Federico Picerni, Ca’ Foscari University, Italy
The present contribution addresses how the coronavirus emergency saw Italy, the second epicentre and the first non-Asian one, contradictorily rearticulate its relation with the Other, now both perilous, in a resurgence of the yellow peril mystique, and attractive, in explicit or surreptitious references to the 'Chinese model'.
In the frigid evening of 20 January 2020, deep in the cold Beijing winter, I was having dinner with some European friends while preparing to wrap up my six-month fieldwork in China. Earlier that day, President Xi Jinping had issued his 'important instructions' calling for a correct handling of the mysterious coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and strongly forbidding any official cover-up or distortion of information, in order not to repeat the error of the initial mismanagement of the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic. At dinner, we joked that those of us who were remaining would just stay home for a month or two. Little did we know that the joke would become a reality. Just three days later, lockdown was enforced in Wuhan. Cases were escalating. Uncertainty about possibility of movement in and out of China grew as some flight companies suspended their connections with the country. Given the circumstances, I had to cancel my long-waited plan to spend the Lunar New Year at a friend’s family home in rural Henan and return to Italy ahead of schedule.
Once I was back home, I self-quarantined for two weeks as a precaution – although I received no clear instruction to do so by relevant authorities. After just a few days, I had to go to the hospital for another unrelated problem. Since I was still under self-imposed quarantine, I wore a mask there. This immediately aroused suspicion from doctors and patients – the former would ask me why I was wearing a mask, the latter would first stare at me and then start talking about 'the Chinese virus'. I left the hospital, after receiving treatment, with a warning by the doctors to 'stay home' (before it was cool!) and a hospital report with a final note: 'Recently returned from Beijing'.
What I want to express through this trivial anecdote is what coronavirus was in late January and early February 2020: 'the Chinese virus'. So ethnicised, the otherwise deadly virus also displayed a thaumaturgical property in resuscitating the good, old yellow peril. The peculiar trait of the yellow peril mythology lies precisely in conjuring up an essentialised, homogeneous (East) Asian threat that, exactly in it being perilous, needs to be actively opposed by 'a guarded defense of the Occident-under-siege' (Lyman 2000). After all, the sick man of Asia had never been sicker – and he was highly contagious. Italy, among other countries, saw an outburst of xenophobic harassment against Chinese (or just Asian-looking) individuals, identified as natural infectors through their (perceived) ethnic features. This was not unlike what happened also at the time of the SARS epidemic when Chinese restaurants in Italy suffered enormously by widespread Sinophobia. Something was different, however. An open letter published by a magazine of the Chinese community in Italy explicitly pointed out that, unlike 2003, now violence had unleashed against all sorts of enterprises (shops and bars were sometimes assaulted), and, above all, against individuals as well (Lanbo 2020).
Another difference in respect with the SARS case was the reaction by institutional actors. On 30 January 2020, the Italian government decided to suspend all flights between Italy and China (Taiwan was also affected, signaling, let us say, a little incompetence). This measure, clearly ineffective in curbing the risk of a coronavirus spillover (travelers flying from China with connections in other countries would not be prevented from entering Italy), still looks more like an attempt to appease 'popular discontent' with a perceived lack of action on the government’s part. In fact, content with cutting off connections with the source of all evils, authorities put no concrete prevention measure in place. In the same week, a prestigious music conservatoire in Rome suspended all its 'oriental (sic) students' (Roberts 2020). Finally, on 28 February 2020, roughly a week after the outbreak in northern Italy, the governor of one of the affected regions openly stated that the country would be able to go through the epidemic thanks to 'the hygiene of our people' and to 'our cultural education', as opposed to the Chinese, whom 'we have all seen eating live mice'. One is left wondering whether this gentleman lives in the same imaginary, grotesque world of a former Italian prime minister, who in 2006 publicly said that Chinese peasants used to boil children to fertilise the fields. The governor later apologised, but his statements were symptomatic of a general condition perfectly captured by a public declaration of a group of scholars in Chinese studies: 'Conveying a distorted, negative, almost monstrous representation of the Other, of China in this case, is just the beginning of a global barbarism that points fingers at diversities instead of trying to understand them'.
Now, what has changed in these 17 years since the SARS epidemic? It is quite clear that the epidemic did not create any Sinophobic hysteria. Something was already latent, waiting to unleash. The increasing centrality of China in the international arena, the rising role of Chinese entrepreneurs in the Italian social fabric at the expense of 'natives', a general tendency to racism bred by social inequalities and fueled by reckless politicians, and, last but not least, the 'virus' of fake news, all mixed together with the perfect excuse of the 'Chinese virus' to produce an explosive cocktail. The culprit was found, there for everyone to see, and of course, it was the Other.
