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Chinese-Australians Facing Racism After Coronavirus Outbreak

Racial remarks, misinformation and fearmongering in workplaces, on public transport, and on social media.
People in Sydney's CBD are seen wearing masks on January 31, 2020 in Sydney, Australia.
Jenny Evans via Getty Images
People in Sydney's CBD are seen wearing masks on January 31, 2020 in Sydney, Australia.

Many people of Chinese ancestry living in Australia have said they have faced a wave of racism, both in person and on social media, since the coronavirus outbreak.

Queensland surgeon, Dr Rhea Liang, said the “misinformation” about the virus that began in Wuhan, China, has led to racially-motivated remarks, one of which were made to her at work on Thursday.

During a consultation at her clinic on the Gold Coast, the general and breast surgeon (born in New Zealand and of Chinese heritage) was taken aback by a caucasian male patient who refused to shake her hand in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

Queensland surgeon Dr Rhea Liang
Dr Rhea Liang
Queensland surgeon Dr Rhea Liang

“I was running my clinic and we had seen a patient and he came in, and it’s usual for us to shake hands with patients,” Dr Liang told HuffPost Australia.

“He stuck out his hand and then made a joke, ‘I probably shouldn’t shake your hand because you might have coronavirus’. This was in front of a nurse, two medical students, and a few other people standing.”

Dr Liang said she continued the consultation as usual, but her team were “immediately supportive” afterwards, and quite shocked as well.

“They were like, ‘My goodness, did you hear what he said at the beginning? I can’t believe he said that’,” she said.

The medical practitioner said she believed “the misinformation that’s out there” about the disease has led to “that stereotyping of an entire group”.

“There’s a perception this is a Chinese thing,” she said, adding, “the white Australian guy at the corner shop is just as much likely to have caught this thing from newly arrived people from China as I might have.

“So to stereotype that only Chinese people might be exposed to it is unfair and a bit racist,” she said.

“And I just thought if this is happening to me, and I’m in a position of authority – I’m a consultant on this team – I really worry about the people who are more vulnerable.”

Melbourne's Rachel Zhang
Rachel Zhang
Melbourne's Rachel Zhang

University student Rachel Zhang was born in Melbourne six years after her parents migrated to Australia from Shanghai, China.

She said experiencing racism in the past means she will “never be fully welcomed in the only country that I’ve ever called home”, but “it is in moments and crises like this where it really solidifies that fear”.

“Personally, it is the subtle racism of every day activities which hurt the most,” the 23-year-old told HuffPost Australia on Friday.

“When I walk on the streets, I’ve seen people lock eyes with me and run across the street so that they have to come into my vicinity. The other day I was at a supermarket and I merely coughed to clear my throat and almost everyone around stared at me. I even saw one mother usher her kids away.

“Whilst taking public transport to work I’ve had people give me a zone of clearing, or immediately move away as I sit down. It is gotten to the point where I am nervous for the flight I have tomorrow to Sydney, because I fear how people will treat me.”

Brisbane-based writer Yen-Rong Wang also spoke about her experiences with racism in a Twitter post.

“Re: racism and #coronavirus - This is the first time I’ve ever felt physically unsafe in Australia because of my race,” she wrote on Tuesday. “I thought we were over this shit but obviously not.”

Meanwhile 27-year-old Pan, who is an Australian citizen with Chinese-Malaysian heritage, spoke about an uncomfortable experience on Melbourne public transport.

“I was sitting on the tram when a white man came and sat next to me. He started talking about how Chinese people are spreading the coronavirus everywhere,” she told SBS.

“I told him it wasn’t race-specific, and he kept insisting he was just saying what he had read and seen on the news.”

Media Coverage And Misinformation

Many people have also expressed concern over some of Australia’s media coverage in relation to the coronavirus crisis, as well as coronavirus fearmongering on social media encouraging people to avoid certain suburbs or Chinese cuisine.

“It feels terrible, I’m not going to lie,” said Chinese international student Helen Chen who attends Australian National University.

She told HuffPost Australia she was disappointed by the generalised comments being made about people of Chinese heritage.

“We’re not a homogenous group, and the actions of the irresponsible people do not and should not reflect on us as a whole,” she said.

Chen, who is currently stuck in Wuhan after visiting family, said “there are good people around” and many are following authorities’ instructions during this health crisis.

“Most of us are doing the responsible thing of staying home and behaving responsibly and helping one another when we can,” she said. “So it really sucks that we’re being lumped together with those people and called mean things.”

Melbourne’s Rachel Zhang said she had told her mother in Shanghai that there was no sign of racism back in Australia following the coronavirus outbreak, however it didn’t take long for her mum to discover this wasn’t the case thanks to some of Australia’s media coverage.

“I couldn’t bear to tell her the truth and so I had to lie to my own mother, so that she wouldn’t be worried,” she explained.

“Being a migrant herself, she has faced many accounts of racism in her lifetime. She understands that in times like this, racism and discrimination are the first to spread.

