Anti-Chinese racism its own dangerous contagion

Opinion: Fear of a coronavirus epidemic has contributed to racist incidents across New Zealand. David Tokiharu Mayeda looks at this new spin on an old story.

Photo: iStock

Recent emergence and dispersion of the coronavirus has caused understandable concern. Evidence-based research in public health has shown time and again that impacts of infectious disease are minimised when governments implement primary prevention measures.

With respect to Aotearoa New Zealand, this is exactly what our government is doing now – prohibiting entry to “foreign travellers who leave or transit through mainland China after February 2 2020,” while allowing New Zealand citizens and permanent residents who have travelled through China to return but self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.

These screening measures, coupled with early intervention of any potential cases (currently non-existent here), maximise the prevention of a coronavirus outbreak.

Unfortunately though, fear of a coronavirus epidemic has contributed to a series of racist incidents across New Zealand. Parents of children at a primary school in Canterbury received emails saying, “you Asians are virus spreaders.” A New Zealand-born doctor in Auckland of Chinese ancestry, who ironically has never been to China, told, “Go back to China [or] else we are all going to die.” Whispers passed in Rotorua supermarkets that “we should send them all back where they came from”.

“…back where they came from." How many readers from Asian backgrounds have heard a version of that before?

To be thorough, similar patterns of racism connected to the coronavirus are happening globally. In countries where a distinct Asian group forms the majority (for example, South Korea, Japan), racism associated with the coronavirus is directed more specifically against Chinese. In countries where diverse Asians are ethnic minorities (for example, Australia, Canada) sometimes the racism is specifically anti-Chinese, sometimes anti-Asian as a whole.

New Zealand, of course, is a country where diverse Asians form a growing umbrella ethnic minority group, appreciated for our culinary delights, cultural festivals, and oh yeah, that desired economic capital. But the degree to which Asians are made welcome in New Zealand has always been accompanied by racist contingencies.

Understanding Racism

Racism is not simply about directing offensive epithets at ethnic minorities in individualised or small group situations, like those presented above. Yes, those are prime examples of racism, but they are also manifestations of something much larger. Therefore, we need to think more carefully about racism, why it functions and how it continues to evolve over time.

As a starting point, racism entails dominant groups in a society defining less-dominant groups by way of their perceived physical and cultural inferiorities. On top of this, racism reflects historical patterns in society that perpetuate social inequalities. Within the New Zealand context, the treatment of Chinese migrants fits these criteria – they are an ethnic minority, defined historically by those in power as an inferior group who could belong, but only to a certain degree and only with contingencies.

New Zealand’s problematic history with Chinese immigration is no secret. Initially in the mid-1800s Chinese labourers were defined as valuable if they worked as exploited gold miners. But as work in the goldfields diminished and anti-Chinese sentiment grew, value of Chinese migrants was further objectified and solidified in law, designed in relation to the amount of cargo present on ships (one Chinese passenger allowed for every ten tons of cargo, amended in 1896 to one passenger for every 200 tons).

The Contemporary Context

We look back on these archaic, racist laws with contempt, as we should. But in at least one fundamental way, New Zealand’s current travel and immigration policies follow a similar tendency. Foreigners allowed into our country are not granted access to enrich our ethnic diversity, bring in fresh perspective, or heaven forbid, support Indigenous social movements. No, those granted access must support a capitalist-driven agenda that builds the economy.

In other words, to be welcomed as a foreign tourist, one should bring big tourist dollars. To be accepted as a foreign student, one must demonstrate an ability to pay hefty international student fees. To belong as a potential resident or citizen, one must showcase an occupational skill set valued in our broader economy. These are the economic contingencies that make foreign migration desirable. But even with all this, those of Chinese ancestry cannot fully belong.

How many local Chinese (or Asians for that matter) who struggle with inflated housing costs, who grew up playing rugby, cricket and netball, who speak English as a primary language and maybe even te reo, are familiar with the shifting markers of broad-based exclusion? “You’re driving up the property values.” “Those Asians are bad drivers.” “Why can’t you speak English properly?” And the classic, “Where are you really from?” Now a new marker of indiscriminate exclusion has emerged.

Think I’m over-reacting, pontificating a hyper-sensitive brand of identity politics? Where were the signs of fear directed towards white men after it was revealed the terrorist who killed 51 people in Christchurch was a white Australian, or after it came out that the individual who murdered a young British woman in gruesome fashion was a white Kiwi who’d spent significant time in Australia? Were white men as a whole with ties to Australia all of sudden branded with markers of fear? No, nor should they have been, but the racialised double standards are telling.

Indeed, the coronavirus is a serious concern. It must be taken seriously, and it is. However, the racism we see attached to the coronavirus is little more than new spin on an old story. Asians, in this case especially Chinese, are continually marked with contingencies of acceptance. That’s how racism works. The contagion in this case isn’t just the coronavirus spreading through biological pathways; it’s also racism that unfairly attaches this contagion to Asian-ness as a whole, making racism a dangerous contagion in itself.

Dr David Tokiharu Mayeda is a senior lecturer in sociology and criminology in the School of Social Sciences.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Anti-Chinese racism its own dangerous contagion 7 February 2020.

Media queries

Alison Sims | Research Communications Editor
09 923 4953
Mob 021 249 0089