‘Asia’ is in its essence also a Western imaginary. Whether institutionalised and instrumentalised or contested by Asians themselves, much of what we see in today’s mainstreamed media around the US, the UK, Europe and Australia still rests heavily in imaginaries of an Asia that is rigidly situated within reductionist frameworks of identity: as either a menace to the economic growth of capitalist countries or exoticised (e.g. infantilised) to a level that is difficult for those of us who have lived in different Asian countries to even recognise its sophistication and diversity.
Such imaginaries (one could say ideologies of ‘the self and the rest’) stem from (neo) imperial paradigms and delusions of grandeur. While politicians and crisis cabinets around the world are grounded and defined by the ideologies of their members, there is a tendency to assume that expertise and policy in most of Western Europe is essentially secular. At the same time, governments and politicians across Asia are promptly situated as victims of their own religions (Islam, Hinduism), beliefs and ideologies (whether communist or authoritarian).
Selective criticism and problematic worldviews
In research and teaching I focus on topics around the politicising of identity, and different ethnicity and indigeneity paradigms in Asia (particularly in island Southeast Asia). Throughout decades discussing the oversimplification of Asian identity in anglophone media, I have often found myself feeling frustrated at the lack of space for the complexity of locales afar: if not treated as mere touristic destinations then subjected to a level of critique systems ‘at home’ have never experienced.
Selective criticism is surely grounded in problematic worldviews and biases and COVID-19’s pandemic has fortunately brought ‘othering paradigms’ to the limelight. Ontologies (i.e. ways of being in the world) of standardised critique (of socio-political systems, culinary morals, religiosity) that are promptly applied to non-Western countries but absent when it comes to turning an eye inward.
The conscious and unconscious ignoring of existing inequalities that would deem the pandemic a risk to our societies was sacrificed in favour of anti-Chinese propaganda informed by existing Sinophobia: orientalist and colonial biases deeming ‘the western world’ as immune to the Asian (yellow) peril by default. Subsequently, anglophone media’s focus shifted to paternalistic and reductionist accounts of the socio-political orders of the vast diversity of sub-continents, like India, and archipelagos, like Indonesia.
While China was constructed as ‘the secretive sick other’, India and Indonesia seemed to trigger similar imaginaries of victimisation and paternalism. And yet, I do not live in the illusion that we can extract the media of our societies from the cultural and historical context in which they are produced and developed. I am also certain that our politicians and experts do rely on their ideologies and ontologies as much as others do abroad. The self-proclaimed neutrality and the othering of viruses, peoples and places work well as cogs in the nationalistic machinery of a variety of Western countries but do not convince everybody.
China as the chronically ill other
For a good summary of media’s stigmatising of Chinese population see what Leiden colleagues have already discussed here. China, at the head of ‘the rest’, figures strongly amongst the most competitive countries in the world. And in the anglophone West there’s no pity for China, no humane approach to its maladies and the diversity of socio-political contestation can ever emerge by itself. And those suffering, neglected by vernaculars of power and governance, are often homogenised and positioned in need of systematic change, but only voiced for as long as it suggests a cloning of western socioeconomic and cultural systems. A form of pity that can only be communicated through a dehumanising of China’s vernaculars of national critique and endemic rebellions.
When confusion, inactivity and impractical approaches to COVID-19 placed governments across Europe on critique’s spotlight, the so-called international press normalised it as expected due to the secrecy of others, bureaucratic limitations, a tendency to avoid ‘social unrest’, unflapping attitudes and a variety of sympathetic critique.
Critique was lively here too but only within confined spaces of reflection: the unavoidable relativity of testing and a certain failure to prioritise a pandemic over economic growth. COVID-19’s anglophone lexicon underwent a paradigm shift when travelling from China back home: from suggesting existing confusion and governing failure as an endemic feature to approaching it as symptoms of a new temporality. China was not granted such temporality, China needed to stay endemically sick, sick enough to further legitimise the imagined exceptionalism of ‘the West’.
India as the sick (un)democratic other
But right when we, western audiences, were just starting to engage in a productive critique of the neoliberal paradigms behind the idiom ‘business as usual’ and challenging the ‘normal’ we had left behind, right when we had subjected the normative aspects of our consumption patterns and those of our mobility to revision there it came another convenient shifting of the pandemic paradigm: that of focus on the inequalities COVID-19 had emphasised in India.
And believe me if I say that I do not have anything against a good critical slap on nationalism, bigotry, inequality, be it in India or in the UK. But anglophone media was once again much more inquisitive of what were again framed as vernaculars of inequality, devoid of the temporality a pandemic brings.
