Confronting 'Chinaphobia' challenge

A graduating Chinese student (right) says goodbye to her professor at the University of Havana in Cuba on July 16.

CHINA - "Quick to judge, quick to anger, slow to understand. Ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand," the Canadian rock 'n'roll band Rush sang in the mid-1980s.

Nearly 30 years have passed and, thanks to the Internet, the world is more interconnected than ever. But the fight against prejudice, irrational fear and ignorance continues.

In 2012, Kesho Scott, an associate professor of American studies and sociology at Grinnell College in Iowa, began to notice a kind of fear-induced isolation between Chinese and non-Chinese in the United States.

Discussions with her college students led her to want to understand the social phenomenon.

"I had been doing a project on the Chinese Diaspora when a student asked me, 'Where are the Chinese in the world and why are there so many Chinese in Africa today?'Then another student said, 'It's a new form of colonisation.'"

Scott, 60, is an African-American diversity trainer who has been a college teacher for 25 years. In 1988 she won an American Book Award for Tight Spaces, a collection of autobiographical stories she co-authored with Cherry Muhanji and Egyirba High.

Given her background and training, Scott decided to set up workshops to combat what she considers to be an evolving racism that is becoming global.

Her two-hour workshop, called Challenging Chinaphobia, consists of introducing the concept of Chinaphobia, recognising how it is "learned" and organising activities through which participants can "unlearn" it.

The workshop has attracted between 40 and 75 people each time it has been held at Grinnell.

"The fear of Chinese people, culture, population and economic dominance is not new. What is new is the frequency of mistreatment of Chinese people as the Chinese Diasporas have more influence in the world," Scott said.

"Many non-Chinese see racial issues only within the black and white binary and tend to trivialize modern Chinese mistreatment because of perceived advantages the Chinese have, such as the fastest-growing economy in the world," she added.

However, there are those, including some Chinese, who shrug off Chinaphobia as simply an urban myth that is spreading widely but has little evidence.

Students'fears

Wang Xiao, a Chinese student of international relations at the University of York who has been in the UK since September 2012, said she did not experience any racism against Chinese during her year of study and travel in Europe.

However, she said she was constantly shocked by people's ignorance of China.

"A friend approached me and asked, 'Are the majority of Chinese people illiterate?'Later, another asked, 'Are Chinese workers living in misery, being exploited by businessmen?'" Wang said.

"Differences in culture and language somehow prevent Chinese and Westerners from getting close in a short time, but it does not mean people are hostile toward China," she said.

In contrast, Qianning Zhang, a participant in Scott's workshop in Iowa, said she had heard of cases where Chinese were targeted or mistreated by groups of different racial and cultural backgrounds in the US.

Zhang, 23, is studying music at Grinnell and is also interested in gender, women's and sexuality studies. Originally from Shenyang, Liaoning province, she became a US citizen in 2010.

She said the mistreatment of Chinese was not a recent phenomenon. "Chinese people were always perceived as threats because of the high proportion of Chinese, or Asians in general, dominance in top universities and well-respected jobs," she said.

"For the US, the phobia stems from the fear of the US 'losing to China', as if China's win is everyone else's loss," she added.

Zhu Lili, a professor of cultural studies at Nanjing University in Jiangsu province, said she is also constantly puzzled by many international students'"cultural fear" of China and misinterpretation of China's growing influence.

Zhu teaches a Chinese media culture course every semester to 30 or 40 international students who are fluent in Mandarin. She found that students are interested in Chinese media content that is contemporary and unknown to them, and that offers new perspectives. But the students react in a very conservative manner to ideas that challenge their previous perceptions of China.

"Apart from ideological factors, issues they most talked about include environmental pollution, food safety, China as a world factory and huge consumer of natural resources, and the spending sprees of the wealthy Chinese," Zhu said.

"They do point out some problems in Chinese society, but they also tend to perceive everything they don't understand about China as wrong or manipulative, which is not helpful when trying to bridge the cultural gap."

Zhu said international media's portrayal of China is mostly unfair and unjust and reinforces the students'resistance to embrace the real China.

Cultural reconciliation

Scott and Zhang conducted content analysis of more than 50 China-related sample images from Google and found that 80 per cent of the images contained negative implications.

"Fear gives control. Fear makes it easier to manipulate people," Scott said. "The US is entangled in its domestic problems and people just want simple answers. If the media and government cannot find anyone to be responsible for certain issues, they tend to blame China."

By planning to conduct five additional workshops in the US this year, Scott is determined to combat Chinaphobia globally.

"When I am talking about this issue, people always react like this: There she goes playing the race card again, but I say, 'Play the card and change the awful situation,'" she said. "First, you name it, then you claim it and then you challenge it."

Zhu said a possible way to curb China fears could be cross-cultural communication and education. "China needs to expand communication at the civilian level to a broader spectrum with the rest of the world, especially with young people," she said.

"By constructing a platform for common discourse, a shared social network, for example, young people from all over the world will have a chance to confront their ignorance of one another and therefore challenge stereotypes and remove cultural barriers," Zhu said.

"Human beings, in our era, should develop a consciousness of reconciling with and tolerating each other culturally," she added.

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