28th March 2020
Message from the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding
As coronavirus goes global, the need to understand China better has become pressing. Of greatest concern is the worrying acceptance of flawed images of China and the Chinese people, which has led to abuse - racial bullying and even violent attacks - in Britain and elsewhere. We are now facing a new phase of the ’Yellow Peril’ scare where demonization of China is becoming a fact of everyday life. Sinophobia is becoming a part of mainstream discourse, especially in the US post 2016. It may well get worse due to economic factors and the government trying to avoid blame for the outbreak. American politicians repeatedly refer to the ‘Wuhan virus’ or the ‘China plague’, with President Trump leading the way, whilst media outlets have also stoked hostility, most notably the Wall Street Journal’s infamous ‘Sick Man of Asia’ editorial. This all may come to haunt us even after the virus has disappeared.
China’s response to the outbreak with the extensive quarantine of Wuhan and several other Chinese cities, has also called our understanding of China into question. It is not just about overt racism: ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping are rife. The fact is that, with efforts from above and below, China has been able to mobilise its people to meet a common objective, unlikely ever to be achieved in a Western society less insistent on collective obligations. The common perception is of China as a homogenous mass, with the people possessing little agency, acting more akin to automatons than humans. This has often gone hand in hand with the fears of being overwhelmed by China, which have contributed to dehumanising the Chinese and further clouding our understanding of China.
China is now sending medical supplies and personnel to assist other countries struck by the virus, including Britain. European states have expressed their gratitude - Serbia’s President, faced with the EU block on the export of medical supplies, was moved to declare that ‘only China can help us in this situation’. Even local Chinese communities are making efforts: a Chinese restaurant owner in Brighton promised to donate 500 masks to demonstrate that the Chinese are here to help as well as to counter the negative stereotypes of Chinese during the outbreak. Italy and Spain and many other countries are now adopting a response that is more akin to China’s than the US, and even the UK has now moved in that direction. Doctors from Wuhan claim that Europe has been making many of the same mistakes as the Wuhan government. Only by understanding and learning from both the successes and failings of China’s handling of the virus, can we be better prepared to tackle it.
As much as the blatant racism of President Trump and the WSJ is deplorable, it is also divisive and dangerous. International cooperation is desperately needed - cooperation on research to develop a vaccine; coordination to manage the damage to the world economy. The WHO has praised the effective measures taken by China, calling on the world to learn from the country’s enormous sacrifices made to stop the virus from spreading to the rest of the world. China itself is calling for joint efforts to minimise the spread of the virus, improve global health governance, and help developing countries.
Through their sacrifices, the Chinese nation and Chinese people have bought the world time to prepare for the inevitable arrival of the virus. This should not be squandered on cynical, politically motivated slurs aimed at accumulating cheap political capital or lost in ignorance of China. We do so now at our own peril. It is time to confront and dispel the common myths about China. By seeking unity at this time of need, the sacrifices of the Chinese people will not have been in vain.
SACU President - Michael Wood
Michael, who is Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, is a historian and television documentary maker whose books and programmes on British history, on India and on China have been hugely popular with large audiences over many years. We are thrilled to have so prominent a new President to work actively with us in promoting a better understanding of China.
Indeed, Michael will be hitting the ground running as we are pleased to announce his first two public talks for SACU as its President. In the Spring there will be one on his co-production for CCTV and BBC Du Fu: China’s Greatest Poet which he describes as ‘a road movie in the footsteps of Du Fu’ - the film has readings of the poetry by Sir Ian McKellen. In the Autumn he will be talking about his soon to be published book The Story of China.
Michael has had a full and varied career gathering an enormous amount of expertise and experience over forty years. As a historian broadcaster and film maker he has brought history alive for viewers and readers in Britain, the US and worldwide. He is the author of several highly praised and best-selling books on English history including number one best sellers In Search of the Dark Ages and Domesday, and also The Story of England. He has made 120 documentary films, among them In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (to date seen in over 150 countries and territories) and The Story of India, which the Wall Street Journal described as ‘still the gold standard’ of documentary history making’. Michael’s Story of England series (BBC) was called by The Independent ‘the most innovative history series ever on TV’. Of His recent Story of China (BBC 2), the state news agency in China, Xinhua, said it had "transcended the barriers of ethnicity and belief and brought something inexplicably powerful and touching to the TV audience”.
Michael’s interest in China began at school with AC Graham’s Poetry of the Late T’ang, was extended at Oxford where he shared a house with a Sinologist and continued with visits to China from the early eighties, first filming there in the late eighties. Since 2013 he has made a dozen visits making films, above all for the six-part Story of China which set out to give the general viewer an introduction to the grand sweep and creative riches of Chinese history. It has since been seen on PBS in America and in many other countries across the world. His feature articles on China and Chinese culture have appeared in The Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Radio Times. More recently in 2018 he made a series of films on Deng Xiaoping’s Opening Up and Reform 40 years ago, whose promo this year on the TenCent website had 100 million hits in 24 hours. He will continue his links with China with the forthcoming ‘China’s Greatest Poet', a coproduction for CCTV and BBC. His next book project, his first major book in nine years, is The Story of China, due for publication in September 2020.
Currently Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, Michael has honorary degrees from many UK universities and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Society of Arts and the Society of Antiquaries; He is a recipient of the Historical Association’s Medlicott Medal for ’outstanding services and current contributions to History’ and recently received the British Academy President’s Medal for services to History and outreach. Michael continues to make films with his company Maya Vision with his partner the award-winning producer director Rebecca Dobbs.
The Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) was founded in 1965 to promote understanding and friendship between the British and Chinese people.
It is open to all who subscribe to these aims.
SACU’s mission is to promote understanding and advance the education of the UK public in all aspects of China and the Chinese people by:
- providing facts and analysis about China – not uncritically but always from a firm base of friendship
- helping the British people to understand the meaning of China – past and present
- promoting friendship and mutual respect between the peoples of China and the UK
SACU aims to promote understanding:
- to help the UK flourish in a world increasingly influenced by China
- to help overcome misplaced suspicion and increase understanding of China within the UK
- to help members progress their China-related interests and so to help SACU thrive