In January, Vicha Ratanapakdee
, an 84-year-old Thai man living with his family in San Francisco went out for his usual morning walk. A man attacked him by slamming into him. The elderly man died of a brain haemorrhage a few days later.
, a Chinese academic living in Southampton, England, was out jogging in February when he was assaulted by four white men who yelled at him to “go home” before punching and kicking him to the ground. In Paris last month, a Japanese citizen was attacked by acid-throwing thugs.
The news these days is filled with upsetting stories like these, with equally discouraging statistics. Britain reported a 21 per cent increase
in hate crimes against Asians last May during the coronavirus crisis. In a recent survey
, one in five Chinese-Australians say they have been a target of racially based attacks in the past year. And in the United States, police departments and community groups are creating task forces to deal with a surge in racially motivated attacks against Asians.
Like many Hongkongers reading about these terrible incidents, I am shocked and concerned about the recent surge in anti-Asian attacks, and I have been trying to come to an understanding about why they are happening now. I know that anti-Asian racism is nothing new in modern history – certainly not in Western countries such as the US, where Chinese immigration was barred
for so many years and where Japanese-American citizens were interned
in camps during the second world war.
Here in Asia, we also have had dark moments of racial and ethnic strife – the violence against the Chinese community in Indonesia in 1998
, and the racial discrimination faced by Koreans in Japan come to mind.
What all these moments in history have in common is that they were sparked by economic and political tension. When countries are at odds, and economic times are tough, it is easy to pin the blame on “others”. People often become collateral damage.
In a world reeling from pandemic-related economic crises, people are looking for scapegoats. And China is an easy target, since Covid-19 was first reported in Wuhan. Last October, a Pew Research Centre survey found
that 73 per cent of Americans – and 81 per cent of Australians – have an unfavourable view of China. This certainly offers a clue to why there has been a recent surge of anti-Asian racist hate crimes.
That Thais, Japanese and even Koreans have found themselves the target of anti-Chinese sentiment points to another unfortunate racial issue that we Asians encounter in Western countries. Many Westerners cannot distinguish between, say, a Japanese or a Vietnamese. We are all “Chinese”.
Here in Hong Kong, we are not without blame when it comes to racial bias against minority communities
. We should be doing more to support equal opportunity in our South Asian community. The Hong Kong roots of ethnic Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalese families in many cases go back longer than that of recent arrivals in Hong Kong from mainland China. Yet many Hongkongers treat them like foreigners.
On the other hand, in Hong Kong, we do have a strong bent towards meritocracy. Foreigners and Chinese alike come here for opportunities, and have achieved success. Talent, not race, was the criteria for the appointment of top Argentinian financier Nicolas Aguzin
as head of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing.
Likewise, in the US, we are beginning to see the rise of an Asian-American meritocracy, with prominent members of the community becoming public figures and entering politics at the highest level. Andrew Yang
, of Chinese heritage, is a leading candidate for mayor of New York City. And the second-highest position in the country is held by Vice-President Kamala Harris
, who has South Asian roots.
These achievements give me hope that racial bias and hate crimes against Asians will become a rare thing, and not something that surges every time there is national or economic strife. One way we can discourage racism is through education. The more you learn about other peoples and cultures, the less likely you are to stereotype them all as dangerous “others”.
Perhaps the most important way to combat these surges of racism is to support leaders who do not use race as a tactic to divide the public. Political and national tensions are a fact of life. But when national leaders unjustly blame other countries, they are sowing bad seeds. And from those seeds grow bitter fruit such as the violence we are seeing in San Francisco, Southampton and Paris.
Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council