Migration and Xenophobia across the Pacific in the Time of COVID-19: Current Problems in Their Historical Context

11.06.2020, Podiumsdiskussion, online

Virtual Panel Discussion | Panelists: Mae Ngai (Columbia University), Nayan Shah (University of Southern California), Lok Siu (University of California, Berkeley), Yasuko Takezawa (Kyoto University); Moderators: Albert Manke (Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington) and Yufei Zhou (German Institute for Japanese Studies, Tokyo)

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed a significant increase in reports of anti-Asian harassment and assaults, particularly in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Moreover, Japan, Singapore, and other Asian states in the region have witnessed a rise in anti-Mainland Chinese sentiments. In this panel discussion, leading historians and anthropologists will address current concerns in the time of COVID-19 and examine them in relation to historical antecedents. By offering analysis of the present condition in relation to the past, the panel aims to better situate today’s dynamics in their historical context and highlight how xenophobic and racist attitudes can be instrumentalized to propagate populist, nativist, and nationalist agendas. 

Migration, health, and the perception of foreigners and immigrants as threats can be identified as being part and parcel of a long-standing tradition of xenophobia, especially in societies built on settler colonialism, imperialism, and colonialism. In the nineteenth century, when Asians came as the first non-white immigrants to the Americas (in parallel with the “coolie” trade), laws and regulations to keep Chinese and other Asians from immigrating were instituted in settler societies around the Pacific Rim. Restrictive immigration policies were usually justified by racial prejudice, which often associated Asian immigration with disease and threats to public health. Such racial stereotypes further stoked fears of a “Yellow Peril.” In Southeast and East Asia, current distrust of the PRC’s political influence can add to sinophobia, thus deepening existing divides in those area. 

This event is a teaser to the conference “Mobilities, Exclusion, and Migrants’ Agency in the Pacific Realm in a Transregional and Diachronic Perspective” that will take place in Berkeley next year (June 2021). The panel discussion is organized by the project group of the module “Interaction and Knowledge in the Pacific Region: Entanglements and Disentanglements” which belongs to the Max Weber Foundation’s collaborative research project “Knowledge Unbound.”

This panel discussion is organized by the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington in cooperation with Max Weber Stiftung and Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as well as the following Institutes at University of California, Berkeley: Institute of European Studies, Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, and Center for Chinese Studies.

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