Roberto Savio: Photo by Katsuhiro Asagiri of INPS

COVID-19 Revives Racism Against Asian-Australians and Threatens Relations with China

Viewpoint by Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) – Australia is entering what observers here say could be a deep recession, the first in almost 30 years. It was the rise of China that helped this sparsely populated vast continent to avoid a recession for the past three decades, the most extended period of economic growth in Australian history.

Rather than being thankful to China, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in a local TV interview on April 19 called for an “independent” inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan expressing concerns about transparency from China on the issue.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasised that in subsequent media briefings and he led a campaign with the support of the European Union (EU) to press the World Health Assembly (WHA) to trigger an independent probe.

Though the WHA passed the resolution on May 15 with China co-sponsoring it, the outcome was far from what Australia (and the U.S.) wanted. It even led to a spat with the Chinese Embassy in Canberra that issued a statement saying that it is “a joke” to claim that the WHO adopted the Australian initiative.

“Australia and the United States have been particularly close since the Second World War. When we were at risk of invasion they became our Allies and remained so,” former immigration minister Phillip Ruddock told IDN in an interview.

When asked how the Government of John Howard – who publicly said that Australia could be the U.S.’s deputy Sheriff in Asia – handled the relationship with China, he said. “(We were) able to manage some difficult issues with China through regular Human Rights dialogues.” Ruddock was part of the Howard Cabinet.

Morrison started the campaign for a so-called “independent” investigation, at a time when the media coverage here on the COVID-19 issue had invoked the “yellow peril” prejudices of the 19th century that fuelled the ‘White Australia’ policy. It was lifted only in the late 1970s when Asia was seen as a potential cash cow for Australia. It did, and until the advent of COVID-19, tourists and international students from China, and Chinese mineral and food imports were the major foreign currency earners for the country going into billions of dollars.

“We need to look at the risk factors of the pandemic and the cost and benefits. A blame game will not achieve a constructive and beneficial bilateral relationship between Australia and China,” argues Tony Pang, past president of Chinese Australian Forum, pointing out that 90 per cent of Australian exports go to Asia with China taking 37.2 per cent of it. At the same time, the U.S. accounts for only 3.8 per cent according to 2019 data.

“I believe, to some extent, the current racism against Asians is a result of China’s growth, influence and economic might and the adverse media coverage over the last few years, and especially after the arrival of Covid-19,” he told IDN.

Andrew Jakubowicz, Emeritus Professor of Sociology from the University of Technology Sydney told IDN in an interview that “the language used was either intentionally inflammatory or recklessly loose and undisciplined”.

He added: “Even China recognises that an inquiry-based on the scientific method that rigorously interrogates the emergence of the virus and the more or less successful modes of address across the world, is an excellent idea. Though not one that seeks out evidence to convict China of some unnamed crime”.

In the past two weeks, China has shown in no uncertain terms, through media briefing from China’s Ambassador Jingye Cheng in Canberra and Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijianin in Beijing that the Chinese Government is unhappy with the way Australia called for such an inquiry. They have already imposed economic sanctions against Australia dressed up as anti-dumping and hygienic measures.

On May 18, the Chinese Government announced it would press ahead with its threat to impose an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley — effectively blocking Australian farmers from selling their crops to their most lucrative market. They claimed that the Australian Government was subsidising the farmers to “dump” barley on the Chinese market at below production costs.

On May 19, Beijing has slapped Australian beef exporters with sanctions for “repeated violations of inspection and quarantine requirements”. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was at pains not to paint it as economic retaliation from China, but “isolated labelling error” that will be corrected.

Sanctions could hit hard on an economy already facing a severe crisis from both the impact of bushfires in the summer and now COVID-19 lockdowns. This week Birmingham complained that his Chinese counterpart was refusing to take calls to discuss the issue. He has hinted that Australia may have to take the barley tariffs to the WTO disputes process.

