By Kate Ng
In case you haven’t noticed, attacks on people of Chinese heritage - or even appearance - have escalated to new heights over the last year. And it’s absolutely no coincidence that the violence against East and South East Asian (ESEA) communities has increased over the course of the pandemic, given the racist rhetoric peddled by world leaders and right-wing groups about the origins of Covid-19. After all, impeached president (and notorious xenophobe) Donald Trump did call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” at every chance he got, and words have consequences.
Racism affects ESEA people regardless of their social status, and it’s everywhere. Community icons are incessantly targeted by racists in all parts of the world, in their own industries, and by deeply xenophobic systems, from NBA veteran Jeremy Lin being called ‘coronavirus’ on the court, to the critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama deemed “not British enough” by the Brit Awards or Mercury Prize (with the following outrage prompting a recent revision of their eligibility rules), and global superstars BTS called “a crappy virus” on-air by Bayern 3 radio host Matthias Matuschik in Germany just last week - to name a few.
Verbal attacks are rising, and so are physical attacks. Covid-related hate crimes against Asian-Americans have gotten increasingly worse across a number of states in the US, and are becoming deadlier. Last month, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man, died in San Francisco after he was violently shoved to the ground by an assailant who came up behind him. A CCTV video of the attack went viral, and a 19-year-old man arrested after the attack was charged with murder and elder abuse. But anti-Asian racism is not just a US problem, and very much on the rise in the UK too.
As the first cases of coronavirus reached the UK in January 2020, Chinatowns across the UK began emptying of visitors and patrons. That’s how it started, devastating Chinese-owned businesses far earlier than any others before the first national lockdown came into place in March.
Then the violence followed, from Chinese takeaway owners getting spat at in their own restaurants, to Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student studying in London, getting beaten up on Oxford Street by teenagers who shouted at him: “I don’t want your coronavirus in our country.”
A year later, the violence hasn’t stopped and is getting worse in some places. Just last week, Peng Wang, a lecturer from the University of Southampton, was attacked while out jogging. A group of men drove past him in a car and shouted racist slurs at him, and when he shouted back to defend himself, they stopped their car and assaulted him, as reported by the police.
I’m Malaysian Chinese, and first came to the UK in 2012, to go to university in Northampton. My first experience with racism was being shouted “Chink!” at from across the street - I did not know what to do or say at the time, and just laughed it off. It was my first ever and only experience of such racism. Until last year.
From the start of February 2020, I started noticing people moving away from me in the train carriage, changing seats, inching as close to the train doors as possible during my commute to work. Once, I went to my GP for a pap smear - nothing to do whatsoever with Covid-19 - and sat two seats away from an elderly man with a horrific-sounding cough. No sooner had I sat down, he moved as far down the row of seats as he possibly could, and I was astounded.
I count myself extremely lucky that nothing worse has happened. But the fear that something might, that I am not safe when I am on my daily walks or essential errands, is something I know I am not alone in experiencing. Nearly every ESEA person I have spoken to over the course of the pandemic has said the same thing, and is even afraid that when lockdown ends, the attacks will become worse.
Their fears are not unfounded. In the first three months of 2020, police data showed the number of offences almost tripled compared to the same period for 2018 and 2019. In the six months between January and June 2020, police across the UK received 457 reports of racially motivated crime against people who self-identified as Chinese.
The hatred and racism continue online, with one technology company that monitors violent extremism online recording a 300% increase in the use of “hashtags that support or encourage violence against China and Chinese people” in a single week in March 2020. Moonshot analysed over 600 million tweets, of which 200,000 contained hate speech or anti-Chinese conspiracy theories.
Amid the doom and gloom, there are some glimmers of hope. Labour MP Sarah Owens has been instrumental in fighting for ESEA communities in Parliament, and actively speaks out against the rising racism. Charities such as Meridian Wellbeing, in partnership with the Chinese Association of Tower Hamlets, are carrying out a series of webinars, called Tackling Hate Crime, to help victims and educate the authorities. Campaigners and advocacy groups have created safe spaces online to talk about the issue and call for action, compassion, and representation for ESEA communities. Altogether, these efforts are helping to increase visibility of the problem and empower people to talk and support one another.
But the impacts of Covid-19 will be felt for years to come - and that means that Covid-related racism is far from over. This may simply be the beginning, and East and South East Asian people must come together to fight it and make our voices heard to make it clear that we will not sit quietly and accept it. We will not be quiet. And we need our ‘allies’ to speak up and solve this, because we did not create this problem.