Mexicans, epidemics, and the extraordinary hypocrisy of Xinhua News Agency

Domestic News

That Xinhua New Agency even uses the phrase “freedom of expression” the day after the death of the whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang is galling. But an even greater hypocrisy is clearly remembered by Mexican citizens, like Ambassador Jorge Guajardo, who were in China in 2009 during the outbreak of H1N1 influenza, often called swine flu.

Ambassador Jorge Guajardo

Today, Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese government’s most important propaganda platform, published a commentary titled Racism worse enemy than epidemic. This is how it begins:

While the people of China are striving for victory in the battle against the outbreak of novel coronavirus, certain Western media outlets and officials are generating a cacophony out of prejudice, rumors, discrimination and racism…

Such clickbait headlines can draw more eyeballs, but they have betrayed journalistic ethics and tainted the real meaning of “freedom of expression.” The crisis of the epidemic outbreak will be over, but racial discrimination is a disease more difficult to eradicate.

Some Western politicians have also made racist remarks that are more dangerous than the virus, calling for their citizens to leave China as soon as possible, sowing fear and panic by using hearsay that there might be no commercial flights taking them to other countries in the next few weeks due to possible travel restrictions.

Instead of offering solidarity and support, these politicians have chosen to spread fear and panic among people to pursue their private gains. Combatting the novel coronavirus is more than just the battle against the disease. It is a test of morality which these politicians have failed to pass.

That Xinhua even uses the phrase “freedom of expression” the day after the death of the whistleblower doctor is galling. But an even greater hypocrisy is clearly remembered by Mexican citizens who were in China in 2009 during the outbreak of H1N1 influenza, often called swine flu.

In late April of that year, the World Health Organization (WHO) had announced the emergence of a novel influenza that was given the name H1N1. The outbreak began in Mexico and the southwestern United States, but by June, the WHO declared that the outbreak had become a pandemic. A pandemic is a global health risk, but China’s reaction to the threat was to target only one nation: Mexico.  

One of the Mexicans in China at the time was Ambassador Jorge Guajardo, who served as envoy to Beijing under two Mexican presidents from 2007 to 2013. During his tenure as ambassador, he accompanied then vice president Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 to Mexico on his first trip abroad as designated successor, and he has spent time with many other former and current senior leaders. Guajardo is now a senior director at the strategic consulting firm McLarty Associates in Washington, D.C., and able to freely speak his mind about his experiences in China. We asked him a few questions:

When did China start quarantining Mexicans and suspending transport links? 

The quarantine of Mexican nationals began the first week of May, after a flight from Mexico landed in Shanghai and one of its passengers, who had transferred to Hong Kong, felt ill and tested positive for H1N1. Immediately thereafter, China started rounding up every passenger on that flight and putting them on quarantine.

We got reports of families being woken up at their hotels at 4 a.m., asking them to please come to a hospital for a quick test, and they could return to their hotel afterward. Once at the hospital, despite testing negative, they were kept on quarantine, against their will.

That same week, China announced that it was suspending the sole direct flight to Mexico. The Chinese consulates in Mexico closed for “maintenance” and China stopped issuing visas to Mexican nationals around the world. Meanwhile, every Mexican registered in a hotel in China, having been on that flight or not, was placed under quarantine.

How did the Chinese government communicate with you as the ambassador at the time? Did it tell you what it was planning to do?

China never officially communicated to us, or our capital, what it was doing. When it first started detaining Mexicans, I tried to reach the municipal authorities in Beijing and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At first they admitted they did not know what was happening and offered to find out. We never got a response from them. They just stopped taking our calls.

The situation was tense, as we had about 200 citizens detained in China, some in good conditions (Guangzhou), some in bad (Beijing), and some in awful conditions (third-tier cities). Mexicans were afraid, not knowing what they could expect, and they were calling the embassy and consulates for assistance. We were unable to offer any responses, since we were getting none from the Chinese authorities ourselves. 

I tried visiting the Mexicans who were under quarantine in Beijing, but was not allowed in to see them for “sanitary/health” reasons. I offered to wear protective equipment, but still, they would not allow me inside. Meanwhile, we were getting reports from those inside that municipal authorities were walking and talking to the Mexicans without any protective gear. None. It was all for show.

What else did they do to Mexicans in China?

China stopped issuing visas to Mexican nationals, and Mexicans in China were being put into quarantine simply because of their passport, regardless of where they were coming from or if they had been in Mexico recently.

The Mexican Consul General in Guangzhou landed on a plane from Cambodia. Upon landing, the captain asked if there were any Mexicans on board and asked them to identify themselves. When he did, the plane stopped before arriving at the gate, they brought portable stairs, and he was escorted out of the plane. Only after he identified himself as a diplomat was he allowed to leave. He had not been in Mexico for more than three months. They didn’t ask, and didn’t care.

Another Mexican who lived and worked in the U.S., who had also not been in Mexico for a few months, landed in Beijing and was put in a quarantine because of his passport. All other Mexicans arriving in China were placed under quarantine. This lasted well into July.

Did they treat people who had visited Mexico similarly, or was it just a crude campaign targeting people with Mexican passports?

The first case of H1N1 that arrived in China was a U.S. citizen from St. Louis, Missouri. The second and third were also U.S. citizens. No Mexican ever tested positive for H1N1 in China. No travel bans were placed on any other country or nationals other than Mexico. It was only aimed at Mexico.

The Chinese government sent a plane to evacuate Chinese nationals in Mexico. Mexico sent a plane to evacuate Mexicans in China. China would not allow the Mexican plane to land in China. It was only after Mexico threatened to deny landing rights to the Chinese plane, which was already in the air, that they caved to our request, but on the condition that the Mexican crew not deplane. The plane had to fly with two full crews, to relay each other, without deplaning on a route from Mexico City, to Beijing, to Shanghai, to Guangzhou, to Hong Kong, to Mexico City.

Did the Chinese government ever explain its decisions to you once the pandemic was declared under control?

The Chinese government NEVER explained its actions, it never apologized. It did, however, complain when the president of Mexico accused it of mishandling the SARS crisis. I never, to this day, heard anyone in the Chinese government acknowledge or imply that they may have overreacted, despite being the ONLY country in the world to have adopted these measures.

Only now, after seeing how it reacts to other countries imposing travel bans on China, do I come to realize the absolute lack of self-awareness on its end. It cannot fathom it was much harsher on Mexico. By the way, Mexico has NOT imposed a travel ban on China, or Chinese nationals, because of the coronavirus. We have not closed consulates or embassies. We have not issued travel warnings. We are treating China the way we appreciated other countries treating us during H1N1, and the way we had hoped China would.