Australian leaders have responded to coronavirus by stoking the flames of xenophobia and social exclusion, not with useful solutions, Fan Yang writes.
Starting from Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province in China, before Chinese New Year, the coronavirus outbreak has caused more than 1000 deaths. Thousands of people have contracted the virus, both inside and outside mainland China.
Aside from infection and health concerns, coronavirus has also triggered a strong wave of collective anxiety, fear, and hysteria towards China, resulting in racist attacks towards Chinese migrant communities.
In the Australian case, this reflects broader anti-Asian backlash. Some Australian media offensively racialised coronavirus, calling it a ‘Chinese’ disease. This is important, as language like this, and anti-Asian racism in general, has a long history in Australia, going back to the gold rush era of the late 19th century.
In the 1880s for instance, the Australian magazine The Bulletin published a cartoon named The Mongolian Octopus – Its Grip on Australia. It presents the Asian male body radically differently from the Caucasian bodies co-presented, and in a distinctly negative light.
In the racist cartoon, Asian people are presented as having an expanding influence, indicating their ‘invasion’ of Australia. This presentation of Asian bodies creates a perception of threat to the viewer, and sparks fear of a perceived racially inferior other.
This image, and others like it, later contributed to violence against Chinese gold miners and even murders, both in the Buckland and Lambing Flat riots. The cartoon is an historical example that shows how Chinese people have been demonised and anti-Chinese sentiment, grounded in racism, has been nurtured throughout the history of Australia.
Soon, policy came to reflect this sentiment. Immediately after federation, the first version of the White Australia Policy, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, was passed. It meant that immigrants from Asian countries were prohibited from entering Australia, further accelerating Sinophobia. This continued until the 1970s when the policy was abolished.
Despite the end of the White Australia policy, there has been a persistent thread of anxiety toward Chinese- and Asian-Australian communities. It manifested itself in Australian media coverage, public discussion, and government policies for a long time, most notably with the rise of Pauline Hanson, who famously declared in her first speech to Parliament that she believed “we are in danger of being swamped by Asians”.
The rise of coronavirus in 2020 has not brought out new racism towards Chinese- and Asian-Australians but has catalysed a long Australian history of xenophobia and rendered existing racism utterly visible.
On 1 February 2020, the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, declared a ban on visitors coming from mainland China in the name of preventing the virus from spreading in Australia. This action indiscriminately prevents any non-resident travelling from China, including international students, people holding work visas, and tourists, from entering Australia.
With few plans in place or follow-up action prepared, this policy immediately imposed anxiety upon Chinese international students in particular, who took to social media to express their fears of not being able to continue their studies.
Further, the dramatic step is against the official advice from World Health Organization which opposes travel bans in any forms.
Then, on 3 February, the government evacuated all Australian residents in Hubei province to a quarantine centre located on Christmas Island. This only served to spark fear of the virus, increasing antagonism towards Chinese people in Australia. It contributed again to a sense of ‘otherness’ in the Australian community when it comes to victims of the virus, who are mostly Chinese and Asian.
In the wake of these two decisions, misinformation began appearing on social media, much of which targeted Chinese people. Some members of the community began to spread questionable assumptions about how Chinese people have a higher biological propensity for catching and spreading the disease.
Ultimately, the outbreak has shown that fears of contagion are intricately mixed with xenophobia and economic opposition to migrants.
In response to the perceived hostility of the rest of society, it is fair for Chinese migrants to express their concerns about feeling unsafe, and the threat of racist attacks on them is real.
Feeding into fear of the virus is a growing awareness of China’s growth. With China rising in its global influence, causing trade, political, and diplomatic disputes in Australia, an adversarial attitude is coming to the fore.
Unease over the ban of Huawei’s 5G network, the influence of WeChat in the 2019 federal election, and concern over Chinese influence on university campuses – often leading to the portrayal of international students as cash cows or spies – have combined with fears of pandemic and revealed that xenophobia persists in Australia.
Without a more open perspective and policy action that does not feed xenophobia, Australia may contribute to a new Cold War scenario. In the face of their issues, China and the West, rather than coming together to solve them, may diverge from one another, seemingly to the benefit of nobody.