The celebration of the Asian Heritage Month in May is marred by the fact that Asian communities around the world — from the United States, Canada, Europe to Australia — are experiencing a spike in anti-Asian racism and hate crimes. While the slaying of Asian women in Atlanta in March was the most violent of these crimes, much of the racism directed at Asians takes everyday forms — physical violence, overt and covert discrimination in workplaces, racial slurs, spitting and micro-aggressions.
Throughout major cities in North America, self-reported hate crimes against Asians — which likely go underreported — have increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research by Thomas Pepinsky suggests that people who consume right-wing news in the United States have tended to trivialise the problem. New York Times journalist Sui-Lee Wee recently advised her female Asian relative moving to the United States to arm herself with pepper spray. There is no doubt that much of the recent spike is pandemic-related and, as research by Kim Yi Dionne has shown, the politics of pandemic othering or the blaming of marginal groups for things they are not responsible for are not new.
The roots of anti-Asian racism run deeper and much of it is highly political in nature. Some scientists of Chinese descent in the United States have become the targets of government purges since the launch of the US Department of Justice’s China Initiative in 2018, which aims to counter economic espionage from China.
FBI director Christopher Wray described China’s ‘whole-of-society’ approach to stealing information as a national security threat, so it is not hard to imagine how this initiative prompted racial profiling. The fact that some members of the US security community now perceive Chinese students as a fifth column lends further credence to this moral hazard.
The United States and China are caught in a battle over trade, arms and technology. As tensions between the two major powers escalate, Asian communities are at increased risk of becoming scapegoats for wrath actually intended for the Chinese Communist regime. Outside the United States, China’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy and use of economic coercion have also provoked anti-China sentiments in Canada, Europe, Australia and elsewhere.
As Western democracies try to ally themselves against China’s rise, there is a real concern that the perception of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ extends to domestic residents in these countries. The labelling of COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’ further escalated these sentiments. The recent passing of the COVID-19 anti-hate crime bill by the US Congress is a step in the right direction. It would be naive to think that the sentiments will disappear once the pandemic is over.
The irony is that some Chinese living in Western countries emigrated to escape the regime back home. Other Asians from Northeast, Southeast and South Asia do not identify China as their motherland or the Chinese Communist Party as their political party.
The recent political crackdown in Hong Kong and the erosion of the ‘one country, two systems’ model means that those originating from Hong Kong and Taiwan want to dissociate themselves from mainland China more than ever before. For the first time, Hong Kongers in Canada can now indicate their background when census data is collected to distinguish themselves from the mainland Chinese.
This does not mean that debate about the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights record — including the atrocities it has committed in Xinjiang, the harsh repression it has carried out in Hong Kong or its attempts to project soft or sharp power overseas — should be suppressed. To use anti-Asian racism as a pretext to stifle freedom of speech would be like invoking antisemitism to choke off any discussion of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Research also suggests that racism is best understood or explained through the lens of intersectionality — that a whole host of other identity markers including gender, class and immigrant status crisscross and exacerbate its effects on marginalised groups.
In Vancouver and Toronto, where housing prices are among the world’s highest, wealthy Asians are often blamed for creating housing unaffordability by buying up properties and leaving them empty. Much of this discrimination takes place behind thinly veiled anti-immigrant sentiment. Asian women often bear the brunt of the racist aggression.
To combat rising anti-Asian racism, Western democracies will need to take a ‘whole-of-society’ approach (to use FBI Director Wray’s phrase) that involves the government, civil society, grassroots communities and academia. This will need to entail raising awareness, educating the general population and legislating against offenders.
Lynette H Ong is Associate Professor at the University of Toronto.