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How coronavirus feeds Australian racism

Feb 27, 2020 • 16m 57s

The panic generated by coronavirus has reignited an older, deeper panic about Chinese migrants. Today, we look at what coronavirus can tell us about racism in Australia.

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How coronavirus feeds Australian racism

171 • Feb 27, 2020

How coronavirus feeds Australian racism

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

The panic generated by coronavirus has reignited an older, deeper panic about Chinese migrants. Today, what coronavirus can tell us about racism in Australia.

[Theme music ends]

Archival Tape -- Unidentified female newsreader:

‘Discrimination experienced in hospitals, schools and on public transport.’

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male newsreader:

‘A Perth student has told seven news she was shocked and confused to find an eviction note taped to her rental properties door after returning from a 10 day trip to Malaysia. The home owner kicked the foreign student out because of coronavirus fears.’

Archival Tape -- Unidentified female 1:

‘There's another example of a young woman who went to the doctors who was of Asian background, not Chinese, who is basically the doctors surgery was emptied.’

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male 1:

'It is a virus, we call it the Coronavirus, it is not China virus.’

RUBY:

Okay so Ruby Schwartz you’re a producer here at 7am, and you’ve been talking to Chinese-Australians about their experiences since the coronavirus outbreak. Can you tell me a little about the people you’ve been talking to?

RUBY S:

Yeah. So I spoke to Louise Liu and she's a Chinese Australian. She was born in Melbourne.

[Music starts]

Archival Tape -- Louise Zenn Lui:

(Ruby S I just want you to introduce yourself)
‘So my name is Louise Zenn Liu and I'm a proud Chinese Australian woman born in Melbourne.’

RUBY S:

So both of her parents are from China and I was speaking to her because she was posting about coronavirus on social media. And so I wanted to ask what her experience has been like. And she told me that she had one particular experience that really kind of changed her perspective.

Archival Tape -- Louise Zenn Lui:

‘So I went to a new workplace, it was a place that I’d never been to before. And I introduced myself to a person and I said, you know, hi, my name is Louise, nice to meet you, and I reached my hand out and the person just...yeah, sort of said, oh, no, sorry, I'm not shaking people's hands anymore because of coronavirus.’

RUBY S:

And she said that the woman kind of joked it off and said, you know, this is like our new H.R. policy that we're kind of, you know, not shaking people's hands because of coronavirus. But yeah, Louise said that she very much doubted that if a white person had put out their hand, she probably would have shook it.

Archival Tape -- Louise Zenn Lui:

‘And I've thought about that experience a lot because my initial reaction, my initial thought process was, you know, to ask her, is it because I'm Chinese? I didn't say that out loud. Ummm, I just kind of let it go.’

RUBY S:

She spoke to her Mum about it and she asked her Mum, like, have you had any kind of similar experiences to this. And she said that her Mum, she takes the Early Bird train every morning, 7:00 a.m, she's on public transport.

Archival Tape -- Louise Zenn Lui:

‘...and she, she said that she had noticed people staring at her in public transport, whispering to each other, staring at her, which is something she's never experienced in her 30 plus years of living in Australia.’

RUBY S:

It's making her feel really uncomfortable in public space and and and somewhat unsafe.

Archival Tape -- Louise Zenn Lui:

‘She had a similar thing that I had, which was, you know, talking to herself, you know, almost internal monologue of “everything's gonna be okay, just don't cough, just just make sure you don't cough and you'll be fine.”’

RUBY:

Ruby can you tell me more about the panic that’s at the heart of this story?

RUBY S:

So there’s been a real economic panic as the coronavirus has spread around the world. You know, we’ve seen markets drop in the last few days. And investors have been selling shares because of these fears that the virus outbreak will paralyze the economy.

And here, in Australia, we heard the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and on Tuesday warning that economic impacts would stretch far beyond the tourism and the education sectors.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

‘The health impacts of the coronavirus are not the only impacts of this virus on the global economy and indeed on the Australian economy. We are very mindful of these impacts.’

RUBY S:

Sp we’ve also heard the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg saying the economic hit from the corona­virus outbreak would actually be worse than the bushfires.

Archival Tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

‘The message is very clear, the impact will be more significant than the bushfires, and it plays out more broadly across the Australian economy.’

RUBY S:

There is this real economic panic - but there is also a medical panic - people becoming fearful that they’re going to catch the virus, and talk of how our hospital systems might cope with this.

And that medical panic has this racialised element to it. And that has been stoked by quite irresponsible media reporting, things like the Daily telegraph headline saying Chinese kids should stay home and news reports calling it the China virus... that sort of thing.

