Anti-Asian racism
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The attack on the Do sisters was caught on camera.

‘You Chinese virus spreader’: after coronavirus, Australia has an anti-Asian racism outbreak to deal with

  • A rise in racial abuse linked to Covid-19 highlights a gap in human rights legislation: there is no federal law punishing racist acts as a crime
  • With pressure growing for a national campaign, there are hopes that a growing diaspora and new generation will have the confidence to speak out

After a knife-wielding white woman spewing racial abuse attacked them in their own hometown in New South Wales at the end of March, it took weeks for Vietnamese-Australian sisters Rosa and Sophie Do to once more feel comfortable crossing the street.

The pair had been waiting to cross Petersham Road in the suburb of Marrickville when two white Australian teenagers launched into an unprovoked attack, calling them “Asian whores”, “Asian dogs” and “Asian sluts”.

One threatened the sisters with a knife and tried to kick them before spitting into Rosa’s eye and face.

“Back then, spitting was worse than punching someone,” Rosa said, referring to how the coronavirus can be spread through water droplets.


Asian Australian sisters racially abused and assaulted in Sydney during Covid-19

Asian Australian sisters racially abused and assaulted in Sydney during Covid-19

She had to go to the doctor to be tested not only for Covid-19 but for HIV, Hepatitis B and C too.

With the police springing into action quickly and through the help of social media, the attacker was identified and charged with six offences, including assault and indecent language.

“I am very disappointed. How is it that we live in a first-world country, where multiculturalism is celebrated … [and this] still happens even now, in 2020?” Rosa asked.

“You’d hope that people would have an evolved mindset at this point but clearly there are people who are still bigots and racists.”

Sophie added: “When people think ‘Chinese’ they look at all Asian people straight away … they don’t even consider that Asians don’t have to be Chinese, and that is racism in itself.”

Sophie and Rosa Do: victims of racism. Photo: Handout
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus this year, hundreds of residents of Asian descent across Australia have reported incidents of racial discrimination, including being verbally and physically attacked, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission and the advocacy group Asian Australian Alliance.

The commission said that complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act hit a 12-month high in February, though the number had fallen towards the “high end” of the “normal range” since then. It did not specify the number, nor say what constituted “normal range”.

It said one third of all racism complaints since the start of February had related to Covid-19, though it declined to outline the nature of the attacks.

The mask of white Australia drops in racist media coverage of Covid-19

Those who shared their stories publicly or on social media have spoken of the trauma of being targeted, and the fear of returning to the public places where they were subjected to the discriminatory behaviour.

Barrister Greg Barns SC, a spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said that these fears and trauma showed that the liberties and rights of victims had been violated.

“Australians are very poorly protected in terms of fundamental human rights. Unlike every other democracy, there is no human rights law enshrined in the constitution or even as an ordinary act of parliament,” he said.
Greg Barns. Photo: Handout


UN Secretary General António Guterres has said that hate speech and xenophobia seen across the world show the Covid-19 pandemic, besides being a public health emergency and an economic and social crisis, was turning into a human rights crisis.
Australia, where Asian ethnic minorities make up roughly 13 to 14 per cent of the 25.7-million population, does not have a human rights law at the federal level to deal with racism as a crime. This is unlike the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and other European countries, where there are national laws that punish racist offenders as criminals.
Multi-racial and religious Singapore also has tough laws to deal with racist behaviour, using its Sedition Act on those deemed to have promoted tensions among people of different ethnicities.

For Asians in Australia, a collective memory of racial trauma

Instead, people in Australia who are victims of racial discrimination can only seek apologies and monetary damages under state and territory laws and the only federal act that deals directly with racism, the Racial Discrimination Act. While racial discrimination is unlawful under the Act, it doesn’t attract criminal penalties.

While nearly all states and territories – rather than at the national level – had some form of law that makes it a criminal offence to racially vilify a person, these were rarely used, Barns said. In Western Australia, for example, penalties of up to 14 years’ imprisonment can be imposed.

The Racial Discrimination Act allows the Australian Human Rights Commission to take civil action against individuals or institutions for racial abuse through a usually long process of mediation and arbitration. Compensation may be awarded.

There must be a law for this racism because things are going to get much worse
Tim Usman

Given the limits of the justice system, Barns said it was critical for the Australian government and law enforcers to work on preventing racism.

“The issue here is the need for national leadership on discrimination and racism. Just as we have had a united political front on dealing with Covid-19, we need that same pressure on the issue of racism,” Barns said. “Police need to be on the front foot in using those laws and police commissioners can show leadership on it.”

