From the dragon’s perspective: an initial report on China’s response to the unfolding Ebola epidemic

This article is part of the series:


On a steamy mid-August afternoon, Mariatu Kargbo, a Sierra Leonian expat residing in Beijing, stood at the front of a packed hotel ballroom. As reported by Xinhua News (新华网), Kargbo addressed the crowd, saying:

I know everyone has come because they would like to support us, but I really didn’t know that today so many people would come, thank you everyone! What we’ve done today is to say to Ebola ‘You cannot go forward, you need to stop’!

Kargbo had organized the event as a fundraiser to support ongoing efforts to stop the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. To this end, a variety of donated items were auctioned off, including art pieces from Chinese artists and several embassies of African countries, flights departing from Shanghai to Africa, pottery and ceramics, and a set of gloves donated by Chinese short-track speed skater Yang Zhou. Kargbo was no stranger to fundraising: as Miss Sierra Leone 2009, she set up a foundation to donate school supplies and other things to those in need. Nor was she a stranger in China: she has appeared on Chinese variety shows, fielding questions about Africa and singing her song in Mandarin Chinese, “Marry a Chinese” (嫁给中国人).[1]

In this initial report, we provide insight into China’s response to Ebola as the epidemic unfolds. We focus on three key areas: 1) print media coverage, 2) social media commentary, and 3) brief stories of Africans living in Guangzhou. We finish with a discussion on the role of anthropology in engaging the ongoing epidemic, following Sharon Abramowitz’s recent post on Somatosphere.

Why raise the issue of China, a country that, to date, has not had any cases of Ebola?

The answer to this question is brought into view by Kargbo’s event, “Combatting Ebola: Mariatu and her Chinese friends,” exposing two overlapping trajectories that have emerged in recent years. First, the Chinese state sees itself as a global power, and as such, it should play a key role in global affairs. As China “goes global” (Shambaugh 2013), it adds a “distinctive” approach to global health (Han et al. 2008, Florini et al. 2012, Liu et al. 2014). Across the African continent, Chinese medical aid has come in the form of bilateral collaborations, financial and technical aid, and infrastructure projects. For example, the Sierra Leone-China Friendship Hospital was inaugurated by President Ernest Bai Koroma on November 13, 2012, after three years of construction, and is now being used to treat Ebola patients (photos here).

Second, Sino-African political and economic relations are substantial. In 2012, the total volume of trade between China and Africa reached US$198.4 billion, with a year-on-year growth of 19.3% (Xinhua News 2013). Over more than a decade, the direct exports from Guangzhou to African countries (mainly manufactured products) have increased more than ten times, from around US$165 million in 1996 to US$2.1 billion in 2010 (Lyons, Brown, and Li 2012). As a result, there has been a substantial increase in migration between the regions (Mathews 2011, Lyons, Brown, and Li 2012).

The Ebola outbreak adds another layer to the Sino-African relationship, whereby China is beginning to take a more active role in foreign aid to African countries and respond to emergency situations there. Therefore, China’s role in the control of the Ebola epidemic, which is reported by Chinese media outlets, will influence future relationships with African countries.’ Further, we posit social media commentary is a reflection of local anxieties about the outbreak, which largely work themselves out by framing “Africa” and “Africans,” especially in China, as a threat.


“China is ready to join the international society to continuously work hard towards an effective prevention of this Ebola outbreak” (中方愿同国际社会一道, 为早日有效防控这场突发疫情继续努力): Chinese print media coverage of Ebola

On October 15, 2014 we conducted an electronic search for Chinese language articles that mentioned Ebola using the electronic search tools available for two of China’s top news outlets: China Daily (中国日报) and People’s Daily (人民日报).[2],[3] Media coverage of Ebola is not new: since 2001, a total of 667 and 219 articles were returned for the China Daily and People’s Daily, respectively (Figure 1). In 2014, both outlets had low coverage until July. The number of articles peaked in August, with most being published in the middle of the month when President XI Jinping publically committed to aiding the international control effort in a meeting held in Nanjing with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Curiously, as the number of cases increased and cases have emerged in Europe and North America, the monthly total of media reports for both newspapers decreased (Figure 2).

Fig 2

Fig 3

Though even early reports presented the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa as an international threat, direct mentions of China were largely absent from such discussions. Here, we would like to highlight a major subject emphasized in these articles: China’s role in the global response. The response has in part been about helping the global control effort: China has provided aid and, on October 20th, donated US$6 million to the World Food Program to alleviate food shortages in the three most affected countries. As reported in these two media outlets, China’s response included: financial and food aid, sending mobile laboratory teams, providing drugs, and treating patients. One report explained China’s support of Ebola control efforts in West Africa as a natural product of “the extent of China-Africa trade and investment, as well as the China-Africa history of friendship and collaboration” (因为中非贸易和投资日益扩大,也因为中非友谊的历史承诺).

