A German children’s book from the Carlsen publishing house tried to explain the coronavirus. In it, there was a sentence that at first glance seemed harmless: Children are told that the virus that has turned our lives upside down, leading to drastic restrictions on everyday life, unemployment, and financial hardship for parents, and the loss of friends and family members, comes from China.
German-Chinese parents instantly feel a bitter sting when they read this sentence because they can see their children in daycare groups and elementary school classes (the book series is recommended for reading aloud from age three) hearing these words read aloud to their classmates. They know that their children will feel shame and confusion that the country from which one or both of their parents come from has caused so much terrible and evil, global catastrophe, disease and death.
Distancing: “I hate China”
Children’s brains are highly sensitive at an early age to social exclusion and the dangers of standing out because of otherness. In evolutionary terms, it makes sense: Those who stand out, especially negatively, become the social group’s target because full membership and positive recognition are denied. Often, then, the counter-reaction is to distance oneself from one’s Chinese or Asian identity. “I’m not Chinese!” or shouting “I hate China!” is then often a sad migrant survival strategy to avoid scorn and teasing from other classmates. I know this because I was one of these German-Chinese children myself.
But, the objection goes, the virus does come from China. Why should a true sentence be subject to censorship? I argue that avoiding the sentence in this particular context of children’s reading does not constitute censorship but prevents young children from being cognitively shaped negatively towards a cultural and ethnic group from an early age. A sentence like this is enough to do that, especially when it is presented completely out of context. Research shows that this kind of imprinting starts very early.
Personalization of the bad pandemic
Children’s brains, especially those at a young age, seek simple causalities and do not understand geopolitical relationships. Preschool and elementary school children do not know who governs China or what role the Chinese government played in fighting the pandemic. Instead, children’s world horizons are much more concrete and smaller: They know that the classmate who “kind of looks different” is from China. Now, in this book, they are told without further explanation that this stupid virus is coming from China, which is why they are not allowed to meet their friends, why their parents worry and discuss late at night, and why grandma had to go to the hospital.
So their brains connect all these negative, drastic experiences of the past months with concrete people around them who can embody the abstraction “China” for them. Children of this age are not aware that Chinese classmates from daycare or school have nothing to do with the “China” that the sentence in the book refers to. Publishers like Carlsen have to understand that children’s brains cannot process information in the same differentiated way as adults or even teenagers. Therefore, it is not the fault of the children who draw the wrong conclusions from the sentence, but the responsibility of the adults not to contribute to negative cognitive imprints.
Marginalization of people of Asian appearance
The result of this imprinting is the rise of exclusion and teasing of Chinese and Asian classmates, as well as potential dehumanization. At the brain level, studies using fMRI brain scanning methods show that the association of a specific group with a disgusting phenomenon such as a deadly virus leads to empathy rejection and dehumanization of that group. This has consequences not only in terms of exclusion but also in terms of not cognitively understanding (i.e., no longer being able to “mentalize”) that group.
This, I argue, can also have undesirable consequences for later political awareness: If children are shaped from an early age so that they cannot mentalize China, they will not be interested in learning about China and understanding China. Even from the point of view of the biggest China critic, this is not desirable because a lack of mentalization understanding of China ultimately harms Germany. So instead of educating people about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its role in the pandemic, as the defenders of the phrase in the children’s book hope, this shot may backfire.
The goal of the Chinese Communist Party: splitting the diaspora
Above all, it backfires because Chinese-German parents feel dehumanized by Germany as a result of experiences like this. This is described in research as “metadehumanization”, that is, the feeling of being dehumanised by others in society. The problem with metadehumanization is that it can lead to greater hostility and divisiveness, more so than other experiences of exclusion. This is precisely the goal of the Chinese Communist Party: To divide the Chinese diaspora, to give them the impression that the Western democracies they live in do not care about their humanity and representation, and therefore the Chinese Communist Party is the true and only representative for them.
In my book “Vulnerable Minds: The Neuropolitics of Divided Societies”, which will be published this year, I argue that we need to understand and prevent the exclusionary mechanisms that our brains possess universally and cross-culturally so that our divided democracies have a chance to survive into the 21st century. Therefore, it should also be Germany’s goal at the political-strategic level to offer the Chinese diaspora an alternative, democratic-inclusive narrative by which they feel represented and humanized. To ignore the German-Chinese parents and their interests in the whole discussion about the children’s book is tantamount to a double dehumanization: as if their concerns for their children did not count; as if they had no individual, legitimate interest in standing up for their children.
At the same time, this case raises the difficult question of how we should one day communicate the COVID-19 pandemic historically, politically, and pedagogically to the youngest generation. At the moment, no one has clear answers to these questions. Of course, older children should later learn where the virus came from, how this relates to other historical pandemics, what went wrong in this pandemic, and how such an outbreak can be prevented in the future. We need to think about how this can be done without using Asian minorities as scapegoats.
Dr. Liya Yu is a political scientist and writer. She has conducted research on the political neuroscience of racism and dehumanization at the University of Cambridge, UK, and Columbia University in New York. Her book, Vulnerable Minds, will be published in 2021 by Columbia University Press. She lives in Berlin and Taipei.