Spat at, sneezed on and told to go ‘home’: how racism against Asian Australians has escalated

Asian Australians are experiencing an upsurge in racism, with racist bigots emboldened by the Covid-19 pandemic and Australia’s deteriorating relationship with China, reports Gary Nunn.

It started with askance glances on the train. 

Nothing that Erin Wen Ai Chew, a 38-year-old Chinese Australian from Sydney, could definitively prove. But, as news of the novel coronavirus hit headlines, she was sure it was happening and not her being paranoid.

Next, as those news reports increased, the glances became admonishments. 

“I was on the train speaking to a relative in Mandarin,” Erin tells the Sentinel, “and someone interrupted me and said: ‘Please speak English; this is not China – we don’t want to hear your language here.’”

As coronavirus stories intensified, so did the incidents. The next happened at an Australian airport when Erin had a dry throat. It started with another askance glance.

Then, when Erin coughed a second time, it became another admonishment: “She told me that if I have the coronavirus from China, to please not come close to her because she didn’t want to get the virus from me,” Erin says. “Then she capped it off by saying: ‘All you Asians need to go back to where you came from.’”

Erin Wen Ai Chew. Photo: supplied.

Spat at and sneezed on

Such incidents have increased according to new research released by the Lowy Institute, which found that one in five Chinese Australians had been recently threatened or attacked and one in three called offensive names. 

A majority of Chinese Australians reported the Covid-19 pandemic and the state of Australia-China bilateral relations had contributed to their experience of discrimination.

More broadly, Asian Australians have also experienced an upswing in racism; racists don’t often differentiate between Chinese Australians and Asian Australians from other countries. “They just see difference,” Erin says.

In November, analysis from the Australian National University found that more than four-in-five Asian Australians say they’ve experienced instances of discrimination during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a survey of more than 3,000 people, 84.5 per cent of Asian Australians reported at least one instance of discrimination between January and October 2020, compared to 82 per cent in August 2019.

The Asian Australian Alliance, founded by Erin herself to reduce and tackle such incidents as those she recently experienced, and to build solidarity amongst Australia’s Asian community – has also recently revealed some disturbing findings.

Their own report shows 515 recorded incidents of racism since Covid began. 60 per cent of respondents reported that their experiences involved racial slurs/name calling, such as “Go back to China” and “Ching Chong”. 

16 per cent reported verbal threats and 13 per cent reported being spat and/or sneezed on.

Much of this research forms a benchmark to track such incidents. The Lowy Institute will carry out the same survey for the next two years.

The good news

There is, however, more encouraging news. A majority of Chinese Australians in the Lowy Institute report said that Australia was a good place to live and they felt a sense of belonging and pride living here.

Is this good news, Stockholm Syndrome or a cognitive dissonance?

Jennifer Hsu, Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute, tells the Sentinel it’s an indication of the “success of Australia’s multicultural society” even though, she adds, a lot of work clearly still needs to be done.

Another explanation offered by Erin Wen Ai Chew is that this forms part of “the immigrant story” once contextualised.

“Asian people often migrate to Australia to escape conflict, for better opportunities for their children, and for their families to thrive in a land with a high standard of living and great healthcare,” she says.

The gratitude migrants can feel leads to what she describes as assimilation into the white Anglo Australian culture: “The snacks on the BBQ; talking in an Australian accent.”

But even those adjustments aren’t sufficient to quell the anti-Asian sentiment which studies suggest has been on the rise recently.

Members of the Asian Australian Alliance. Photo: supplied.

The causes

Covid has coincided with anti-Chinese rhetoric to create the perfect storm to “embolden racists”, Erin says.

In addition to being told to “stop eating bats and dogs”, people have caught the political winds blowing against China as it grows its influence and trade tensions between China and Australia escalate. 

Combine that with allegations of Chinese foreign interference in Australia’s political system and the conditions are set for a specifically anti-Chinese sentiment to take hold.