The Chinese ambassador has also hinted at the Chinese consumers “losing the taste” for Australian wines. China is Australia’s biggest wine market. Wine-maker Bill Widen told ABC TV that for three years they have been selling wines to China. Before the COVID-19 crisis, they have been sending every two months a container full of 18,000 bottles of wine to China. “The most popular wine at the moment in China, by volume, is Australian wine, so Australian producers have made inroads into the China market,” he said.

His wife Vicki visibly upset at the impact Australia’s call for an inquiry may have on their business added: “You spend many many years building a relationship with a country. And if you lose that relationship with China … it will be devastating, not only for us here.”

Australian commercial media, in particular, have been drumming up anti-China sentiments in the country by repeatedly claiming that China is using its economic muscle to bully Australia, after spreading the coronavirus across the globe. They are also appealing to widespread resentments among Australians of Chinese purchases of large Australian assets as well as real estate in recent years.

“Australia has taken the view that the purchase of Australian assets by Chinese state corporations has strategic as well as economic parameters,” argues Professor  Jakubowicz. He commented on why there is no such resentment against widespread purchases of Australian assets by the British and American companies.

“My sense is (that) the perceived threat of Chinese imperial power from a one-party state bent on extending its empire, is more challenging in Australia than competing corporate interests from other former or existing empires.”

This resentment of Chinese economic power and the media’s persistent attempts to project COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese export’ is reflected in a rise in racist attacks on Asian (Chinese)-Australians in recent months, where ordinary Australians have called them spreaders of coronavirus.

“I have been verbally racially abused several times since the arrival of COVID-19,” says Pang. “My wife, a third-generation Australian, was called ‘coronavirus’. Her grandfather arrived in Australia from China in the late 1800s.” Her Chinese-Australian father had served with the Australian Armoured Division in World War II (1939-1945) and her uncle in Borneo as an Infantry.

“My friend’s daughter was spitted on, and his shoulder elbowed another friend at a supermarket by a male,” he adds.

[The Borneo campaign of 1945 was one of the most complex operations involving Australian land, air and sea forces in the war. It was also the last Australian campaign to be planned and undertaken. Borneo had been captured by the Japanese in early 1942.]

Trent Zimmerman, Member of Parliament for North Sydney – an electorate that includes over 20,000 Asian-Australians –  raised the issue of such public attacks in parliament in Canberra on May 18.

“It does disappoint me enormously to have to rise in this chamber to raise and condemn the racism experienced by some in the Australian Chinese community during this pandemic,” he told the parliament.

While admitting that most Australians would support the call for an independent international inquiry on the role of wet markets in the origins of the coronavirus, these attacks “are not what this is about”, he noted.

With the Government taking a blame game strategy, there are concerns among liberal and academic circles that the community sentiments that led to the ‘White Australia’ policy may be re-emerging.

But, Ruddock argues that Australia’s approach to foreign investments is not different from China’s. “All substantial proposals are reviewed through the Foreign Investment Review Board. This is not surprising. Even China takes a critical view of foreign investment in China,” he says. He adds: “Government policy is non-discriminatory based on race (but) restrictions on ownership by foreign nationals do exist.”

As for the ‘White Australia’ policy resurfacing, Ruddock says, “(it) was abandoned some 50 years ago and there is no place in Australia for any discrimination based on race, country of origin, culture or religion”.

Professor Jakubowicz agrees that the abolition of the ‘White Australia’ policy “has worked reasonably well”. However, he thinks that racialised thinking still sits strongly within the hierarchies of political parties, in the mass media, and the public sphere. “COVID-19 period has permitted racists to target Chinese and other Asian Australians, but there has also been widespread civil society push back,” he points out.

But, Pang has reservations. “Many of my Asian Australian friends are shocked at the sudden spate of racism arising from COVID-19, despite efforts from community organisations’ initiative to call on media and politicians to curtail racism, the incidence of racism continues,” he maintains. [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 May 2020]

Image: Collage of flags of Australia and China from Wikipedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate. –

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. Feel free to share, remix, tweak and build upon it non-commercially. Please credit to the author and IDN-InDepthNews.

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