Yet, the response has also been protectionist. At home, China is trying to prevent the importation of disease, seen most strongly through the imposition of travel restrictions for all people from Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia; Nigeria, which the WHO declared free from Ebola on October 20th, did not face similar sanctions. In mid-August the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued travel warnings, cautioning citizens against visiting West Africa. Finally, in mid-October, new preparedness protocols to combat Ebola were announced, which brought together a variety of governmental departments, including health, foreign affairs, and forestry.


Believe in all possibilities: African-ness in Chinese commentary on social media

An August 13th People’s Daily article detailed a problem concerning Ebola in China: the use of social media to spread rumors, which the author decisively concluded were “rooted in human weakness” (很多谣言,都是植根于人性的弱点). Economic growth in China and low-cost technology has spurred the rapid development of Chinese social media platforms (Table 1 provides an overview of the most popular social media platforms currently used in mainland China). At times, social media has presented a contentious challenge for the Chinese state, resulting in new measures of censorship and surveillance, though usage around the country is still uneven (see Svensson 2014). However, such measures and indignation have not quelled online rumors about Ebola. This fits into a longer tradition within Chinese thought, encapsulated in the saying, “宁可信其有,不可信其无,” meaning that it is better to belief that something will happen rather than that it will not. In other words, while no cases of Ebola exist in China, under this concept, it is better to believe cases will emerge and be prepared rather than hope that Ebola will not reach China.


Despite the lack of cases, the risk of an Ebola pandemic has created a public atmosphere of fear, as seen through online forums. Much of this fear is directed at people from African countries, both those far away as well as the people residing in China. The Guangdong-based Southern Weekly (南方周末), one of the most influential media outlets in China, posted a news article entitled “’Devil’ Ebola attacks the Earth” (“魔鬼”埃博拉袭击地球), which stated that the worldwide Ebola pandemic is in fact a real version of the film Outbreak (1995). In the article’s comments section, readers responded to the heartbreaking stories from Africa, described as “scary” (恐怖), and compared the current situation to the 2003 SARS outbreak (非典), urging a quick response from the government. One commenter posted: “Our government should stop all flights in and out between China and the Ebola effected countries, and quarantine people travelling from these places until it is confirmed that they are negative for Ebola”(“政府应该立即停飞所有疫区的所有直飞航班,对从疫区入境的乘客,应先隔离观察,确认无误后方可入境”)

Within China, Africans are rumored to have already imported the disease. For example, the People Daily article cited above mentions the false rumor that a case of Ebola had already emerged in Shanghai. On October 18th, one Weibo user identified the first case of Ebola as a Nigerian man at the Canton Import and Export Fair (Canton Fair, 中国进出口商品交易会) exhibition center. In response, the Guangdong Provincial Health Department (广东卫计委) issued a statement via several online news channels as well as the official Weibo account of the Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报), one of the largest newspapers in South China, stating that the rumour was not true.

Figure 4: Map of Mainland China, with Guandong Province highlighted.

Figure 4: Map of Mainland China, with Guandong Province highlighted.

Guangzhou, a bustling metropolis of 8.5 million and the capital of Guangdong Province, has been cited as a particularly risky site of infection by social media users. Many Chinese believe that there will be an Ebola outbreak, and there is a high possibility that an African currently living in Guangzhou could carry it. For example, several mentions of Ebola appear on the “Africans in Guangzhou Board” (广州黑人吧) discussion forum, and the “Ebola Board” (埃博拉吧) also frequently cited Guangzhou in its user posts. One Tianya Club user stated: “If China has an Ebola outbreak [I] guess it will begin explode out of Guangzhou’s African community” (如果中国爆发埃博拉病毒估计先从广州黑人群体爆发).

Statements that highlight Guangzhou as a particularly risky place are unsurprising: the city has a large African migrant population, which is well known throughout China. While estimates of the precise number of Africans residing in Guangzhou are unreliable for a variety of reasons, ranging from 15,000 to 100,000 (Bodomo 2012, Castillo 2013), the large African community there serves as a vital bridge for Chinese-African relations (Bodomo 2010). While some of these Africans are long-term residents, most are frequent travellers engaged in border crossing activities between the African continent and China, either formally or informally (Mathews, Lin, and Yang 2014). The high mobility and frequency of travel by African migrants has led to a widespread Chinese belief that Africans could bring the Ebola virus to China.