“People think about China’s propaganda machine, allegations of spying and criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party when they think of China at the moment,” Erin says. “That racial backlash is felt by those Chinese Australians living here.”

One man added to that backlash in a supremely unhelpful way: former US President Donald Trump’s semantics around Covid-19, nicknaming it the “Chinese virus”, filtered across the ocean to Australia: “Australia is one of the biggest consumers of American news TV and politics so that racism manifested itself here,” she says.

But she’s clear: Covid-19 isn’t a cause of racism; it’s a symptom of a bigger problem: “One that’s been around since the gold rush period and has risen with the rise of China,” she says. “The ‘yellow peril’ anti-Chinese sentiment has been around since the White Australia Policy.”

There’s a long history of discrimination, she says – with parallels to previous pandemics. “During the 1920s bubonic plague, Australians were warned to stay away from Chinese people – they were stereotyped as eating weird things and being dirty and unhygienic.”

It’s something she remembers as far back as being four-years-old: “I remember walking with my family and being yelled at by a passing car to ‘go back to China,’” she says. “Even aged four, I knew this was wrong. My parents ignored it. But it makes you question your identity. I speak with an Australian accent and was born and raised here, yet am still treated as an outsider,” she says. “When you’re young, you think: ‘Why all the hate? Will I ever fit in here?’ Then as you get older it’s just emotionally exhausting and extremely traumatic.”

Pauline Hanson – who toasted with champagne Trump’s successful 2016 election outside Parliament House – infamously used her 1996 maiden speech to warn of Australia being “in danger of being swamped by Asians”.

Pauline Hanson claiming “Australia is in danger of being swamped by Asians” in her maiden speech at Parliament House, Canberra, 10 September, 1996. Video: ABC News (Australia)/YouTube.

It’s the same racist language New South Wales MP Jenny Leong endured after several members of the NSW Police Force used racist slurs against her online.

In response to a Greens campaign to repeal the use of sniffer dogs in the state, one officer described the MP’s Malaysian-born dad as a “swamp monkey”.

Even though Pauline Hanson currently sits in our Senate, the Lowy’s Institute’s Jennifer Hsu says it’s important to remember her views don’t represent all Australians: “In a democracy we ought to value views across the board, but often her comments aren’t inclusive of the multicultural values Australia has adopted for the last 40 years,” she says.

“So many Chinese Australians I speak to mention tolerance, social cohesion and embracing diversity as the values they adopted by coming to Australia.”

No longer having to read the latest “outrageous remarks” from Trump in the headlines daily has also provided a reprieve, she says.

Broader reasons for the upturn in racist incidents

One reason for the increase could also be that there’s an increased sharing of incidents on social media and reporting into research studies, with Asian Australians inspired to speak out and share more than usual after seeing those in the US, Canada and the UK doing the same.

Erin from the Asian Australian Alliance says the government has normalised anti-Asian sentiment with its recent rhetoric on China: “They need to make an official address to condemn anti-Asian attacks,” she says. 

“Scott Morrison and Alan Tudge made passing comments, but they weren’t robust enough. There needs to be outright condemnation via an official address,” she says. 

The lack thereof may come from a broader political problem: a need for “more culturally diverse leadership,” Erin says – and that includes people who know the impact of racism.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan last month announced a proposal for a national anti-racism framework which Erin welcomes because it currently differs state to state; there hasn’t been a national framework since 2015.

The Asian Australian Alliance, which has provided Sentate submissions on previous legislation such as Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – will be calling for centralised legislation around racist hate crimes. 

But there’s an “insidious” layer below the outright hate, too – which Erin is keen to also address in Australia.

“It’s institutional,” she says. “It could be something that’s actually quite hard to prove – such as Asian Australians not getting promoted because of their backgrounds – and the reason it’s difficult to prove is cultural: our traditions expect us to lay low and accept that’s how it is.

“But we’ve contributed enough to Australia to not accept that any more.”

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.