In late February 2020, the much-feared spillover occurred in northern Italy. After an incredibly erratic behaviour at first, on 1 March 2020 a 'red zone' of quarantined municipalities was established, followed by a larger lockdown of the whole Lombardy regions and other northern provinces on 8 March 2020, and finally nationwide lockdown the following day, 9 March 2020.
At first, it was assumed that patient zero was a businessman recently returned from China. This later proved to be false. However, someone uttered the joke that while we were expecting the virus from filthy, mice-eating Asians, it was actually travelling on business class. Regardless of the fact that the person in question was later absolved from being patient zero, this joke signaled a fact that was to become clearer and clearer in the following weeks: the boundary between the Other and 'Us' was beginning to blur. Not only was the 'Chinese virus' already with 'Us', but perhaps 'we' were also responsible for bringing it here; most importantly, as aptly put by an Italian scholar, we were Wuhan now (Fumian 2020).
Our relationship with the Other has immensely changed. The lockdown is the most vivid demonstration of it, at least on the symbolic level. A measure that we saw so remote from our tradition, seen as typical of an (Asian) authoritarian government, suddenly became part of our everyday life. And, quite naturally perhaps, the Chinese way of dealing with the epidemic also became a model to follow for some. An article in the Corriere della Sera, one of the main Italian newspapers, traditionally close to the country’s industrial employers’ federation, commended the 'Chinese model' for giving 'orders' instead of 'calling to good sense and responsibility'; 'the absence of discussion, due to China’s authoritarian system, should be taken as a model', the article suggested (to be fair, the latter remark was directed at Beijing’s decision to suspend the football championship, but in my opinion it has a larger implication, considering the rest of the article). Comments posted by netizens also praised the People’s Republic for 'getting things done'. En passant, one might note that the Italian government did not sweat blood in appealing to ordinary citizens’ sense of responsibility before enforcing draconian measures to cope with an undisciplined population, nor was it impaired by parliamentary procedures.
Less evident are other elements that Italy has implicitly (and perhaps even unconsciously!) imported from China in its response to the outbreak. The martial narrative is the most evident (other European countries also followed suit, like France). Framing the epidemic as a war – a people’s war – has been Beijing’s way to revamp patriotic pride and activate a total mobilisation of society. Doctors, nurses and health workers in general, the 'warriors in white coats', were at the frontline, together with law enforcers. All the rest of the population was mobilised to not move, stay at home, and, as my Chinese friends joked, 'give their contribution to the nation by sleeping all day'. Exactly the same narrative has been adopted by Italy. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte used Winston Churchill’s famous WW2 quote about the 'darkest hour' (Cappellini 2020). Images found in the coronavirus discourse of the Chinese state, like hero doctors, warrior doctors, the invisible enemy, and so on, are now ubiquitous in Italy as well – in addition to the daily 'war bulletin' and pictures of empty shelves at grocery stores evoking 'wartime memories'. National flags hang from windows and balconies, rekindling a general sense of patriotism usually seen only during World Cups. Quite unusual for dominant neoliberalism, the state has also been called to intervene to regulate the 'war economy'. And it is impossible not to see in the iconic picture of Italians singing from terraces and windows a reminiscence of Wuhan residents shouting 'Wuhan, jiayou!' (stay strong) from their apartments.
Curiously, this came along with a rhetorical operation consisting of reframing the lockdown as 'the Italian model'. In my view, this may have at least two possible reasons. On the one hand, stressing that other countries are following in our footsteps is a meagre consolation for a country that circles of European financial capitalism usually portray as a negative model for its corrupt politics, inefficient bureaucracy and financial unreliability. On the other hand, speaking of an Italian model expunges the Other. An Italian model (European, Western, Occidental, perceivably democratic, liberal) may be more appealing than a Chinese model (Asian, Eastern, Oriental, perceivably authoritarian), even when the two bear many similarities. Of course the Italian response cannot be totally compared with the Chinese one, also for structural reasons; but if we consider such a 'model' to consist not only of enforcement measures strictly speaking, but also of narratives and discourses, several points in common can be identified.