Under the umbrella of preventing Ebola, social media users have posted about African communities in China. Among these posts, many demand closely monitoring African entry to China, if not the complete restriction of entry. Posts also call for tighter control over Africans within China, especially Guangzhou. For example, one Tieba user stated: “The law enforcement in our country is always a late response. Maybe there is a need for an Ebola outbreak so that Africans can be more intensely managed” (我们的执法者向来是诸葛亮一一事后的。可能要来一次埃博拉,才会对黑人加大管理).

In China, rumors of the spread of infection go beyond the biomedical model of transmission, which focuses on preventing direct contact with active cases, as some online users highlight sexual intercourse. Here, women are seen as particularly vulnerable. In a popularly circulated WeChat posted on October 17th, entitled “Ebola will strike China by the end of this month; one article that helps you understand this terrifying disease with a mortality rate over 70%” (埃博拉很可能月底袭击中国,一篇文章读懂这种死亡率超70%的恐怖病毒), the author emphasizes:

The Ebola virus in the semen of the Ebola carriers can be alive for three months, even after the person is cured. Therefore, if you want to have sex with African men from West Africa, think twice before you do that and at least consider wearing a condom.

Note that gendered terms specify the Ebola carrier was male, reifying ideas of African men as dangerous and implying that casual (heterosexual) sex is a crucial site of contamination that is best avoided. This correlates with ongoing discussion and stigmatization of interracial marriages between Chinese and Africans, particularly between Chinese women and African men. For example, a post on Baidu Tieba warns: “Careful! Chinese race have been endangered by black people multiply intensively in China” (警惕:黑人在华无限繁殖危及中华民族); another posting in the thread reads: “The Chinese men’s crisis!: white and black people are grabbing our women” (黄种男人的危机! 白人黑人抢我们的女人).

Words travel beyond borders. The forwarding, sharing, and discussion of Ebola on Chinese media is at once reflective of local fears and anxieties, and also exemplifies the process by which new tools instantiate extant ideas and biases. To be clear, the quotes above have not been gathered systemically, but rather, have been selected for their discussions on the epidemic and Africans more generally. For Ebola, social media users ascribe risk onto an understanding of “African-ness,” whether it is located on the continent of Africa, or within African bodies when they come to reside in China, echoing previous racialized responses to HIV/AIDS (Hood 2011).


En brief: stories from African migrants

At the end of September 2014, Qiuyu Jiang returned to Canada from her fieldwork, which focuses on African migrants in Guangzhou. Below, she presents three short clips of how Ebola has already begun to affect this community. All names are pseudonyms.

Business as usual: the Nigerian merchant

Since 1957, Guangzhou has played host to the Canton Fair, a biannual business convention that attracts traders from around the world. The Fall Canton Fair is currently underway, attracting over 188,119 foreign visitors and generating US$31 billion in business turnover in its 115th session held in Spring 2014. Amongst the crowds, African traders, many of whom have traveled from Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, and other countries to attend, are easily identifiable.

Business is booming as usual, unimpeded by global media-grabbing events, such as the student protests in Hong Kong, on-going airstrikes against ISIS, or even the Ebola epidemic. That is, except for those that cannot attend due to travel restrictions. For these who can make it, there is perhaps less competition. “Oh, (Ebola to me has) no influence at all,” one Nigerian trader commented. “I just picked up my countrymen from the airport and put them in the hotels. They came without a problem. There are some screening procedures at the airport but not much warning.”

Closed borders: the Guinean trader

In Guinea, Mohamed, an African trader, has been waiting anxiously for his Chinese visa. He had returned to his hometown in May 2014 for his son’s birthday, and a much-needed vacation from his busy trading life in Guangzhou. He described his situation as follows:

Truly, I want to come back. Many of my Chinese friends and businessmen colleagues are calling me day and night, asking when I can be back. I have an apartment in Guangzhou; I am still paying rent but I cannot be back. You know how easy it used to be for me to get a visa…But now because of the disease, people are afraid. I pray to God every day to take away Ebola and let me back to do business again.

Since many neighbouring African countries began shutting down the border with Guinea due to the Ebola epidemic, he has largely lost hope. In his absence, Mohamed has asked his sister, who remains in Guangzhou as a student, to temporarily represent him in his business affairs. “Business is a secret; I cannot let other strangers into this.” Under Chinese immigrant law, however, student visas do not allow for employment, and thus, his sister runs the risk of being deported if she were to be found out by the authorities.

Not taking any chances: the Guinean student

Sitting outside of a local university’s enrolment services office in Guangzhou, Mamadou, an international student from Guinea, was disheartened to find out his transfer request had been denied. He had already been in the city for two years, residing there on a student visa. He had many reasons for wanting to transfer universities. Mamadou was excited to attend better language courses, and also be more integrated into the African community, who were enrolled at the university in larger numbers. Finally, like many other foreign students in China, he worked secretly in his spare time in order to cover his daily expenses; the university he was looking to transfer to offered a more convenient course schedule for his needs. He explained:

I want to change my school….but they say (that) because I am from Guinea, they are afraid that I will bring Ebola to them. But for almost two years, I have not been back to my hometown. I am in China! Where can I get this disease? Now I have to go back to the school I don’t like.