It’s kind of created this sense, I guess, that everyone from a Chinese background is somehow at risk. And that's manifested itself I guess in the way that, you know, Louise is saying that she's being treated right now.

RUBY:

Hmm-mm. Okay. So it wouldn't just be Louise and her mum who are experiencing this. Can you tell me who else you've spoken to?

RUBY S:

Yes, I've also spoken to Erin Chew, and she’s of Malaysian and Chinese descent. And she told me that the other day she was walking through Melbourne's CBD and she mentioned the word coronavirus while she was on the phone.

Archival Tape -- Erin Chew:

‘It was raining. So I walked into one of her building on Queen Street, and on the top, there was a little bottle shop. And when I said coronavirus, there was a guy who just walked down and he heard me and he just said to me, you know, shut up, you chink, you are all infected.’

RUBY S:

And that was...that was the most extreme story that Erin had told me. But she told me of multiple other experiences, including the fact that she's been stared out on public transport and also that she's been avoided in the airport. So these incidents are actually happening more frequently, and it's, it's not just in Melbourne. It's happening all over the country.

My colleague Mike Seccombe, reported in the Saturday paper last week that the Human Rights Commission has experienced a surge in complaints since the coronavirus outbreak. And he said that nearly half of these complaints relate to racial discrimination experienced by Chinese-Australians. And that's actually only since the start of this month.

RUBY:

Okay. So there's been this rise in racial discrimination and that's backed up by the Human Rights Commission. And this is happening at the same time as a rise in fear about the spread of coronavirus. Can you just remind me of the facts here? What, what's the scale of coronavirus right now in Australia?

RUBY S:

So, so less than a month ago, and that was on January 25, the first case of coronavirus in Australia was identified. And since then, there have only been 15 cases in Australia and none of those have been severe or fatal.

So there's also been no reports of secondary infection, which means there's been no kind of human to human transmission, no one's caught it from anyone else here.

And we're hearing from health authorities and medical professionals like the federal chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy. And they're saying that basically there's no reason for the Australian public to be concerned right now.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male 2:

‘I would like to start by assuring the Australian public that there is no need for alarm and the risk to the Australian public from this novel virus remains relatively low although we do know…’

RUBY S:

And they're also saying that we shouldn't be avoiding anyone of any particular background as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

But it's quite obvious right now that people aren't really heeding that advice. And Erin, who I spoke to, she said that people are actually starting to get used to these racist attacks and that she's actually starting to expect them.

[Music starts]

Archival Tape -- Erin Chew:

‘All these type of experiences, as traumatising as they can be, we are, some of us, are getting used to it, and it's actually very unnatural to be used to this type of racism. And it does, for someone like myself who was born and raised here,it does make you feel like you don't belong here. And, a virus such as a corona virus can be contained and can and can be stopped. But the virus that cannot be stopped is racism.’

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

[Music ends]

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RUBY:

So Ruby, you’ve been telling me about the way that responses to the coronavirus outbreak have impacted Asian Australians. Where do you think this all begins?

RUBY S:

Yes, I think it's important to note that while the recent backlash does feel pretty extreme, there's actually a much broader context to racism targeted at Australians from Chinese backgrounds.

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘Yep I can hear you now...I thought it would be better if I had headphones.’

RUBY S:

So I spoke to Osmond Chiu who's a research fellow at the Per Capita Institute, and he's written about the experiences Chinese Australians have had of racism.

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘I think what makes Australia different from other Western nations is how prominent and defining that anti-Chinese racism was in our history.’

RUBY S:

He says it goes back to the 19th century and that was when Chinese labourers came to work in the Goldfields here.

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘Australia has a long history of anti-Chinese racism stretching back into the 19th century… The creation of anti-Chinese political leagues, events like the Lambing Flat riots against Chinese miners.’

RUBY S:

And Osmond pointed out that Australia’s first laws were essentially anti-Chinese.

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘Immigration was also a prominent topic in the lead up to Federation and the Immigration Restriction Act, which formed the basis of White Australia, was one of the first laws passed after the formation of the Commonwealth.’

RUBY S:

And he said that during this time, Chinese culture was demonised and used as a kind of counterpoint to the sort of society white Australians wanted to create.

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘So being Australian was not simply cast in terms of race, but culture and Chinese culture and values was stereotyped as being hierarchical, profit driven and servile.’

RUBY:

OK thats the roots of it, but how does that relate to racism in Australia more recently?

RUBY S:

The White Australia Policy only started to be dismantled in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1978 that it actually completely abolished.

