March 27, 2020 / 10:22 AM / 2 months ago

Foreigners face suspicion in China as coronavirus worsens overseas

SHENZHEN, China/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Francesca Torlai has always got on well with her neighbors when walking her Pekingese mix-breed, Waffles, through the back streets of Beijing, but recently the Italian has started to overhear people referring to her suspiciously.

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a protective mask looks at blossoms in a park on a sunny day in Beijing as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), China, March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

“Some are talking about my schedule and why and when I go out,” she said, adding that community volunteers often stop her now to ask for proof of where she has been.

“It’s ridiculous since the community is small and I’m the only foreigner with a dog,” she said.

Torlai suspects the odd behavior is down to one thing: the coronavirus, and fears in China that the disease that originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year is now being imported by foreigners.

China appears to be over the worst of its outbreak, with imported cases the main problem for the past 10 days or so.

While China says that 90% of imported cases were Chinese people, many of them students fleeing outbreaks in places like the United States and Britain, suspicion is falling on foreigners, including the many expatriates.

In its increasingly desperate effort to stop imported cases, China announced on Thursday a bar on the entry of all foreigners, including those with residence permits.

State media have trumpeted China’s success in fighting the outbreak, relative to other countries, and some officials have cast doubt on the belief that the virus originated in Wuhan. Conspiracy theories tracing it to the United States are rampant on Chinese social media.

Some expatriates in China are now complaining of unfair treatment, said Kyle Hadfield, who runs expatrights.org, a platform for foreigners with more than 10,000 subscribers on WeChat.

“It’s people being denied access to gyms, supermarkets, spas etc. Avoided in public, treated like a virus,” Hadfield said.

Several expats said they had been turned away from offices, shopping centers, and even soccer pitches.

Guards at an office building recently declined to let a Reuters reporter in until they had called management to check.

“The virus is getting serious abroad, we have to be careful with you,” one guard said.

But none of the people Reuters spoke to said they had experienced the sort of hostility that some Asians say they have encountered in the West over the virus.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was not aware of such reactions against foreigners in China, and measures to curb the virus applied equally to all.

“China always places high importance on the safety and health of foreigners in China, and on the lawful protection of their legal rights,” he told a briefing.

LOCKED DOWN, LOCKED OUT

While rules on mask wearing have been relaxed in Shanghai, foreigners in some compounds are being asked to keep theirs on.

“They came and knocked on my door and told me to wear a mask,” said a South African in Shanghai who declined to be identified. “No one else in the compound is wearing one.”

African-American teacher Brianna Garcia, who said she was no stranger to anti-foreigner sentiment before the coronavirus, said she felt it had made things worse. Now people avoid her on the subway, she said.

British engineer Anthony McCarthy was recently turned away from his regular hotel in the city of Shenzhen.

“I could prove that I hadn’t left China,” he said. “My mobile, if you scan the QR code it shows I’ve been in Shenzhen.”

With much of the lockdown lifted in Shenzhen, American Rachel Walters and her Brazilian housemate looked for a new apartment but several communities refused to let her view flats.

Guards at one compound demanded to see her passport, health check and proof that she had been in the country, she said - requirements that have become common for both foreigners and Chinese citizens during the outbreak.

“After seeing all of that they just said, ‘no, no foreigners inside, we won’t accept foreigners’,” she said.

Reporting by David Kirton in Shenzhen and Engen Tham in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Tony Munroe and Robert Birsel

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