Marta Hanson presents on the reversal from “sick man of Asia” to “sick Uncle Sam, at University of Minnesota’s Considering China webinar series.


For most of the twentieth century, the racist trope “sick man of Asia” haunted Chinese rulers and people alike. Now, with all the healthcare problems in the U.S. that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare (such as underlying structural racism contributing to much higher rates of people of color dying from COVID, working-class essential workers forced to choose livelihood over their lives, and no universal health coverage to provide a safety net from financial ruin), the roles have completely reversed. “Sick Uncle Sam” is now the new focus of the world’s concern over a what appears to be a declining superpower. How did this happen? Could the pejorative moniker “Sick Uncle Sam,” now circulating in China and across East Asia, turn out to be a good thing for the U.S.? The power of the “sick man” label, for one, resides in accepting a sick role, opening dialogue on diagnoses, and choosing the most appropriate therapeutic strategies. This talk will provide some historical perspectives in response to these questions.