And then in the 80s and 90s we started to see migration from Asian countries that including China. And then that actually led to another backlash.

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘Most notably during the 80s when you had comments by historian Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard raising concerns about the rate of Asian immigration. And then it really culminates in the election of Pauline Hanson in 1996 and her infamous maiden speech that declared that Australia was at risk from being swamped by Asians.’

Archival Tape -- Pauline Hanson:

‘I and most Australians want our immigration policy policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.

RUBY S:

So Osmond also told me that after Hanson lost her seat in parliament a couple of years later, the bigger change was the rise in anti-refugee and anti-Muslim attitudes.

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘But really, after 9/11, a lot of these anti migrant rhetoric shifted away from Chinese or Asian communities and towards those from Middle Eastern or Muslim backgrounds. It’s over this period that migration from Asian countries, particularly mainland China, really increased substantially.’

RUBY S:

And so then when Hanson was actually elected to parliament, and that was in 2016, her speech didn't mention Asians at all.

Archival Tape -- Pauline Hanson:

Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims, who bare a culture…’

RUBY:

So what we’re talking about here is a kind of cycle or cycles of racism.

RUBY S:

Yeah I think that’s right, and it wasn't really until the last couple of years that we started seeing this resurgence in anti-Chinese attitudes. So you saw more media stories about, like, you know, Chinese foreign investment, the buying up of land, donating to political parties. And it all reached a fever point between Sam Dastayari’s resignation from parliament, and also when questions over Glady Liu’s alleged links to the Chinese Communist Party.

So as the Australian public started to become aware of these issues, it started affecting public opinion. When I spoke to Osmond he did tell me that there was this recent Lowy poll and it reflected a dramatic shift in public sentiments towards China.

And what Osmond’s saying is not to suggest that there aren’t valid concerns about the Chinese Commmunist Party and its influence in Australia. But I think what he’s saying is that the debate isn’t really very sophisticated and it might be harming individual Chinese Australians.

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘Too often these debates are sensationalized, lack nuance, and it blurs into a false claims about Chinese Australians more broadly who make up only about 5 percent of the population.’

RUBY:

So now that the coronavirus is here, it’s in Australia, what do you think the reaction in Australia reveals about racism in this country?

RUBY S:

Yeah so I asked Osmond about this, and he said that amidst the coronavirus outbreak, there is kind of this an inability to understand more subtle and casual forms of racism.

[Music starts]

Archival Tape -- Osmond Chiu:

‘And the kind of reaction that people have, shows that there still isn't this understanding that you don't need to have malicious intent for xenophobia to both exist and also thrive.’

RUBY S:

I also asked Erin about it and she said that this kind of racism isn’t just directed at Asian Australians, it’s something that’s much more pervasive in Australian society generally… and kind of moves in these cycles and it chooses different targets. But I think she sees what’s happening now as a wake up call and an opportunity to stand up and start talking about these issues.

Archival Tape -- Erin Chew:

‘The only positive that may come out of all this, is that it has actually woken up a lot of those who may be sleeping still, you know, maybe a sleep for quite a long time and deny that there is racism. And now a lot of them are seeing it or experiencing it personally. And it has woken a lot of people up to actually talk about and have that discussion about this issue.’

RUBY:

Ruby thanks so much for your work on this story.

RUBY S:

Thank you.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news, coronavirus infection rates have climbed rapidly across Europe and Asia. In Italy, there have been 11 deaths from the virus and 322 infections, while South Korea has reported 169 more cases of infection.
Authorities are rushing to keep ahead of the virus, with San Francisco declaring a local emergency despite having no cases yet. The viral outbreak has now infected more than 80 thousand people worldwide.

And the inquest examining the murder of six people in Bourke St in Melbourne’s CBD has heard emotional testimony from a widow of one of the victims. In 2017 James Gargosoulous mowed down pedestrians in a car, killing six people and injuring 27.

Melinda Tan, whose husband Matthew Si died in the attack, expressed anger at Victoria Police and said “certain officers were more focused on their careers and safety rather than protecting the public”.

I’m Ruby Jones this 7am - a daily show from The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
See you tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

The panic generated by coronavirus has reignited an older, deeper panic about Chinese migrants. Ruby Schwartz on how a medical emergency has unearthed Australia’s fear of the other – and how this fear cycles through different targets.

Guest: 7am producer Ruby Schwartz

Background reading:

COVID-19: Racism, economics and the aftermath in The Saturday Paper
Christmas Island and the rise of mandatory detention in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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171: How coronavirus feeds Australian racism