We need to talk about China
There’s an increasing amount of anti-China sentiment in media and politics, and it’s reached a point where I no longer feel comfortable to sit idly by without speaking my mind. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not going to be a China-apologist banging on about how great China is and how they’ve done nothing wrong — what I’d like to say is purely in service of my own self interest.
I’m here to talk about racism. Not casual racism, not even systemic racism, but something deeper and more viscerally human. A dark cloud of tribalism, magnified and distorted beyond all reason and understanding in an era filled with mistrust and misinformation, is spreading across the socio-political landscape.
I was born in Hong Kong. My family emigrated to Australia in the 80’s at least in part due to uncertainty over what would happen when the UK had to hand Hong Kong back to China. Like many Hongkies of that era, I was raised to believe that mainlanders were uncouth, dirty, uncivilised, country people — all but confirmed by the times when I witnessed first-hand Chinese children defecating or urinating in public, seeing an old Chinese man snort and hock a loogie directly onto the floor inside a restaurant, or experiencing the complete lawlessness on the roads in the Chinese cities that I visited. Even today, I avoid products that are Made in China — especially food — due to the lingering suspicion that they’re of low quality or downright contaminated.
When my family migrated to Adelaide, South Australia, I was literally the only (East) Asian in my year at primary school, hanging out with the Greeks (to the extent that I actually took Greek classes) — they were the “ethnics” back then. I grew up with all the racist jokes… this little ditty still rings clearly in my mind:
Ching-chong Chinaman, tried to milk a cow,
Ching-chong Chinaman, didn’t know how,
Ching-chong Chinaman, pulled the wrong tit,
Ching-chong Chinaman, ended up in shit.
My family also suffered the indignity of receiving a constant stream of prank calls for a period, because we were listed first in the White Pages phone book under Wong, A., thanks to this popular American Express campaign:
I also clearly remember once, while visiting Sydney with a friend, that we were walking around somewhere when it suddenly struck me how not oppressed I felt. There was such a strong sense that people there found it totally unremarkable an Asian was walking around on the street. Other than who I was with, I don’t recall any other detail about that trip at all; why I had that feeling or why it stuck with me so much.
All of which is to say I’m very well acquainted with racism, both giving and receiving. I still live with the trauma: crippling social phobia, fear of speaking up and out, and a timid, people-pleasing demeanour.
Technology helped blur boundaries: more and better (cheaper) transport options meant more people could experience the world beyond their own city or country, and advances in media and telecommunications meant that even if you weren’t able to travel you could still experience other places and cultures.
One might have hoped that under these conditions people would have become more enlightened, and for a while I was almost ready to believe they had. But all of a sudden the English-speaking world took sharp turn towards Conservatism, with the likes of Tony Abbott and the Liberal party winning power in Australia, and Brexit and Trump overseas.
And then COVID-19 happened.
It has become widely accepted that COVID-19 originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China. Never mind the evidence that the virus may have been circulating in parts of Europe much earlier than expected, or we seem to have all but forgotten about the mysterious vaping disease with symptoms suspiciously similar to COVID spreading rapidly across the States just before the pandemic outbreak, or — if you’re willing to dip your toes into conspiracy theory territory — the US’s tight-lipped refusal to discuss or release any information relating to an incident at Fort Detrick (a military lab that conducts research into biological weapons) while simultaneously agitating for a thorough investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The World Health Organisation sent a delegation to Wuhan to investigate the source of the outbreak and delivered a report which effectively concluded that the lab leak theory was implausible. More recently, a journalist writing for the MIT Technology Review came about as close to debunking the theory as anyone is ever likely to come.
Yet the idea that China is hiding something prevails. The Western countries are happy to perpetuate this notion, because through the influence and reach of their media throughout the English-speaking world, they can make China a scapegoat. One which serves as a focal point for the peoples’ ire, caused by suffering from the socio-economic damage that the virus has wreaked, and prevents them from looking too closely at the inadequacies of their own response to the pandemic.
And then we have the alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the Hong Kong riots, the “disappearances” of Jack Ma and Peng Shuai, the banning of Huawei, etc. I’d actually written many, many paragraphs on these topics already but decided to edit them out, in a vain attempt to show with this little gesture of restraint that I haven’t completely veered off the deep end. But I’ll gleefully discuss the merits of any or all of these accusations at great length. Try me.
In light of this constant barrage of anti-China information, it’s no wonder that anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes have spiked. An ANU study reported that more than 8 out of 10 Asian-Australians experienced discrimination during COVID (the other 2 were me and the other random guy who locked ourselves at home and didn’t dare to venture outside. Seriously, I think during the first lockdown I literally stepped foot outside my house probably only 3–4 times in as many months) and another from the Lowy Institute saying that 1-in-5 were threatened or attacked.
Notice that I’ve been saying Asian, not Chinese. Because Asians all look the same, right? Regardless of whether you’re Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Philippino, Singaporean, Vietnamese or others — when push comes to shove, we all get lumped together, despite how hard we try to make ourselves distinct. Ni hao friends, my problem is your problem.
So let’s bring this home. Literally.
Even before COVID, anti-China propaganda was already in full swing here in Australia. I’m sure you’ve heard about Chinese buyers pushing up house prices (hint: they weren’t) or that they were buying up all the farmland (it was under control). Then you have Tony Abbott making the news for visiting Taiwan as a private citizen and mouthing off against China, and the rhetoric around the continually escalating trade war (which ironically the US is benefiting from at our expense).
It’s now an election year, and the government is invoking China as a bogeyman to scare voters off the opposition with claims that Anthony Albanese is China’s pick, which led to the head of ASIO feeling obliged to go on the record to prevent his organisation from being politicised or made complicit. We’ve had political witch hunts for people with ties to China, and it should come as no surprise that Asians are underrepresented in government.
And from the political sphere to the private: Asians will start being scrutinised and passed over for jobs, starting with higher-level corporate positions, against the risk of IP theft, but ultimately also the rank and file, as growing anti-Asian sentiment causes us — i.e. people like you and me, or if this persists into the future, my son and your children — to become increasingly invisibilized.
There, I’ve stated my case.
Even now, I know some of you will still firmly believe that this is all China’s fault. If only they’d stop abusing human rights, stop preventing democracy, stop vanishing people, stop oppressing minorities, stop spying on people, stop hacking, stop stealing, stop killing then we’d stop calling them out on it.
There aren’t enough lifetimes for me to refute each and every one of those points, but if I could suggest that next time you see something critical of China, take a step back and consider what purpose it serves for them to do that thing. That’s it — a little bit of empathy is all I ask. Little by little we can help dismantle racism.