Coronavirus Through a Diasporic Lens

No. 22

Hello friends,

I’m April Zhu 朱萸, a freelance journalist and writer based in Nairobi, Kenya, where I cover gender, urban inequality, and all things “China-Kenya.”

Though the potential landfall of coronavirus in East Africa has loomed for weeks, tensions erupted about a week ago when, despite official directive that all direct flights between China and Kenya be suspended until the end of March, a China Southern Airlines plane flying from Changsha landed in Nairobi anyways.

What was clear from the furious eruption on Kenyan social media was that the outrage was about more than poor public health decisions. The resumption of flights from China merely demonstrated, in many Kenyans’ eyes, that their government has always been willing to sell its people to the highest bidder. It was one more frame in a moving story of invasion, in which Kenyan political elite and Chinese are co-conspirators.

From my vantage point as a Chinese-American journalist in Kenya, coronavirus has actually acted as a lens for helping me to understand race relations in Kenya. Coronavirus is a diasporic disease, not just because of its global spread but rather because of the identities it activates abroad. It forces people to negotiate how much distance to put between themselves and their origin—“origin” being that which others assign to them, and what ills they perceive it to embody.

Sometimes this is easy to discern and decry: for example, the racial profiling of East Asians in Western countries, discrimination within China against people from Hubei, or the avoidance of Chinese restaurants in areas around the world unaffected by the coronavirus.

But sometimes the ways in which coronavirus activates identities are more complex—like in Kenya, where anti-Chinese sentiment is growing, but where China looms in the minds of many as a neocolonial power—or Hong Kong and Taiwan, where exclusion or discrimination of mainlanders has mixed with struggles for sovereignty in public health decisionmaking. The coronavirus activates different identities in different contexts—there is no one “sinophobia”—and it also reveals differences in power relations.

In this issue’s Rock the Boat, we will discuss: What is something that the coronavirus epidemic has revealed to you about identity, whether that is race, ethnicity, gender, or class? What are some ways you have had to consider your own identity in reporting on the coronavirus and its effects?



Best work from our members. 

😷🤐 Fighting China’s Coronavirus Censors
China’s censors have been scrubbing online content following the COVID-19 outbreak, but some citizens are fighting back in their own creative ways. Muyi Xiao 肖慕漪 and the New York Times Visual Investigation team explain how Chinese netizens did it. 

Shen Lu 沈璐
writes for the Nation about how tens of thousands of volunteers in China and overseas are helping to save the articles and accounts from being deleted to protect the truth about COVID-19.

(Image: the New York Times)

🏥😷 Coronavirus: Revenge of the Pangolins?
The coronavirus outbreak is not the first time humans have caught a virus transmitted via wild animals, but banning wildlife trade is not enough to help the endangered animals like pangolins. Freelance writer Wufei Yu 余物非 argues in this New York Times op-ed that more needs to be done to take on misconceptions about health and traditions. 

🇭🇰🇨🇳Dual Dilemma in Hong Kong
In a poignant video story, South China Morning Post’s Anderson Xia 夏伟聪 features a mainland Chinese student in Hong Kong, who shares her frustration and helplessness about the deepening divide between mainland Chinese and Hongkongers during the coronavirus outbreak. 

😷🇨🇳 Xi Jinping Comes Down to Earth
A careful analysis of official Chinese news reports by Wendy Zhou for China Media Project reveals some important shifts in the official discourse on Xi Jinping amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

🇨🇳💉China’s Attempt at ‘Virus Diplomacy’
Reuters Wu Huizhong and Keith Zhai write about China’s all-out effort to push a new, positive narrative about how it is leading a global fight against coronavirus— through medical supply donations, media appearances and diplomatic outreach.

🖥️📲Coronavirus Outbreak Tests China's Tech Industry
Beijing is calling on Chinese tech companies to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 with disinfecting robots, drones and supercomputers. Serenite Wang and Michelle Tohreport for CNN.

🤝🏥 Wuhan Natives in the US Unite to Support Hometown 
Freelance writer Zeyi Yang 杨泽毅 documents how the US diaspora community from Wuhan came together to help out its hometown, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China. 

📰🇨🇳 A Guide to Navigating Chinese Media

In this practical guide, Ding Jin 丁进 explains for SupChina the complex relationship between Chinese media companies and the state and recommends a list of Chinese media outlets worth following. 

🙅🏻🤫 Weinstein Accuser on “Model Minority” Stereotype
NBC News’s Shako Liu edits a video where Robena Chiu, Harvey Weinstein's former assistant, explains how shame and the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans forced her to stay silent.

🏠🙅🏻Domestic Violence Surges during COVID-19
Zhang Wanqing
writes for Sixth Tone about the rise of domestic violence cases in China, where millions of people are spending more time indoors due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

🧑🏻‍⚕️Inside the Race for a COVID-19 Cure
Yvaine Ye Ruolin
and Wu Haiyun chronicle the global race to develop a cure for COVID-19, and why vaccine research requires support from governments and research foundations worldwide. 

(Image: CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS)

🇺🇸🚜 The Chinese Gun Lovers of Texas
In this episode of AJ+’s “Untold America”, Dolly Li tells the story of Donald Chen, who moved from Hubei to Texas and runs a ranch where other Chinese gun-lovers can live out their firearm fantasies.

🌎🗺️ Live Map of the Spread of Coronavirus
Shiying Cheng
puts together this live interactive map showing the spread of the coronavirus around the world for NBC New York. 

