There is a famous Brazilian saying to express disbelief or impossibility: “neither here, nor in China.” The implicit meaning — that something could not be real even in a country as far away as China — marks the cultural gap between the Latin American side of the globe and a nation that re-emerged as a great power at the beginning of the century.
Since at least 2009, there seems to be a dichotomy between China’s importance to Latin American economies and the perception of Latin society about Beijing. While the press and political elites insist on repeating how essential it is to please the Chinese to maintain the growth of Latin American economies, the people maintain a stereotyped view of a communist China, weak and authoritarian, too distant and different to be understood in its entirety.
Donald Trump’s rise as president of the United States has stirred these views, but it was the COVID-19 pandemic that enshrined the change in how Chinese are perceived in Latin American countries. Figures released in recent weeks by local think tanks and reports of xenophobia against Chinese in the region may indicate the extent of the damage to popular opinion toward the Chinese Communist Party, China, and the Chinese people.
A survey conducted in 2019 by the Pew Research Center showed that Latin America, while not as optimistic as Africa, was not in line with the United States’ and Europe’s negative considerations of China’s growth and global influence. For 53 percent of Mexicans, 47 percent of Brazilians, and 38 percent of Argentines, China had a positive influence on their respective domestic economies. Opinions favorable to China followed the same trend: 51 percent of Brazilians said they had a positive attitude toward China, a number not far from the 50 percent registered in Mexico and 47 percent in Argentina.
However, these same countries saw significant manifestations of xenophobia against the Chinese as soon as COVID-19 reached the region.
In Brazil, ruled by far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, the pandemic fueled the country’s fears of the “communist threat.” Trying to capitalize politically on the discussion about the pandemic while Bolsonaro was criticized for refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis, his son (also the most voted-for federal lawmaker in Brazil’s history), Eduardo Bolsonaro, published a long thread on Twitter in which he called the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” In a series of criticisms of the CCP, Eduardo attributed the pandemic to the leniency of the political elite in Beijing and linked Chinese decisions to Soviet attempts to cover up the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
The Chinese Embassy in Brazil was quick to demand an apology from the Brazilian government. According to local media, Jair Bolsonaro tried to call President Xi Jinping in an attempt to disavow his son. The Chinese leader refused to speak to him.
Xi may have recognized what research bore out: the damage had been done. The Department of Public Policy Analysis of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV DAAP) analyzed the damage to China’s public image as seen on Twitter. The researchers found that after Eduardo’s messages, 170,000 tweets were published blaming the Chinese Communist regime for the worldwide spread of the virus. The hashtag #viruschinês (“Chinese virus”) — paraphrasing Trump’s xenophobic statements — was also on Brazil’s Trending Topics for two days; 198,000 tweets used the term.
The digital mobilization went beyond social media. A group of President Bolsonaro’s supporters hoisted a banner in front of the Chinese Embassy in Brasilia with insults to Xi Jinping and the phrase “China Lied, People Died.” Brazilian Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub also echoed the xenophobic comments. On Twitter, he mocked the Chinese accent when trying to speak Portuguese and hinted that China would be the primary political beneficiary of the crisis caused by the pandemic.
In Mexico, statements against China came from Carmen Salinas. Famous throughout Latin America for starring in a popular soap opera in the 1990s, the actress — now a federal lawmaker — declared that the pandemic was “a punishment from God” for the Chinese “eating cats and dogs.” She later apologized for her remarks but was severely criticized for that.
In Argentina, where dozens of videos went viral showing Chinese people allegedly consuming live snakes, bats, and mice, a Chinese businessman was called “coronavirus” by a local. The two were arrested after the argument evolved into a violent fight. Searches for the term “virus chino” also increased by 96 percent in the country one day after the national lockdown began on March 18, according to Google Trends
The situation is expected to worsen when the pandemic ends. Even if it leads the list of trade partners in almost all Latin American countries, China is far from being able to project its cultural influence on the region. Although Beijing is trying to consolidate its network of Confucius Institutes and fund hundreds of scholarships for Latin students at Chinese universities, it remains an object of suspicion in a region historically and culturally close to the United States.
Aware of the challenge, Xi Jinping called for exchanges between Latin American and Chinese journalists. When he visited Chile in 2016, Xi even announced investments to train 500 Latin American media professionals by 2021. The goal? “Make our positions clear on important issues such as peace and development, in addition to defending the common interests of developing countries,” he said. Beijing is also striving to consolidate the state-owned CGTN television network in Spanish, but the results are still modest.
Faced with the lack of a long-term plan to project Chinese influence in Latin America, Beijing’s reaction has been slow. China announced timely cooperation to send masks and protective materials to doctors, even as Chinese suppliers of hospital supplies (like mechanical respirators) canceled orders from Latin American governments to the benefit of European countries and the United States. For the population, Beijing’s efforts are not enough. For the Chinese public relations effort, likely, it will not be either.
Igor Patrick is a Brazilian journalist specializing in China coverage. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Politics and International Relations at Yenching Academy of Peking University.