Another victim of racism, Chinese-Australian driving teacher Tim Usman, echoed Barns’ comments.

“There must be a law for this racism because things are going to get much worse,” he said. “Most people are good but racism must be treated as a criminal offence like all other crimes, otherwise people get away with it. I am so angry, because racism [questions] my identity.”

While he was stopped at a set of traffic lights last month, with a Chinese student in his car, a white Australian man in an adjacent vehicle stuck his head out and yelled “you Chinese virus spreader”.

Barns and various community leaders and support groups all over Australia are now calling for an anti-racism campaign.

There have been several such campaigns in Australia, the last one being “Racism. It Stops With Me” which started in 2012 but ended in 2018. Adam Goodes, a famous Indigenous Australian footballer who had suffered racial attacks in recent years, was the face of some of the advertisements in the campaign.

Tim Soutphommasane. Photo: Handout

Tim Soutphommasane, former Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner and now Professor of Practice at the University of Sydney, who oversaw the campaign, said it was effective in raising awareness to combat prejudice but it could not continue as the government declined to continue funding it.

During his time, he said the campaign received A$1.7 million (US$1.13 million), a small sum compared to countries such as Canada, which had a four-year C$45 million (US$32 million) programme.

“The campaign would have been even more effective had it received more material support from the federal government. But during the time I was commissioner, the government was more intent on weakening anti-racism, including the federal laws against racial hatred, than it was in strengthening it,” he said.

Coronavirus: how language of disease produces anti-Asian racism, hate and violence

The government tried to water down the wording of Section 18C in the racial discrimination act that deals with offensive behaviour “because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin” because it allegedly interfered with freedom of speech. It was defeated in 2017.

The call to step up Australia’s anti-racism campaign was important because its human rights “report card” with the UN – the Universal Periodic Review – was due in early 2021, Human Rights Watch said.

The Human Rights Law Centre has already submitted its usual report to the UN on behalf of NGOs in Australia, and among the many recommendations it made, said: “Australia must strengthen measures to combat discrimination and violence on racial, ethnic or religious grounds, particularly through education and dialogue.”

There were no issues with Australia’s last review four years ago, although the UN recommended that Australia strengthen its initiatives in anti-racism, tolerance and non-discrimination.

“Since this pandemic started, we have heard of thousands of instances of racist behaviour directed towards Asian-Australians,” said Mohammad Al-Khafaji, the chief executive of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (Fecca).


Coronavirus: Asian actors hit back at anti-asian racism

Coronavirus: Asian actors hit back at anti-asian racism

“Fecca has also been calling for a government-funded anti-racism strategy and campaign designed to address the rising tide of subtle racism and discrimination in the community.”

Soutphommasane said: “It’s critical that political leaders send a strong message to society about racism not being tolerated.”

The Australian government and the Australian Human Rights Commission said they were doing their part.

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other federal leaders have condemned racist incidents, it was not until several incidents were reported by the media that Morrison took firmer action, telling Australians in April to “stop it”.

“Now is a time to support each other and I would remind everyone that it was Chinese-Australians in particular that provided one of the greatest defences we had in those early weeks,” he said, referring to how residents returning from Lunar New Year holiday in China had taken the initiative to isolate themselves at the start of the pandemic.

At the time of publication, Australia had more than 7,000 Covid-19 cases and over 100 deaths.

Chin Tan. Photo: Handout

Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan said the commission had ramped up efforts to help victims report racial offences, translated instruction materials into 64 languages and worked with communities, government, police, researchers and the media to address racism.

Tan wrote a strongly worded article in mainstream media saying there was reason to believe racism was on the rise as a result of a growing threat from violent right-wing extremism as described by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio).

Chinese-Australians feel fear and loathing as coronavirus sparks racist incidents

He quoted Asio’s Director General Mike Burgess saying that “in suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology”.

“Violent racism of the kind Burgess warned against does not appear in isolation. It grows out of a mindset that has no regard for multiculturalism, and it thrives in communities that fail to stand up to xenophobia and racism,” Tan said.

“This is why Asio’s security efforts, at the sharp end of combating racism, require the support of a National Anti-Racism Strategy that provides education and promotes social cohesion.”

When asked why the commission would not take a more proactive approach to deterring racism rather than treating it – for example, by advertising stronger penalties for racial offences on mainstream television – it said those efforts, as part of a fresh anti-racism programme, required funding which it had already requested from the government.


