‘People leer at me like I’m a leper’ As city authorities secretly track Chinese citizens en masse, Muscovites from all around Asia see a spike in coronaviral racism
In mid-February, dispatchers for the state corporation that runs Moscow’s above-ground public transport received an order to notify the police about any Chinese people using their services. City officials also told the staff of the Moscow Metro to collect data about the health of any Chinese passengers. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin even announced that the city’s newly developed video surveillance and facial recognition system had been used to monitor the movements of individuals from China living in or visiting Russia’s capital. According to the AP, each of these orders has been accompanied by confusion, controversy, and of course, real-world racial profiling. Irina Kravtsova and Pyotr Lokhov spoke with Muscovites from China as well as other Asian countries about life in Moscow during the coronavirus outbreak. They said that while almost none of the city government’s surveillance efforts have come to their attention, they have encountered a burst of xenophobia from other Moscow residents regardless of where they’ve lived or where they have family roots.
Moscow officials have limited freedom of movement for Chinese citizens and ramped up surveillance
On February 19, Interregional Public Transport Trade Union Chairman Yury Dashkov told MBK Media that bus, tram, and trolley dispatchers in Moscow had received an unusual order. City officials had told some employees for Mosgortrans, the state corporation that runs those forms of transport, to call the police if they discovered that any passengers on their services were from China. Mosgortrans’s official Twitter account initially claimed that the news was fake. However, it acknowledged slightly later that Chinese citizens really are being monitored on public transport and that “if needed, necessary preventative measures will be taken.”
The next day, MBK Media also reported that the Moscow Metro had told its employees to stop any Chinese citizens riding their trains and ask them to fill out a form. The form included questions about when the passengers arrived in Moscow and why, where they were staying in the city, whether they were experiencing any acute respiratory symptoms, whether they had undergone a two-week quarantine, and whether they were planning to leave Moscow within the next 15 days. Chinese citizens are also being told to give officials their Troika metro card numbers so that their movements around the city can be tracked.
On February 21, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin confirmed on his website that Mosgortrans and Moscow Metro employees as well as police and ambulance staff are “monitoring Chinese arrivals.” The capital’s facial recognition system, which may include more than 100,000 surveillance cameras, is also being deployed to track Chinese citizens. Sobyanin argued that officials need facial recognition services to monitor those who have been placed under quarantine: Anyone coming into Moscow from China is initially isolated either in their homes or wherever they choose to stay upon arrival (e.g. in a hotel room). “All passengers arriving from China (including those who travel through other countries) immediately undergo a medical examination, and samples are collected to determine whether the coronavirus is present,” Sobyanin added.
Also on Friday, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov responded to a question about public coronavirus searches by arguing that no “discriminatory actions” should be taken in Russia. However, he also said the most important task now facing Russian authorities amid the viral outbreak is to “protect Russians and our country from coronavirus infiltration,” adding that “these measures have proven their effectiveness” in that effort.
Chinese citizens and immigrants from other Asian countries haven’t noticed government surveillance yet, but they have noticed a spike in public racism
Moscow State University journalism grad Wan Kim and his wife rent an apartment in southern Moscow, and Kim works in the center of town. He told Meduza that since news of the coronavirus outbreak first emerged, living Moscow has become “difficult, psychologically.”
“I get on the metro and immediately see how everybody leers at me like I’m a leper, everybody moves away,” Kim said. “I go up to the register in a store, and the cashier covers their nose and mouth with their hands. And that’s after the same person sold groceries to somebody who was coughing and sneezing and was totally calm about it. One cashier asked me not long ago to pay by card when I held out cash to her. Seemed like she didn’t want to touch my money. Another cashier demonstratively donned a pair of gloves before serving me. Little moments like that have made life very hard.”
Lin Yang, a student at Moscow State’s Institute of Asian and African Studies, told Meduza that police haven’t asked for her documents even once in recent months when she’s been out and about in Moscow. However, she has experienced psychological distress when interacting with her classmates: “Even the ones who know I haven’t been home [in Beijing] for half a year look at me with a kind of dread, as though my nationality automatically makes me contagious.” Other Chinese students, she said, have started spending more time in their dorm rooms and leaving only when they absolutely have to. “But in terms of someone being arrested and taken away somewhere — nothing like that’s happened. My friends say [the police] have limited themselves to document checks and asking how long ago they were in China.”
Fei Fong, another Moscow State journalism grad, said he hadn’t personally been stopped and examined by police: “I live in a neighborhood in Moscow where there aren’t that many Chinese folks,” he explained. However, he has noticed the peculiarities of other Muscovites’ reactions to Chinese people: “When Russians sneeze in the metro without wearing a mask, everyone thinks that’s normal. But if they see a Chinese person with a mask, then that’s just terrible.” Fong says that Chinese students have been trying to stay inside when possible because they’ve seen media coverage about government surveillance of Chinese citizens.
It’s not just Moscow’s Chinese community that has noticed a jump in ‘psychological pressure’: Other Muscovites with Asian heritage have also felt a rise in xenophobia. Veilin, who is from Vietnam and asked for her surname to remain private, has been a waiter and cashier at Pho Bo Vietnamese Café near the Kurskaya metro station for almost four years. She said her customers have been treating her exactly as they used to — like a normal person. However, as soon as she leaves work, passersby start to treat her like a threat: “I see how much dread and disdain people have when they look at me on public transport or if I run into my neighbors in the stairwell. But it’s all going on in silence so far — nobody has asked me explicitly about the virus.” According to Veilin, a police officer stopped her in the metro in January by asking, “Are you from China? When did you come here?” He then asked her to display her identification documents and explain why she was in Russia. At the end of the stop, the policeman said, “And how are we feeling today? How’s your throat?” before recommending that Veilin leave home less often during the course of the coronavirus outbreak. Other police officers have stopped Veilin and conducted similar checks on several occasions, though she reported being stopped on the street once in a while before the outbreak, too.
Galym Aiman works in Moscow as a taxi driver. Even though he’s ethnically Kazakh, Aiman has also felt the effects of Moscow’s apparent rise in anti-Chinese discrimination. He even said one of his clients threatened to complain to Uber because the ride hailing service was, in the customer’s words, “putting their clients’ health at risk by letting coronaviral Chinese people work” at the company. Aiman had a common cold at the time of the incident and sneezed a few times during the ride. Despite the driver’s difficulties with individual passengers, he said he has not seen an increase in police stops or searches.
Translation by Hilah Kohen