Photo by Reyer Boxem

Chinese students face discrimination

Mocked and excluded

Photo by Reyer Boxem
Discrimination is a common occurrence in the Netherlands, and at the UG, too, say Chinese students. The coronavirus has made the situation even worse. ‘I don’t feel safe anymore.’
25 November om 9:01 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 25 November 2020
om 10:09 uur.
November 25 at 9:01 AM.
Last modified on November 25, 2020
at 10:09 AM.

Door Alessandro Tessari

25 November om 9:01 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 25 November 2020
om 10:09 uur.

By Alessandro Tessari

November 25 at 9:01 AM.
Last modified on November 25, 2020
at 10:09 AM.

Alessandro Tessari

Volledig bio
Student editor
Full bio

Everyone seemed to be able to find boats that day in Giethoorn. But not Lily and her friends, who are all Chinese. They had gone to the picturesque village for a day trip and wanted to get out onto the water. ‘At first I thought it was just bad luck’, the multilingualism master student says. ‘But then, when we were about to give up, I saw this man who still had several boats available.’

She overheard two guys talking to the man in British English and saw them getting a boat. When she approached him herself, however, he refused to speak to her. ‘The only thing he said was, geen boot, geen boot (no boat). I could see his boats right there and I pointed them out. But he didn’t even look me in the eyes; he mumbled something in Dutch and went on with his business. I was shocked.’

To add insult to injury, when Lily and her friends walked on, a young couple coming towards them from the other direction yelled at them: ‘Move corona, move!’ ‘As if we ourselves were the virus.’ 


That wasn’t the first time Lily had faced discrimination in the Netherlands. Once, at the Groningen train station, two people started mocking her and a friend: ‘Do you guys sell chow mein?’ They spoke Dutch, so Lily couldn’t understand them at first. ‘But my friend, who is Dutch-Chinese, got into an argument with them. In the end, we just went home, but I felt scared and insulted.’ 

It’s worse these days, though. ‘There were people before who didn’t like us for absurd reasons, rumours or whatever, but the coronavirus gave them a reason to be openly enraged and offensive.’

A young guy came up to us on a bike and yelled ‘corona!’

Başak Bilecen, assistant professor of theoretical sociology, isn’t surprised by Lily’s experiences. She’s doing research on the inequalities faced by international Chinese students in terms of formal and informal social protection. The coronavirus, she says, has been an amplifier for discrimination towards ‘Asian’ students, especially Chinese ones. ‘Principally due to the way the coronavirus was portrayed by the media and public figures.’ 

Chinese people have been associated with the virus in a racist manner. For example, Donald Trump repeatedly used the expression ‘Chinese virus’, instead of coronavirus. ‘That is a very discriminatory practice, given that the World Health Organisation guidelines have stated since 2015 that virus names shouldn’t be connected to regions or countries’, explains Bilecen.


Emma, who’s from the Shanxi province in China and is doing a PhD in sociology at the UG, has also experienced corona-related discrimination over the past months. ‘In March, I was walking by the Forum with a few Chinese friends when a young guy came up to us on a bike. I thought he stopped to say hi or something, but instead he yelled at us: “Corona!”’

Beretta, a film and contemporary audio-visual media master student, was coughed on as she walked down the street. ‘It was hurtful, but I was scared, too’, she says.

The two women have heard of plenty of similar stories from others. One case that turned violent and made the news had Chinese students especially scared, Beretta says: a Dutch-Chinese student was attacked with a knife in Tilburg when she asked a group of youths to stop singing a Dutch song that attributes corona to the ‘stinky Chinese’. ‘After reading what happened, I didn’t feel safe anymore’, says Beretta.


While the coronavirus has fuelled open discrimination, prejudice against Chinese students has been a long-standing problem. ‘They are perceived as very hard-working, silent, success-oriented’, says Bilecen. And because they tend to stick together, whole student groups are stigmatised. Not only does that lead to marginalisation and discrimination, she says, ‘it also leads to high expectations and a heavier and unfair workload on the students.’

The Western girl asked if she could be added to another group

Ranxi, an arts, culture and media student, experienced that prejudice for herself when she had to do a group assignment. ‘I was curious to see who would be in my team. I saw people taking initiative to choose group members.’ In the end, three students could not find a group. ‘It was me, another Chinese student and a Western girl.’ 

She didn’t think too much about it and figured they would form a group of their own. ‘But then the girl asked the teacher if she could be added to another group.’ When asked for a reason, she clearly struggled to come up with one, Ranxi says. ‘Over time I noticed that a lot of my classmates were reluctant to team up with Chinese students.’ 


Maansing, who recently completed a master’s in communication and information science, noticed that her teachers would avoid saying the names of Chinese students. ‘It’s a small thing, but it still hurt me. One time, I came back to the class after a break and I could clearly hear one of the teachers saying: “How do I even pronounce all these Chinese names?” Well, they could have just asked us.’

Later, she applied for a PhD and was rejected. When she asked for feedback, ‘one person suggested my appearance would perhaps better fit an R&D department of a company than a research institute. I was really shocked’, she says. ‘It hit me really hard. I felt powerless.’

Inclusion is not something that the university really values

She decided not to ask for clarification. ‘They would probably just say that it was a mistake and that they meant something else. Still, it’s outrageous and ridiculous that this happens in the highest ranks of the academic community.’ 

Even though the UG has an independent confidential advisor who offers support to victims or witnesses of discrimination, both Maansing and Ranxi felt they didn’t have the tools or the right support to report their cases. ‘All my small and big experiences gave me the feeling that our inclusion is not something that the university really values. It seems they are not making much of an effort’, says Maansing. 

Bilecen does think that universities can be important institutions to fight discrimination, though. ‘One way would be to institute strong diversity offices. And the UG should constantly encourage students to report their cases and inform them on how to proceed when they experience discrimination. That way, the uni can promote and activate the tools that already exist.’