum up support for a ban on Chinese labor immigration, arguing that Chinese diseases were more dangerous than “white” ones, The Washington Post pointed out.

The piece, Choy noted, also contributes to the xenophobia surrounding the coronavirus, erroneously linking disease to race.

“Disease does not see color. It does not recognize the borders of nation-states or ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns,” she said. “Yet, there have already been reports across the U.S. and other parts of the world where Chinese people or anyone who looks “Chinese” are targeted for exclusion and prejudice.”

On Tuesday, the New York City Police Department and its Hate Crime Task Force called on the public to help in identifying a man who allegedly assaulted a woman wearing a face mask at the Grand Street station in New York City’s Chinatown. The op-ed itself referred to the virus as a “species-hopping bat virus,” presumably referencing a viral video of a Chinese woman supposedly eating bat soup. While the clip has been pegged as evidence of Chinese people’s unsanitary dining practices that have prompted the outbreak, it wasn’t even shot in China but rather in the Pacific Island nation of Palau, where the dish is a delicacy.

Anthony Ocampo, a sociologist and associate professor at Cal Poly Pomona, explained that the headline also frames the outbreak in a dehumanizing way. With roughly 4 million Chinese Americans living in the United States, a significant portion being immigrants, Ocampo said the headline is insensitive to those with personal and emotional connections to China.

“People died and they died suddenly,” he said. “Countless other lives -- families, people being quarantined --are changed forever,” Ocampo said. “So my initial reaction to this piece is, where is the concern for their humanity?”