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Virus fear sparks China phobia in S. Korea

Public fears over the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, are prompting many South Koreans to avoid Chinese people altogether in the belief they can minimize their risk of catching the virus.

The entrance to a seafood restaurant in downtown Seoul bears a sign that reads “No Chinese allowed” in red Chinese characters on Jan. 29. (Yonhap)
The entrance to a seafood restaurant in downtown Seoul bears a sign that reads “No Chinese allowed” in red Chinese characters on Jan. 29. (Yonhap)

As Koreans lock themselves up at home and shun places where they could run into Chinese people, shopping districts and sightseeing spots popular among Chinese tourists as well as neighborhoods with large populations of Korean-Chinese (ethnic Koreans from China) are unusually quiet and empty.

Some Koreans even fear going to restaurants likely to be staffed by Korean-Chinese or language lessons taught by native Chinese teachers.

“Those who have babies say they don’t even go to Chinese restaurants because they are likely to have Chinese staffers serving food,” said a mother of a 10-month-old infant, surnamed Shim.

“It is not that every Chinese is infected with the virus, but many of them might have visited their hometown during the Lunar New Year’s holiday and we don’t know when they came back to Korea,” she said. “There is no harm in being careful.”

Another Korean echoed this view.

“I don’t go to tourist spots such as Gyeongbokgung Palace -- a popular destination for Chinese visitors -- with my children. Who knows (who might be carrying the virus)?” said a woman who wanted to be identified only by her surname, Kang.

The death toll from the virus is nearly 500 in China, with over 24,000 people infected. As of Wednesday afternoon, Korea has 18 confirmed cases of the virus. Of those, 15 people are Koreans and nine visited Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

The Korean government on Tuesday began enforcing an entry ban on foreigners traveling from the Chinese province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, but it did little to allay public concerns. Many say the government should bar all Chinese. 

Before the outbreak, average daily arrivals from China stood at around 30,000, including Koreans returning from trips there.

“I am not happy with the government as it imposed an entry ban so late and only on those traveling from (Hubei),” Kang said.

An official from the Chinese language school in central Seoul said on condition of anonymity that some people who signed up for classes had asked to suspend their lessons for the month of February.

Chinese people, including those of Korean descent, account for the largest proportion of Korea’s foreign population, numbering over 1 million as of 2018.

While stereotyping of Chinese people is going on, Koreans are also getting more cautious about going to crowded places in general.

“I was also reluctant to be around Chinese people at first, but now I know that not only Chinese people, but anybody traveling from the region could be carrying the virus and can infect others,” said Yang Seung-hye, a 38-year-old mother of four.

“It is not that I avoid going to places frequented by Chinese people, but it is more like … I just refrain from going to any crowded public places.”

Fears have become even more real for university students who take classes and live in dormitories with Chinese students, who are about to return after their winter vacation.

“It is not like I hate or despise my Chinese classmates, but I would feel uncomfortable around them (back on campus) because the virus originated from China,” said Park Jun-hee, a 22-year-old university student in Seoul. “Especially if they don’t wear protective masks and follow even basic rules.”
There were some 71,067 Chinese students in Korea as of April 2019, accounting for 44.4 percent of all foreign students here, according to the Korean Educational Development Institute. Most are enrolled in universities in Seoul, with Kyunghee University having the highest number at 3,839. 

Some universities, including Kyunghee University and Yonsei University, canceled school events such as graduation and entrance ceremonies to prevent mass gatherings of students. Some 340 kindergartens and elementary, middle and high schools suspended classes or have delayed reopening, according to the Ministry of Education.

Excessive anxiety over the spread of the coronavirus has led to the spread of misinformation and to discrimination against Chinese people, especially online. 

Online communities have also been flooded with questions about whether it is OK to continue to hire Korean-Chinese people as babysitters or caregivers for the sick.

A restaurant in central Seoul became the subject of criticism last week after putting up a notice on its door reading “No Chinese allowed.”

A labor union for delivery workers also came under fire and had to issue an apology last week after it asked the employer to pay its workers a “danger allowance” for delivering food to areas with high Korean-Chinese populations.