Coronavirus brings out anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea

Racism witnessed globally spreads to South Korea as panic over new virus outbreak begins to take root.

Concern In South Korea As The Wuhan Covid-19 Spreads
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases spiked in South Korea this week [Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]

The COVID-19 virus has forced countries around the world to confront racism and xenophobia – so much, in fact, that a Wikipedia page has been dedicated to compiling hate-fuelled incidents.

In the United States, an Asian woman wearing a face mask was physically assaulted in New York City by a stranger who called her “diseased”.

In the United Kingdom, football player Dele Alli faced backlash after posting a Snapchat video of himself wearing a facemask and mocking an Asian man.

In France, the hashthag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus began trending in response to racist attacks. The phrase translates to “I am not a virus.”


South Koreans, too, are now forced to take a hard look at its anti-Chinese racism as panic begins to take root.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases spiked from about 28 on February 12 to 204 and one death as of February 21.

But even though the sudden rise was caused by a singular South Korean woman now nicknamed “super ajumma” (or “super middle-aged lady”), many South Koreans continue to blame coronavirus’ spread on Chinese people.

“If you look online, a lot of the comments from netizens put the blame on the Chinese,” said Felicia Istad, a PhD candidate who researches South Korean diversity policy at Korea University.

“I have heard and seen that there are shops in Korea putting up signs like ‘no Chinese welcome’ on the door, and I know that there are quite aggressive comments all over [the web].”


South Korea’s relationship with China has always been somewhat geopolitically fraught, from the THAAD missile crisis to Beijing’s semi-supportive relationship of North Korea. Nevertheless, the two countries still have strong ties.

China is South Korea’s largest trade partner in both imports and exports, and Chinese travellers account for the largest portion of tourists to the country, making up about 34 percent of total visitors in December 2019 alone.

However, that has not stopped hate in the age of coronavirus.

“Chinese people are by far the largest immigrant population in South Korea. There are many Chinese students at Korean universities and you have more and more Chinese people settling here in the long term,” Istad said.

“Yet, it’s really common to hold prejudice against Chinese people here – there are stereotypes that Chinese people are noisy or not hygienic, for instance.”

A man and a boy wear masks to prevent contracting a new coronavirus at Myeongdong shopping district in Seoul
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea passed 200 on Friday [Heo Ran/Reuters]

In January, more than half a million South Koreans signed a petition to the presidential Blue House calling for a total ban on Chinese visitors.

Several Seoul-area newspapers have reported about “No Chinese” signs cropping up on South Korean businesses, with some simply banning foreigners altogether.

Meanwhile, a popularly known logo from previous boycotts on Japanese goods, which were caused by a colonial-era forced labour dispute, has been re-purposed into an internet meme that spreads anti-Chinese sentiment.


Instead of “No Japan”, the meme says: “No China” – “No thank you, fine dust pollution and Wuhan coronavirus. Boycott China.”

“It’s a shame that people are showing their prejudice against the Chinese,” said Moon Tae-sun, a university student who studies in Seoul.

“I think this shouldn’t be seen as an issue of someone’s nationality, but instead as a public health issue. Koreans can travel to China and come back and spread the virus, too.”

“I am hesitant to admit it, but I do avoid Chinese tourists when I see them walking around the city,” said Cho YM, an office worker living in Seoul who asked to have her first name abbreviated, for fear of retribution.

“I have heard people say they want Chinese people out of here. I also would like them to leave, if I am being honest. It’s nothing personal – I am worried about the virus.”

Historical roots

It is no secret that there is tension between South Koreans and Chinese citizens, even when those Chinese citizens are ethnically Korean.

Internet lingo from Ilbe – a website made of young internet trolls – has nicknamed Chinese people “cockroaches” online, for example.

And even among popular Korean media, portrayals of Chinese immigrants can be less than flattering.

“You can see this if you look at movies from even the past few years,” Istad said.

She cited the 2017 film Midnight Runners, a fictional thriller about Chinese gangsters who kidnap children for organ trafficking.

The movie was so offensive to some Chinese residents in South Korea that a few dozen protested, asking director Kim Joo-hwan to apologise and retract it.

Another fictional movie from the same year – The Outlaws – is largely about police trying to reel in vicious crimes committed by gangs in a Seoul-area Chinatown.

Tourists wearing masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus sit at a Myeongdong station bus stop in Seoul
Tourists wearing masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Seoul [Heo Ran/Reuters]

“There are quite strong perceptions about those areas – that they are rampant with crimes, that there is prostitution, organ trafficking, a lot of violence, and I think in part this comes from news portrayed of Korean Chinese in South Korea,” Istad said.

“The stereotype is that they make their living off illegal activities. So, whenever there are crimes committed by Chinese or Korean-Chinese people, the news will describe them as such, rather than saying it’s just a violent crime committed by a generic individual.”

“More and more, we are also seeing these movies that portray these areas as places of violence and illegal business dealings,” Istad said.


It is hard to tell where exactly the racism and animosity come from, but tension over real estate and South Korea’s hazardous air have been long-standing, even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Some South Koreans blame Chinese investors for allegedly overly developing Jeju Island, a popular vacation destination south of Busan, while others blame China for its high concentration of fine particulate matter pollution, which is linked to serious health problems.

It is unclear how much responsibility China truly bears for South Korea’s already-existing industrial air problems, but some South Korean citizens have even tried suing Beijing over the issue.

“I really think in Korea, you know, this issue around the coronavirus is fuelled by pre-existing anti-Chinese sentiment,” Istad said.

Not so prevalent

At least one South Korean scholar, however, said anti-Chinese sentiment is not as prevalent as one may think.

“Do I see a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea? Not really,” said Andrew Eungi Kim, a sociology professor at Korea University.

“Yellow dust in the past was one of the major issues with China, as well as fine particulate matter, but the anti-Chinese sentiment is not comparable to what Koreans experience with Japan, for example.”

“But with coronavirus, there are disparaging remarks about how Chinese people deal with hygienic matters or things like that,” Kim added.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a strong anti-Chinese sentiment, but more like a sense of looking down on the Chinese.”

Source: Al Jazeera