Coronavirus Claims New Victim in Israel: Tolerance of Chinese Students

‘People cover their nose when they see me,’ writes one student in Jerusalem, leading Hebrew University to issue condemnation

Shaina Oppenheimer
Shaina Oppenheimer
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People wearing protective face masks as they stand near a Communist Party flag at the entrance to a residential compound in Beijing, February 9, 2020.
People wearing protective face masks as they stand near a Communist Party flag at the entrance to a residential compound in Beijing, February 9, 2020.Credit: AFP
Shaina Oppenheimer
Shaina Oppenheimer

Joe Yu arrived at New York’s JFK Airport for his return flight to Israel last week after attending a short academic conference at Rutgers University. Yet after handing the Aeroflot attendant his passport at check-in, Yu was informed he could not board the flight.

“They just told me, ‘Chinese passport, no, we’re not taking it,’” says Yu, who works as a postdoctoral student in mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot. (Like everyone quoted in this story, Yu’s name has been changed to protect his identity.)

Yu was seemingly the latest victim of confusion surrounding the Coronavirus outbreak, which has killed over 800 people and infected more than 37,000 globally since first being reported late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

At the end of January, Israel’s Health Ministry issued a guideline “to deny entry to anyone who is not an Israeli resident and who has stayed in China over the last 14 days.” However, Yu hasn’t been to his hometown of Dalian, Liaoning province – some 900 miles, or 1,450 kilometers, from Wuhan – since last October.

He called the airline four times but received the same response each time. He recalls various Aeroflot employees telling him: “The order we got is that we’re not taking Chinese passports.” Yu believes Aeroflot misinterpreted a directive from Israel’s Health Ministry, which he says declared that entry be refused to “Chinese citizens and foreign nationals who have been to China during the last 14 days.” He believes Aeroflot interpreted the first part of the clause as meaning a blanket ban on all Chinese citizens. Haaretz did not find such a directive on the ministry’s website. Aeroflot has yet to respond to a request to comment.

After calling the Israeli Embassy, Chinese Embassy and even making a trip to the Aeroflot offices in New York, the Weizmann Institute eventually arranged for Yu to return to Israel on an El Al flight.

Yu says he has heard of other cases where Chinese students, despite not having traveled to China in recent weeks, encountered similar problems when returning to Israel.

Still, for Israel’s many Chinese students – who make up a sizable proportion of the country’s roughly 12,000 international students – gaining entry to the country amid the coronavirus outbreak is just the beginning of their problems.

A group of Asian tourists in Jerusalem, February 3, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In a closed WeChat group for Chinese students at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, various messages detailing racist encounters have been posted in recent days. (WeChat is a Chinese multiplatform messaging and social media app.) “People cover their nose when they see me,” one student wrote, while another tells the group of people yelling “Coronavirus!” at him when he walked through the Old City.

Hebrew University student Mingxia Liu tells Haaretz about a group of local girls who asked whether she was Chinese. “After responding yes, they covered their mouths and ran away,” she recounts.

‘Ugly words’

The epidemic has spurred anti-Chinese and xenophobic sentiment against Asians worldwide. Restaurants from Rome to Seoul have reportedly placed signs outside their doors reading “No entry to Chinese people,” while French regional newspaper Courrier Picard published a headline last month that said “Yellow Alert.” And Israel has been no exception: Last week, best-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth published a story about the virus with a giant red “Made in China” stamp across its front page.

In response to the uptick in racist incidents, Hebrew University released an email on Friday condemning such actions, sharing the story of one of its international relations students from Xi’an, China. “They ganged up on me, shouting ‘Corona! Corona!’ and told me to go home,” the student’s testimony relayed.

One Hebrew University student, Weisheng, says that if Israelis “are really afraid we might spread the virus to them, they should just keep far away from us, rather than focusing on us and coming close and shouting ugly words and making exaggerated body gestures.” Weisheng moved to Jerusalem from Beijing three years ago to complete a master’s degree in Israel studies and is currently a research student in the political science department. He recounts an incident that took place the previous day at the city’s Mahane Yehuda outdoor market. “An Arab kid who looked around 10 years old saw us on the road,” says Weisheng. “Instead of avoiding being close to us, he walked through us, pressed his nose with his arm and shouted ‘Ahhh Sini [Arabic and Hebrew for Chinese] Corona!’”

For Weisheng, such encounters are not a new phenomena. In recent weeks, he says, public comments like “China, Ni Hao [hello]!” have been replaced by “Sini Sini Corona!” Weisheng describes near-daily derogatory comments, but says the problem was there even before the outbreak became headline news. “The coronavirus maybe made this phenomenon look more prominent,” he explains. For Weisheng, the reason for the uptick could be an increased sense of awareness among Asian students.

In a Facebook post written in Arabic, a Japanese exchange student at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem shared her experience of being mistaken for a Chinese person. She wrote about how fellow students on campus have been staying away from her and accusing her of having the virus. In a call for respect, she posts with the hashtag #nobullying.

Yu tells Haaretz about a Korean colleague who was asked if he had just returned from China. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Japanese, Chinese or Korean ... before we speak they just see Asian,” Yu says. “If someone said it in the States, I would probably get angry – but here I’m just used to it,” he adds.

An electronic display board showing a precautionary notice of the coronavirus at a deserted shopping mall in Beijing, February 9, 2020. Credit: Andy Wong,AP

An even bigger problem

Despite the racist incidents, all eight students with whom Haaretz spoke also stressed that the majority of people they have met in Israel have been kind to them. “The Israeli people are very friendly to the Chinese ... I feel safe in Israel,” Liu says. “What I care about is my 1.4 billion Chinese compatriots – the government’s lies are killing people and suppressing the truth.”

Liu’s criticism relates to the Chinese government’s reported attempts to silence those who first raised concerns about the virus, which in turn impeded Wuhan’s ability to contain the outbreak. As the epidemic continues, information within China remains largely censored. “The Chinese people are facing a war, not just a disease,” says Helen Zhang, a master’s student at Tel Aviv University.

“There is something much more important behind the curtain,” says another TAU master’s student, who requested that Haaretz identify him as “Useless.” The term was coined by students at his home university of Fudan, in Shanghai, after the Chinese government told the institution to omit the phrase “freedom of thought” from its charter.

Conversations about racism and anti-Chinese sentiment have also stoked internal debate on how to address the government’s handling of the crisis. “Useless” tells Haaretz how some of his fellow Chinese classmates here have warned that they should all follow unwritten “rules” and speak patriotically whenever asked about the virus.

In China itself, the country witnessed a rare outpouring of anger on WeChat and social media platform Weibo over the weekend following the death of Li Wenliang on Friday. The Wuhan doctor was credited as being the first medical professional to sound the alarm over the outbreak, after warning colleagues about seven people from a local seafood market who were in quarantine at his hospital. He was quickly rebuked by the Chinese authorities and forced to retract his statement, but later contracted the disease himself. He became something of a national icon amid unprecedented demands for freedom of speech in China.

A woman walking past a vigil in Hong Kong on February 7, 2020, for whistleblower Li Wenliang, who died in Wuhan, China, earlier Friday.Credit: Kin Cheung/AP

“If this case doesn’t inspire Chinese citizens and change their indifference to politics, China can’t change,” “Useless” reflects. “A bad dictator is a personal failure ... but if a bad dictator appears and the people choose to surrender, it’s the failure of the nation.”

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