📱🏳️‍🌈China’s Most Popular LGBTQ Dating App 
Freelance writer Yi-Ling Liu writes for the New York Times Magazine about how “Blued”, a popular LGBTQ dating app with some 24 million in-country users, brings together a minority community in China.

👋Submit your published work in three ways: 1. DM us on Twitter; 2. Post it on the Slack channel #shamelessplugs; 3. Email


Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.

What are some ways you have had to consider your own identity in reporting on coronavirus and its effects?

Filmmaker Dolly Li explains why we need to reshape the narrative of what it means to be Chinese: 

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., a terrifying thing happened to my mother. She had accidentally ingested a liquid chemical meant for inhalers, mistaking it for cough medication. She called me panicking with a heart rate so high that she might as well have been running at full speed. She had been feeling the onset of a cold. “I didn’t want to get on the train and have people look at me...” Within seconds, I pieced together how my mother accidentally poisoned herself. Coronavirus. NYC Subway. Older Chinese woman. My heart sank.

The dark reality is that when the world is afraid and needs a scapegoat, the long-lasting rhetoric and perception of Chinese people being the vermin foreigners of society will simply reignite like an old flame. Asian immigrants are willing to do anything to make themselves seem less threatening to the rest of American society, even if it’s to the detriment of their own well-being.

I’ve gone back and forth these last few years on how much of my own identity needs to be a part of my reporting, but the fact of the matter is, the two are hard to untangle because the impact of racism hits so close to home. I have no other ways of protecting the people I love than reframing the dominant, politically-tenuous narrative around what it means to be Chinese.

Freelance journalist Zeyi Yang 杨泽毅 shares what it means to have his hometown of Wuhan as a central part of his identity:

Wuhan, my hometown, had never been distinctly famous as other Chinese cities. Away from home in New York, I have accepted that where I’m from is not something necessary to bring up. But, obviously, that has changed. After the coronavirus outbreak, my hometown suddenly became a central part of my identity. I’m writing, tweeting, and reading about Wuhan every day because I feel the responsibility to be part of the fight. For many Wuhan people, it’s the first time they feel a close community constructed around this identity. And it feels good to belong to a community.

But at the same time, I’m terrified by what this means for the future. I think of how the name “Wenchuan 汶川” is now tightly linked to the earthquake and how its people, ten years after the disaster, are still haunted by the connection. I don’t want my fellow Wuhan people to hesitate, 10 years from now, to say where they’re from because doing so will certainly induce a few questions about the virus.

I like that Wuhan is, finally, a central part of my identity, but I also don’t want this epidemic and its huge emotional toll to be an inextricable part of that identity.

Financial Times’ China correspondent Yuan Yang 杨缘 reflects on what we should do when identities are used as weapons:

The coronavirus has given us an excuse to believe the worst of what we want to believe about others. It has exacerbated pre-existing racism against East Asians abroad, while also giving Chinese outside of Wuhan an excuse for looking down on those caught in the outbreak's center. 

The Chinese identity has also been weaponized by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters from China — who all happened to be members of the Chinese diaspora — for an unwise and arguably racist headline about coronavirus approved by editors back in the US. The headline in no way justifies the expulsion, and in fact likely only provided a convenient excuse. But I often wonder whether all of us who work in white-majority newsrooms are a few editorial slips away from a similarly-mistaken headline. 

When identities are used as weapons, it makes it harder to listen to the other side's experiences of hurt or offence. We have to work harder to translate across the gap. 

🤔Tag @CNstorytellers on Twitter to keep the conversation going.


We recognize our members’ professional achievements (and flatter them).

📕Joy Dantong Ma publishes her book“China's Economic Arrival: Decoding a Disruptive Rise.” 

🙌Xinyan Yu 余心妍 joins BBC News’s Washington DC bureau as a producer and video journalist.

🥂Muyi Xiao 肖慕漪 joins the New York Times’ Visual Investigations team as a producer.

🎞️Zhang Zhang 张大禹’s short film for South China Morning Post on the volunteers working to diffuse tensions in the Hong Kong protest has been nominated for the 2020 World Press Photo Best Digital Storytelling Short alongside two New York Times films. The final prize will be announced in April in Amsterdam.

🙋🏻‍♀️Ding Jin 丁进, program manager at the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), has been selected as the Asian American Journalists Association’s (AAJA) 2020 National Convention Programming Committee co-chair.

🙌 IWMF is hosting a webinar on March 19 covering COVID-19 featuring international journalists and a trauma expert. RSVP HERE

🎉Mandarin-language podcast Loud Murmurs, co-produced by Afra Wang and Isabelle Niu,  hosted its first live show in New York.

🥂 Tell us what makes you proud via email, Slack or Twitter.


Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc. 

South China Morning Post’s Inkstone is looking for a Beijing-based reporter. APPLY

The New Yorker's video team is looking for personal stories relating to the coronavirus from anywhere in the world. EMAIL

The Pulitzer Center is now accepting applications for the Longworth Media Fellowships. APPLY

VOA is looking for a handful of Mandarin speakers for a new project. APPLY

Filmmaker Nanfu Wang is looking for a Chinese-speaking associate producer, PA and paid intern for a documentary project. Candidates must be based in the US. EMAIL

👀Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.

Intro: April Zhu; Editors: Isabelle Niu, Xinyan Yu; Copy Editor: Dan Mejia 

Chinese Storytellers is a community that empowers Chinese non-fiction content creators. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.