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Expats face hostility after second wave of virus cases hits China and Hong Kong

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Via Financial Times

In Lan Kwai Fong, a nightlife district in Hong Kong usually thronged with expats, almost all of the bars are closed and only a handful of patrons are drinking.

When a German sitting at an outside table with a glass of red wine attracts the attention of a local TV crew, he insists that the interview shows him wearing a mask, wary of a backlash against foreigners failing to take the virus seriously. 

“I know how it is,” said Frank, 46. “When the outbreak first began, I said: ‘It’s not that bad.’ But then I started to change my mind. Everyone is wearing a mask. Maybe we should do the same.” 

As Asian countries grapple with the threat of a second wave of imported coronavirus cases, foreigners in China and Hong Kong face public criticism. The backlash mirrors reports of discrimination against ethnic Chinese groups in the west when the outbreak first began and was worst in China.

To stop infections being brought into China, the government has barred entry to nearly all foreign passport holders except diplomats, leaving many expats stranded outside the country.

In Hong Kong, local people have grown frustrated with an expat community that has appeared to ignore pleas on social distancing, and continues to congregate in large groups, often refusing to wear masks.

This month, the front page of Apple Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper, showed a photograph of a group of expats drinking and smoking, accompanied by the headline: “Westerners without masks walk around freely”.

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Ben Cowling, a professor in epidemiology at Hong Kong University, said: “It’s not only expats in Hong Kong. In Europe in general and the US, it [the virus] hasn’t been taken that seriously until very recently.”

Last week, the Hong Kong government announced new measures limiting public gatherings to four people. It also said that non-residents would not be allowed to enter the territory for two weeks, with the exception of those from mainland China. 

The change in mood comes after new quarantine measures prompted a rush of people returning to the territory, many of them from new virus hotspots in the US and Europe. An ensuing jump in the number of confirmed cases raised fears that returnees, many of them foreigners, could be virus carriers.

In China, where domestic cases have fallen dramatically according to government figures, there is a particular focus on imported cases. Airlines are now limited to flying to and from just one country per week.

As the number of cases outside China rapidly increased, police in Beijing carried out a citywide check on all foreigners living in the capital. Of 10 big hotels the Financial Times contacted in Beijing last week, six were not accepting reservations from foreign passport holders.

When Peter Jolicoeur, an American consultant based in Shanghai, returned with his Chinese wife to China from the US in February, his first concern was that his wife’s Chinese passport would prevent them from transiting through some countries. But now he is more worried about his US passport.

“People are fearful of reintroduction of the virus from foreigners,” he said. “I would not go outside without a mask, especially being a foreigner”.

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Although much of the anger has been reserved for expats’ lack of respect for China’s restrictions, new cases have largely been traced to local residents returning home.

Luo Zhaohui, China’s vice-foreign minister, said on Thursday that 90 per cent of all imported cases had been Chinese passport holders and 40 per cent of those were students returning from overseas.

Despite that, suspicion of expats remains acute. When the country’s supreme people’s court clarified that foreign nationals could be held criminally responsible for failing to comply with the quarantine, the announcement was widely applauded. 

This month, clips of an ethnically Chinese Australian citizen who broke home quarantine to go for a run were met with widespread condemnation on Chinese social media. Days later, her employer, pharmaceutical group Bayer AG, said she had been fired. Beijing police cancelled her visa.

“This decisive punishment is an alarm bell for lots of arrogant foreigners who are subservient in their country and then are uncivilised and ignore the rules in China,” said a much-liked post about the case on question-and-answer website Zhihu.com

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

In Hong Kong pressure to wear masks has intensified as cases rise. The government advises people to wear them on public transport and in crowded areas. A recent survey from Hong Kong university showed that 99 per cent of local residents wear masks, compared with 80 per cent in February.

In the west, some attribute the adherence to cultural differences linked to conformity. Will, a 26-year-old Hong Kong Chinese man, has a different explanation: that westerners are less worried about getting ill because they believe their healthcare systems will save them. 

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“I used to live in the UK . . . they trust their government, they trust their medical system, so they don’t have to face this problem,” he said. “In Hong Kong people don’t trust the government.”

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