Sick man of Asia

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The phrase "Sick man of Asia" or "Sick man of East Asia" (Chinese: 亞洲病夫、東亞病夫; pinyin: Dōngyà bìngfū) originally referred to China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was riven by internal divisions and taken advantage of by the great powers. British merchants were importing opium into China in order to trade for tea. Many people were addicted, thus possibly one source of the term "sick". The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties, culminating in the Japanese invasion of China from 1937 to 1945. The Qing government was also undergoing social unrest, economic distress, corruption and political disintegration at the time, thus a "sick" state or society.[1]

The term "sick man" may be considered derogatory as it implies a weakened nation. The phrase supposedly originated around 1895 as a parallel to the "sick man of Europe", referring to the 1853 description by Tsar Nicholas I of the weakening Ottoman Empire and later to the weakening position of the Habsburg dynasty in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I the phrase was applied to various European countries including France, Italy, the UK, Spain and Germany[2]

One of the most prominent 20th-century uses of the phrase was in the 1972 Hong Kong film Fist of Fury (also released as The Chinese Connection) starring Bruce Lee, which was released across Asia.

But like the "sick man of Europe" term, it has also been used to refer to other Asian countries in the 21st century.

For example, in an article entitled "The Sick Man of Asia" Michael Auslin refers to Japan, not China (writing in "Foreign Affairs", 3 April 2009).

And in a 9 March 2018 article in "Consult-Myanmar" entitled "Myanmar No Longer the "sick man" of ASEAN - the Honour Goes To..." both Myanmar and Thailand are called the "sick man of ASEAN".

In another example, in 2014 at the Euromoney Philippines Investment Forum 2014, President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines publicly defended his country from being labelled as the new "sick man of Asia", citing a Japan External Trade Organization survey that showed "the Philippines as the second most profitable among ASEAN-5 countries, next to Thailand."[3] Reasons for the perceptions Aquino was refuting include its unequal prosperity and serious poverty, since from 2000 to 2006 its nominal income grew by 37% while its Gini coefficient only fell by 5%.[4] Another cause for the "Sick Man" label includes Filipino political corruption scandals such as the Priority Development Assistance Fund scam.

In 2020, an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal regarding the COVID-19 epidemic was entitled, "China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia".[5] The article elicited anger from some Chinese people and the Chinese Government; in retaliation, the Chinese authorities revoked the press credentials of three Wall Street Journal reporters and ordered their expulsion.[6][7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stevenson, Alexandra (2020-02-19). "China Expels 3 Wall Street Journal Reporters as Media Relations Sour". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-02-19.
  2. ^ Scott, David (2008). China and the international system, 1840-1949: power, presence, and perceptions in a century of humiliation. State University of New York Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-7914-7627-7.
  3. ^ Lopez, Ron (Feb 18, 2014). "Aquino: Philippines 'Sick Man of Asia' no more". Manila Bulletin. Retrieved 19 June 2014.
  4. ^ NSO. Philippines in Figures 2010. Philippines: Republic of the Philippines National Statistics Office. 2010.
  5. ^ "China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia". Feb 3, 2020. Retrieved Feb 8, 2020.
  6. ^ Hjelmgaard, Kim (19 February 2020). "China expels Wall Street Journal reporters over 'racist' headline on coronavirus". USA Today. Retrieved 3 March 2020.
  7. ^ Feng, Emily; Neuman, Scott (19 February 2020). "China Expels 3 'Wall Street Journal' Reporters, Citing 'Racist' Headline". NPR. Retrieved 19 February 2020.