A recently released report analysed nearly 400 reports of incidents of COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism in Australia between April and June 2020. The report found the typical incident was a random stranger using racial slurs targeting a woman in a public space. Incidents of anti-Asian racism have been turned into a geopolitical football between Australia and China. An improved capacity to respond to racism with confidence will enable Australia to better neutralise the use of racism as a political tactic by China.
COVID-19 Racism Incident Survey
In response to anecdotal reports of racism, an online survey was launched by myself and the Asian Australian Alliance in April asking a range of quantitative and qualitative questions about Asian-Australian experiences of racism during the COVID-19 pandemic period. Individuals were asked to describe the incidents of racism they experienced.
The survey made no pretence that it was an academic study. The nonprobability sampling approach aimed to provide a snapshot of anti-Asian racism and fill the gap of poor data collection, an issue mentioned by the current Race Discrimination Commissioner.
The survey has provided insights into the likely scale of incidents and how widespread they might be. To date, the survey has received over 400 reported incidents from across Australia. This is a larger number of reports per capita than the equivalent Stop AAPI Hate aggregator established by Asian-American groups in the United States.
A preliminary report was released on July 24 that analysed data from the first two months of the survey. A few key trends were evident from that period:
- Women were primarily the targets (65 per cent).
- New South Wales had the most incidents (37 per cent), followed by Victoria (32 per cent).
- Incidents tended to occur in public spaces such as on a street (40 per cent) or at the shops (22 per cent), with perpetrators being random strangers (84 per cent).
- Almost 60 per cent of incidents involved physical or verbal harassment such as slurs, physical intimidation, verbal threats or getting spat at.
- Online incidents were predominantly on Facebook (43 per cent).
- Common themes in slurs were references to eating habits, being a carrier of disease, going back to “their” country and also mentioning the Chinese Communist Party or China.
The problem of underreporting
There was underreporting with 90 per cent saying they did not report the incident to the police. While the survey did not ask why people are not reporting these incidents, there are a few possible explanations including a lack of knowledge of reporting processes, a belief that it is too much hassle or not serious enough to report, that racism just happens in Australia, or a distrust of authorities.
One of the problems caused by the lack of reporting is that racism may not be perceived to be much of a problem in Australia, because it does not appear in government statistics. This may result in less focus and less resources being provided to combat racism, creating a vicious cycle.
There have been responses by federal and state governments and agencies to the work we have done publicising these incidents. Government responses have been targeted at awareness raising about processes, creating multilingual resources, but less so at addressing the other potential reasons for underreporting.
Australia’s responsiveness will show the strength of democratic systems
Any discussion of racism can become fraught as the issue has become heated and “weaponised” with claims made by the Chinese government that Australia is unsafe due to racist incidents, and the Australian Government pushing back against these claims.
Based on the survey results and the limited available public information, it is reasonable to assume there has been an increased number of incidents of anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the pandemic. This has been a global trend and Australia is no exception. It is not mutually exclusive with Australia remaining a relatively safe travel destination for tourists and international students from China.
Undoubtedly, the issue of anti-Asian racism is being used for political purposes by China. However, hamfisted denials that racism is a problem are counterproductive. It leads to dissonance between the public position of the federal government and the lived experience of Chinese and Asian Australians. It creates a perception that the federal government does not care about growing anti-Asian racism when it is not politically convenient. The risk is it only further encourages China to use claims about anti-Asian racism in Australia as a tactic of wedge politics.
It is wrong to believe that a discussion of anti-Asian racism in Australia reinforces claims made by the China or diminishes the seriousness of human rights abuses and discrimination within China. Rather, such discussions should be seen as key to showing that as a multicultural nation with liberal democratic values, these concerns are treated seriously and acted upon. In doing so, the federal government would provide a sharp contrast to the governments of other countries that are not pluralistic, liberal democracies. Governments that can demonstrate strong anti-racist credentials can more confidently dismiss exaggerated claims of racism used for geopolitical purposes.
Based on the findings, the report made a number of recommendations. Some of these have been advocated for in the past including a national anti-racism strategy and combating disinformation spread via social media. Other recommendations include:
- Collecting nationally-consistent data on incidents of racism.
- Simplifying the process of reporting incidents and providing multilingual avenues to do so.
- Removing legislative barriers to prosecution for racially-motivated criminal actions and strengthening anti-vilification laws.
- Making greater investments (or increasing investments) in multicultural and community liaison work.
- Promoting human rights literacy amongst temporary residents including international students.
- Involving community groups in developing strategies against racial discrimination.