“My white lies didn’t last for long, because the next morning The Daily Telegraph printed on their front page ‘China Kids Stay Home’. The Herald Sun swiftly followed suit with ‘Chinese Virus PANDAmonium’ and the headlines quickly spread across the internet, reaching Chinese communities.

“I cannot speak for everyone but to me at least, the increased racism whilst extremely disappointing was not unexpected,” she said. “I had only hoped to be proven wrong. In these types of situations it can feel as if the whole world is against you.”

University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, who specialises in race relations and media studies, said a global crisis like this can often fuel unpleasant, racist behaviour, and in this scenario the “coronavirus is a godsend” for bigots.

“Crises license bigotry. Racists trawl for opportunities to ramp up the dissemination of racist tropes, memes and discourses and crises are always gifts for racists,” he told HuffPost Australia.

In regards to media coverage, he said, “Some of the media will continue to play word games at the expense of Australians of Chinese and Asian descent. This is a style of harassment they have perfected in recent years.

“For racists, dissolving the social glue of trust and destroying the bridging relationships between different ethnic groups, created over many years, has become their favourite game. Much of the media gets caught up in this game, amplifying its impact and consequences.”

Many people have said they believe the Australian government’s plans to transport Australian citizens stranded in Wuhan to Christmas Island for 14 days is racist. Christmas Island has previously been an offshore detention centre for refugees and asylum seekers.

“Nearly all the Wuhan Australians are of Chinese descent – we will not see ‘white Australians’ marched off planes at Christmas Island by men in sealed white suits and oxygen packs,” said Jakubowicz.

Professor James Laurenceson, Director of the UTS Australia-China Relations Institute, told HuffPost Australia that “many people are reasonably asking what’s behind the government’s decision to house evacuees in an offshore detention facility”.

He also said that “while much of the responsibility for racist behaviour comes down to individuals, state and federal governments can help”.

“The situation we have now where NSW and Victoria are giving different advice on school attendance, for example, adds to confusion and angst,” he explained.

“Similarly, when the NSW health minister says that he is requesting kids who’ve been to any part of China stay away for 14 days owing to ‘community expectations’, not what is ‘medically necessary’, it can feed a permissive environment where racism can be fuelled. Schools and universities themselves are just doing their best given the guidance they are receiving from government departments.”

Concerns For International Students

Of the nine confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia, one involves a 21-year-old University of New South Wales student who was on the last flight to Sydney out of Wuhan, in the Chinese province of Hubei, before China imposed its travel ban.

Australia’s National Union of Students president Molly Willmott said the union is concerned that Chinese international students could be targeted with racism as the start of the Australian universities’ semester nears.

“We’re currently outside of semester but we are already seeing online comments and xenophobia of an anti-Chinese sentiment. We want to ensure there’s no targeting of any cultural groups,” Willmott told HuffPost Australia.

She said addressing the issue “takes leadership from the universities”.

“The international students require support services, and yes, many universities already have these, but this situation requires leadership. The message is that racism isn’t tolerated on campus.

“The bigger issue feeding in is international students’ mental health and loneliness. It’s up to universities and student bodies to ensure they are not isolated.”

The University of Sydney’s Chinese Culture Society said many of its student members are anxious about their future in Australia.

“A lot of our international student members are concerned whether they can go back to uni and commence the next semester smoothly,” the group’s president said in a statement to HuffPost Australia.

Campus of the University of New South Wales (UNSW)
ullstein bild via Getty Images
Campus of the University of New South Wales (UNSW)

The Asian Australian Alliance is an organisation with over 900 members that promotes advocacy on social issues faced by Asian-Australians. Its founder Erin Chew said she’s aware of international students who are already copping racism off the back of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Some have been told to go back to Wuhan, or to get out of ‘their city’ or being told to stop ‘eating bats and dogs’,” she said. “Students I know, both current and former students, have expressed concerns that they will again be targets of racial backlash.

“This type of situation impacts on anyone in Australia who looks Chinese, and the impacts are felt even more with Chinese/ Chinese-looking international students.

“They can just cough or sneeze and be accused of having the virus, and this is a huge cause for concern as certain media outlets in Australia are feeding misinformation and fuelling the normalisation of the racism.”

Confirmed Cases In Australia

There are now nine confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia ― two in Queensland, four in NSW and three in Victoria.

The majority of cases, which have resulted in at least 170 deaths, have been in China where health officials say the virus originated. Additional cases have been reported in 18 other countries, including the US, France, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, India and Australia.

Two more Australian citizens, who are in China, have been confirmed to have the virus.

Governments around the world – including Australia – are scrambling to both prevent the disease spreading and to repatriate their citizens currently stranded in the Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Wednesday that plans to evacuate Australians who are in Hubei province were advancing with “vulnerable Australians” to be held on Christmas Island for 14 days.

“We have taken a decision this morning to prepare a plan for an operation to provide some assisted departures for isolated and vulnerable Australians in Wuhan and the Hubei province,” Morrison told reporters on at a press conference in Canberra.

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