Meanwhile, Asians in Australia have started taking matters into their own hands, with several community groups starting a reporting service in early April, encouraging people to report all attacks while offering them peer support and counselling.

The group, headed by the advocacy group Asian Australian Alliance, has already received 380 complaints.

In a survey of about 240 of those who reported an incident, more than 80 per cent said they had experienced racism in public places. Forms of attack included slurs such as “stop eating bats and dogs”, physical assault, being spat or sneezed at and being shunned from groups.

Community groups such as the Chinese Australian Forum have also raised petitions like #UnityOverFear and “Stop Race Targeting in Australian Press”. About 80,000 have signed, with numbers still rising.

Far-right extremism still alive in New Zealand, a year after Christchurch attacks

Anecdotes from Asian-Australians This Week in Asia spoke to underscored the findings.

In February, Chinese-Australian accountant James Lin was told by a group of white Australians on a train ride home one evening in February that he must have the coronavirus because he was “clearly not from Australia”. Other passengers laughed at the taunts and only one person, a 50-year-old white Australian woman, stood up for him.

In March, a Singaporean and a Malaysian university student from Melbourne University, neither of whom were from China, were verbally abused, beaten, kicked and dragged to the ground on Elizabeth Street, in the Melbourne central business district.

Last month, a Chinese student, who was too afraid to report her case, had an egg thrown at her in Brisbane.

Said Lin, the accountant: “I felt violated for sure. These abuses affect one’s safety and mental wellness. It is traumatising for victims. It is why Chinese-Americans are carrying guns.”

Lin did not believe most Australians were racist but said the government needed to take a tougher stance. “I pay taxes and I contribute to Australia. But my voice is not heard as much as [that of] a person who is not a minority in the Australian society. Chinese-Australians account for only 5 per cent of the nation’s voting power, that’s why politicians don’t care.”

Asian Australian Alliance advocate Erin Chew said many Australians were in denial.

“The prime minister made a public speech about the ‘contributions’ Chinese-Australians had made towards this pandemic but failed to actually acknowledge the elephant in the room, and that was to call the racism what it is: hate crime.”

She said the Human Rights Commission had limited powers.

“As it receives government funding, it still needs to maintain certain objectivity. The race discrimination commissioner is responsible for ‘running the process’ rather than being an activist and speaking out,” Chew said.

I pay taxes and I contribute to Australia. But my voice is not heard as much as a person who is not a minority in the Australian society
James Lin

So where does that leave Asian-Australians?

Arkadia University’s Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice professor Alex Otieno, who has written about human rights and racism at the UN, said Asian-Australians had every right to sue the Australian government if things did not improve. This was because their rights had been breached under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination treaty, which Australia signed in 1966, Otieno said.

Whether they would win was another matter.

“There is never precedent until someone has done something,” he said. “They may fail the first time or the second time [but] symbolically the idea that people are going to sue brings the matter to public attention and there is value in that.”

While he would not classify Covid-19-related racism as systemic persecution, unlike other human rights abuses like genocide or those in which governments were complicit, he said rights were still being violated when a country failed to meet its obligations to protect its people.


Comedians in New York fight racism with coronavirus-themed show

Comedians in New York fight racism with coronavirus-themed show

Asian Australian Alliance’s Chew said a generational shift could bring a turning point as the population of Asian-Australians grew and people became more confident in speaking out. Asian-Australians also had to be encouraged by the strong voices of other Asian diasporas, such as in the US.

“There is now a large majority of Asians and Asian-Australians who are at least second generation, born and raised [in Australia] and are no longer like the first-generation migrants who adhere to the ‘model minority’ [stereotype] of keeping their heads down,” she said.

“While Covid-19-related racism is not the cause of racism, but more a symptom of the bigger issue of racism in Australia, it effectively has given Asian-Australians courage and the push to speak out against it.”

But she warned things were unlikely to change quickly, given the continued “air” of suspicion of China’s growing influence and “foreign interference” in Australia.

“As ‘racial minorities’ in Australia, when China or any other country in Asia is targeted, the racial backlash falls on Asians and Asian-Australians. A good example is looking at what happened to Gladys Liu when she was elected for the Victorian Federal seat of Chisholm in the last election,” Chew said.

“As soon as she entered parliament, she was already deemed to be somehow ‘colluding’ with China.”

But while big changes may not happen in her lifetime, Chew felt the turning point was now.

“When any community of colour speaks up strongly and creates their own opportunities and platforms to do so, the Australian mainstream society really has no choice but to change with the trajectory,” she said.