However, what was left out of the discussion is the historical continuity of current elites, oligarchs and of a racialised country, a continuity drawing from imperialism and colonisation. You would not expect mainstreamed media to be sensitive to historical continuity, no. Sensationalism and hyperbole sell faster and promote current myths of supremacy.
And yet, consumer of popular media sources are not given the space to appreciate the complexities and diversity of a subcontinent hit by recent waves of Hindu-nationalism. India's civil society is strong, vocal and critically minded. There is a lot for us to learn from the sociopolitical engagement of India's society and its endemic rebellions. Like in the case of China, the agency of civil society is ignored or reduced to airport-bookstore cliches in favour of macro-narratives of democratic (im) purity and saviourism.
Here an irresponsive government ascribing to the fallacy of ‘herd immunity’ was represented as just a product of ‘endemic backwardness’, while the same trust in ‘herd immunity’ around much of Europe and the UK were discussed as unethical yet a sign of the relaxed and open-minded attitude of diligent governors. The instrumentalising of crises abroad to evade from necessary critique-at-home is nothing new, yet it returns with surprising force every time things start to get too critical.
Indonesia: democratic purity and the corrupted other
When we read about COVID-19 in Indonesia similar narratives of ‘endemic backwardness’ are deployed by mainstreamed media in the UK and across Europe. Here, othering takes place through islamophobic and exoticising tropes: the oversimplifying of Indonesia’s diversity, cosmology and vernaculars of prevention and healing. Indonesia’s current convergence of Dengue and COVID-19 outbreaks is rarely discussed by anglophone media, instead tropes of ‘remoteness’, overpopulation scaremongering and the demonising of Islam remain all-times favourite. Narratives of upcoming doom seem to almost want Indonesia to misbehave as if it were to illustrate the very reductionist approaches that define such depictions and assumptions.
When foreign experts discuss COVID-19 in Indonesia they seem agitated by apocalyptic predictions of ‘what’s yet to come’. Different articles demonise ‘prayers’ and ‘traditional medicine’ as examples of existing ‘backwardness’. Again, as it is the case regarding India, little is discussed about the historical continuity of current inequalities, introduced by attempts to democratise and the adoption of capitalist systems. Once again little is said of the active engagement of civil society's constant critique and ongoing endemic rebellions.
And rather than contextualising government officials within their own sociocultural specificity as we should also be doing ‘at home’, tropes of ‘the corrupted other’ set root once again. ‘This Muslim-majority country’ precedes almost every sentence in news outlets as if this were an essential detail for us, readers, to remember. Similarly, religious gatherings tend to be the focus of critique while secular gatherings in much of Europe and Asia go noticed but not so viciously criticised. Such obsessive focus on the religiosity of public (Islamic) gathering further illustrates inherent islamophobia.
The assumed temporality of preventive mishaps, containment off-shoots and framing of a new family of viruses only seems to apply to the locales where anglophone media is constructed. Locales whose spokespersons are often dressed in neutrality, consciousness and expertise, despite being deeply informed by their religions and ideologies. Asia does not receive the same consideration for its diversity, temporality, secularity and change.
Often, when attempts are made to report locally: such as the regulating presence of ghosts in the streets of a Javanese village (where police, government officials and volunteers are dressing up as pocong: 'the souls of the dead', and sitting in public spaces to prevent inhabitants from gathering) the vocabulary deployed suffers from a tendency to seek for simplification and homogenisation of civil societies abroad.
Just like China and India, Indonesia is vast and its diversity poses a challenge to the oversimplifying mechanisms of mainstreamed media consumed across Europe, the US, the UK and Australia. Healing and prevention are differently conceptualised and practised throughout the country. Ghosts are not that simple either: choose to enact the wrong ghost in the wrong context and you could trigger a wave of ilmu hitam (bad luck). Is the sociocultural fabric of consumers of mainstreamed anglophone media ready to understand and accept the complexity of other worlds in their own terms or more likely to apply decontextualised values and morals to the lives of others? Is so-called international press ready to move beyond macro-narratives of democratic (im) purity, the confined pockets of its critique and the mishaps of its interpretative frameworks?
Elena Burgos Martinez is an environmental and linguistic anthropologist, and a political ecologist based at Leiden University’s Area Studies: Asian Studies. In her research and teaching, she constantly strives for the inclusion of epistemic diversity inspired by her years in Indonesia. Elena is aware of the limited ontological space current higher education institutions offer for the inclusion of non-hegemonic epistemologies and critique and continues to advocate for the decolonising of university's curricula and learning spaces.