This research examines the impact of COVID-19 fear on attitudes toward Chinese depending on the context of propagation of COVID-19. We predicted that COVID-19 fear was linked to negative attitudes toward Chinese people, especially when the spread of the virus was external (in China; vs. when the spread was internal with transmission within the French ingroup). We collected data online (N = 403) when COVID-19 was being transmitted externally, outside of France (Phase 1) and after transmission between French people had begun (Phase 2). We measured COVID-19 fear and attitudes toward Chinese people. Our hypothesis was supported. COVID-19 fear was linked to more negative attitudes toward Chinese people only in Phase 1. This study highlights individuals’ adoption of defence strategies is dependent on the societal context surrounding the threat. We also discuss the potential to promote peace and reduce conflict by focusing on internal crises versus external threats.