Finally, another shared feature is the political turnout. The war drums of Beijing’s patriotic mobilisation against coronavirus bury the memory of the initial mishandling and underestimation, especially local authorities’ silencing of the first whistle-blowers. In Italy, such an unprecedented enforcement of collective discipline and overemphasis on individual responsibility, including the 'runner hunt' (individual runners, joggers and strollers have been accused of violating containment measures and therefore blamed for spreading the virus), is a discursive strategy to strip the system of its responsibilities – decade-long cuts in the public health-care infrastructure above all. I am not suggesting that individuals are free of any responsibility and that a certain degree of self-discipline is not necessary. However, this overemphasis we are witnessing has ulterior motives. This became particularly clear when factory workers started a wave of strikes to demand shutting down unessential production activities; they were appealing to the government’s call to 'stay home' (or, academically speaking, to the dominant symbolic doxa), but Italy’s industrial employers’ federation intervened to prevent the cabinet from effectively meeting the demand. Paradoxically, workers’ call to self-discipline was denied.
If the responsibility to curb the virus is entirely in the hands of the discipline-observing individual, then the problem lies not with systematic deficiencies and questionable policies, but with the 'undisciplined subject'. The role played by capitalist globalisation is likewise beyond the horizon of today’s 'debate'.[i] This may have far-reaching implications, as we are approaching a time of socio-economic crisis and foreseeable upheaval. To keep individuals 'obedient' (in the words of the head of Turin’s public security office; Palazzo 2020) may therefore be deemed necessary also in the near future for the sake of 'economic reconstruction', in the 'West' just like in the 'East'.
Speculation apart, what is evident is that our relationship with the Other, consciously or unconsciously, is changing: what two months ago was a filthy, contagious, authoritarian subject is now becoming more and more indistinguishable from us. The paradox is that while borders and nation-states are experiencing a revival (again, on the thaumaturgical property of coronavirus), while suspicions and mutual accusations grow (recently Italy had to go through another round of fake news on the supposed artificial origin of the virus in China), distinctions that seemed so self-evident begin to blur.[ii] The yellow peril in the West is being replaced by a white/black peril in the East, as now white people in China are subject to increasing xenophobia out of fear for new imported contagions (Kuo & Davidson 2020).
Although social inequalities show that we are not on the same boat, I am quite confident in saying that, globally speaking, we are all in this storm together. Many ordinary people are writing their stories on blogs, social networks, websites, etc., even more than 'official' writers and poets (some of whom are still discussing whether to write about the pandemic). As opposed to state narratives, that are actually reinforcing boundaries, these are stories of individual survival, coping with the virus, coming to terms with the emergency. They know no national border, no ethnic distinction. This might be part of the cure to the virus of racism, misunderstanding and self-closures.
[i] David Harvey, among others, discussed the role played by human practices in epidemics in one of his latest 'chronicles' for Democracy at Work.
[ii] I am grateful to Beatrice Gallelli for suggesting an excellent article that explores in much detail this ambivalent process of 'Othering' the virus in Europe and the failure of its 'postcolonial arrogance', which ironically also 'distracted from the question of how well equipped Europe and the USA were to fight the virus'.
Cappellini, S. 2020. Coronavirus, Conte: ‘le nostre rinunce per il bene di tutti. Seguiamo le regole e l’Italia si rialzerà’” [Coronavirus, Conte: “our sacrifices for everyone’s safety. Follow the rules and Italy will stand up again”]. La Repubblica, 8 March 2020.
Fumian, M. 2020. Stati di quarantena [States of quarantine]. Sinosfere 9: 116-128.
Kuo, L. & Davidson, H. 2020. ‘They see my white eyes and then jump back’ – China sees a new wave of xenophobia. Guardian, 29 March 2020.
Lanbo, H. 2020. Essere cinesi in Italia: Cara Italia, non lasciarci soli [Being Chinese in Italy: Dear Italy, Don’t Leave Us Alone]. Cina in Italia, 6 February 2020.
Lyman, S. M. 2000. The ‘yellow peril’ mystique: origins and vicissitudes of a racist discourse. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 13: 683-747.
Palazzo, C. 2020. Il questore: ‘Torino è ubbidiente, ma in periferia primi segnali di sofferenza’ [Public security head: 'Turin is obedient, but there are signs of irritability in peripheries']. La Repubblica, 22 March 2020.
Roberts, M. S. 2020. Outrage as Italian conservatoire bans all ‘oriental’ students over coronavirus fears. Classic FM. 31 January 2020.
Federico Picerni is a Ph.D. candidate at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in a joint degree programme with Heidelberg University, with a research project on contemporary Chinese literature. He obtained a master’s degree in History and East Asian Studies from the University of Bologna and has spent extensive periods in China for research fieldwork and language training, specifically at Peking University and Xi’an Jiaotong University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org