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From Foreign Agents To Disease Carriers, It Is Tough Being A Chinese-Australian These Days

The xenophobic narrative and the negative reactions we Chinese-Australians have been receiving over the coronavirus outbreak are all too familiar.

The xenophobic narrative and the negative reactions we Chinese-Australians have been receiving since the latest coronavirus outbreak are all too familiar.

First it was the foreigners from China taking over our businesses, buying farmland, houses and milk powder. This was followed by the foreign influence and interference debate that accused some Chinese-Australians, including myself, of being spies and foreign agents. Now, with the new coronavirus, those who appear Chinese, are of Chinese ancestry and, in some instances, are of Asian descent, are seen as disease carriers who have dirty eating habits.

Australia has a history of anti-Chinese legislation, including the White Australia Policy, which all started with exaggerated claims that Chinese people were “dirty, disease ridden and insect like”.

Chinese-Australians cannot seem to catch a break. The growing distrust of Chinese-Australians within Australian institutions and society resulting from China’s assertive rise and the escalating allegations of its improper influence in our affairs is increasing anxiety among those of us caught in the crossfire.

Events like the foreign influence debate and now the coronavirus have made me realise for us Chinese-Australians it doesn’t matter how Australian and integrated into Australian society we are. As soon as a crisis relating to China appears, we are treated differently and seen not as Australian but Chinese who are nothing more than outsiders, who are disloyal and untrustworthy.

Before the coronavirus crisis, the foreign influence and interference debate had a deep and profound effect on the reputation of Chinese-Australians. Propelled by a 2017 joint ABC/Fairfax Media investigation, the topic of foreign influence became an instant news item. Topics that have come under the scope of foreign influence, bringing intense public discussion and scrutiny, include research collaboration between institutions, foreign students studying in Australia, foreign investment and political donations. Despite the overarching theme of “foreign influence”, the only country that consistently gets a mention in Australian media and public commentary is China.

People in Sydney's CBD are seen wearing masks on January 31.
Jenny Evans via Getty Images
People in Sydney's CBD are seen wearing masks on January 31.

I have heard anecdotal evidence from Chinese-Australians working in major corporations and the Australian public service of “creeping distrust”, being left off meeting invitations and emails, and with some senior executives thinking twice about recruiting and promoting us.

Deeply concerning are recent revelations about foreign influence in our democracy and political system, including suspicions around political donations from people with Chinese backgrounds and allegations of a state-sponsored attempt to infiltrate the federal parliament using an Australian citizen of Chinese heritage to contest the 2019 federal election. Though questions need to be asked and allegations assessed, not all Chinese-Australians should be painted with the same brush, and these cases should not be used as a catalyst to discourage Chinese-Australians participating in our democratic and public institutions.

When it comes to obtaining leadership positions in both the public sector and at major businesses, although Asian-Australians generally face a degree of bias, whether conscious or unconscious, Chinese-Australians in recent years have had to deal with the added complexities of anxiety and distrust generated by China’s growing international role.

It is not uncommon to see anti-China headlines splashed across the media these days. Even in 2020, it is disappointing to see the casual racism and the normalisation of Sinophobic narratives that appeared before and during the White Australia Policy still exist. The Daily Telegraph took such casual racism to a new level with a front-page headline, “China Kids Stay Home,” while its Victorian equivalent, The Herald Sun, carried a headline that said, “China Virus Pandamonium.” These messages are intended to create a perception to fuel anti-Chinese sentiment to appeal to certain parts of the population.

It is one thing to be vigilant, stay informed and take precautions. It is another to take advantage of this unfortunate situation to put up Sinophobic signs and online slurs to promote fear, anxiety and public prejudices.

Chinese-Australians, like all Australians, are concerned about the spread of COVID-19, the new coronavirus. Some of them who have returned to Australia after Lunar New Year celebrations in China have chosen to self-quarantine while community groups and associations have taken up the unprecedented measure of putting on face masks, closing businesses and cancelling Lunar New Year events across Australian cities. Chinese culture and philosophy always emphasise the importance of prioritising the needs of others over our own.

What Chinese-Australians and those affected in China need right now is not hate but empathy and compassion. And the best way we can help is to acknowledge the past, publicly condemn racism and put an end to Sinophobia once and for all.

I should not have to convince my fellow Australians of the unwavering loyalty and commitment of Chinese-Australians to Australia every time a crisis strikes, but that is what I have done for the majority of my adult life. Growing up in Australia, it was never easy being a Chinese-Australian, but recent events have made it harder.

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Chinese-Australian advocate and writer.

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