Discussion: Towards an anthropology of unfolding engagement

Ebola has not followed the trajectory that was predicted at the outset of the epidemic, and the response from anthropologists has similarly been unexpected. Normally critiqued for being slow and responsive, in this instance, anthropologists have been visibly involved in public health debates as well as ongoing reflection on the (potential) implications of the epidemic to the discipline. For example, on October 2 the American Anthropological Association (AAA) hosted a “webinar” on Ebola; Cultural Anthropology published a special series on October 7th; and since August, a number of essays have appeared here on Somatosphere in the series “Ebola Fieldnotes.” Anthropologists have also used less discipline-specific platforms, such as radio (2), print media, and YouTube to advocate for an improved response. In this report, we join the anthropological engagement as the Ebola epidemic unfolds, while adding an important geographic dimension that has been largely overlooked.

We position this initial report to capture some emergent trends in China surrounding the Ebola epidemic. As seen, while Chinese print media might have peaked in August, popular social media platforms, such as WeChat and Weibo, demonstrate a lively on-going discussion in China about Ebola. In spite of official warnings of the dangers of spreading rumors online, social media users are sharing a variety of kinds of information about the risks, modes of transmissions, and methods to manage Ebola. In Chinese, the disease is distinctly foreign due to its transliteration, and such rumors reflect the anxiety of importing a disease from the outside. Africans, as visible minorities, shoulder the burden of perceived risk, both abroad and within China. Conversations with African informants reveals that while some migrants continue to go about their business unaffected, the threat of Ebola has impacted the everyday choices of others. Coupled with online commentary, the perceived threat of Ebola may amplify existing racial schisms, which have escalated to violent incidents in recent years.

We are guided by previous social science work on recent epidemics in China, including SARS (Dirlikov 2005, Zhang 2006, Duan 2007), HIV/AIDS (Hood 2011, Hyde 2007), and avian influenza (Heffernan, Misturelli, and Thomson 2011, Dirlikov 2008), as well as historical examinations of disease (Heinrich 2008, Landsberger 2010, Hinrichs and Barnes 2013, Rogaski 2004). We further position this initial report as part of a growing body of social science research that examines Chinese in Africa (Yan and Sautman 2013, Mohan and Tan-Mullins 2009), as well as Africans in China (Ma and Bodomo 2012, Bodomo 2012, Bodomo 2010, Mathews 2011, Mathews, Lin, and Yang 2014, Han 2013, Haugen 2012, Lyons, Brown, and Li 2012).

Finally, we would like to offer an example in which anthropologists make contributions that at once are unique to anthropology and informative to public health experts, policy makers, and the public at large. Here, we follow Sharon Abramowitz, who argues that anthropologists can “systematically observe, report on, interpret, and explain local perspectives on the Ebola epidemic response.” This requires a different type of anthropological engagement that is timely, proactive, and useful beyond the confines of the discipline. Yet, the cornerstones of anthropological research remain central. Indeed, in preparing this report over the course of one week, we have both reached out to contacts in China, and have drawn on background information derived from long-term fieldwork and personal experience in China.

As China is a major player in Africa and global (health) affairs more generally, we argue for a fuller analysis of the consequences Ebola has had and will continue to have in China, as well as on the citizens of China and of African countries who live there.


Emilio Dirlikov is a PhD Candidate in McGill University’s Department of Anthropology and Social Studies of Medicine. He is currently finalizing his dissertation, for which he spent two years conducting field research on tuberculosis control in China.

Qiuyu Jiang is a PhD Candidate in McGill University’s Department of Anthropology and the Center for Society, Technology and Development. She is currently writing her dissertation based on fieldwork on African migrants in Guangzhou, China.



We would like to thank Doerte Bemme (McGill University) and Mark Daku (McGill University) for providing invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this piece.



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[1] In this report, we follow the Chinese discourse on Africa, which generally homogenizes the enter continent into one as 非洲. Further, we translate 黑人 (lit. “black person) as “African.”

[2]All media in China falls under state control, with the People’s Daily serving as the government’s official news outlet, and the China Daily serving as a more outward looking news source that is also published in English and French.

[3] There are two terms for “Ebola” in Chinese: 埃博拉 (āibólā) and 伊波拉(yībōlā). Both terms are transliterations of the English pronunciation, and it appears that the former is used more frequently in mainland China, while the latter is used more extensively in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

8 Responses to From the dragon’s perspective: an initial report on China’s response to the unfolding Ebola epidemic

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