Cumberland City Councilor Kun Huang received the letter on a Monday. Among the insults about his name, the threats of death, the blame for the COVID-19 pandemic, and accusations that he had been stealing all the milk powder, buying up all the houses and bringing disease to Australia “for centuries,” the council staff noticed a name and an address. This was a race hate letter signed by its supposed perpetrator.
Two days later, Sydney City Councilor Craig Chung, Georges River Councilor Christina Wu and another local councilor received similar letters.
The note sent to Huang, which threatened him and “all Chinese people” with death, is being investigated by New South Wales police.
Illustration: Mountain People
It is the latest disturbing incident in what data show is a surge in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment in Australia during the pandemic that has renewed calls for a centralized hate tracker and raised concerns that it is dissuading people from running for public office.
The Lowy Institute this week released the findings of a landmark survey that found nearly one in five Chinese Australians had experienced physical racist assaults during the pandemic.
Community group Asian Australian Alliance also released new data showing that 499 people had self-reported a racist incident since April last year — with the vast majority being women.
The group has been tracking anti-Asian and anti-Chinese incidents since April last year. It received 178 responses in its first two weeks.
The Scanlon Foundation’s report on social cohesion, which is released every year and tracks Australian attitudes toward migrants and multiculturalism, found that there has been “heightened negative sentiment toward Chinese nationals” last year and this year.
While 84 percent of respondents said that multiculturalism was generally good for Australia — there was a sharp divide when people were asked about some specific groups.
In November last year, 44 percent of respondents said that they had “very negative” or “somewhat negative” feelings toward Chinese Australians — a nearly threefold increase from 13 percent in 2013.
Community members have said that levels of anti-Chinese sentiment have been fanned by the pandemic, former US president Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and also a political and media atmosphere that encourages a “creeping distrust” of Australians of Chinese heritage.
However, this is far from new. Those that have experienced it have said that it reflects an element of racism that has long existed in Australia’s community.
The racist letters sent out this week reference media panics about Chinese people buying milk powder and infant formula in the 2010s, inflating property prices, or sending medical equipment to China during the pandemic.
“Before the Chinese disease started, you bought out every products [sic] off of our shelves,” the letter said. “You stole all of our toilet paper and shipped it all to China.”
Huang, who was elected to the Cumberland City Council in 2017, said that he has noticed the level of anti-Chinese hate increase over the past year.
“I have been a councilor for three-and-a-half years now. I have never received anything like this before,” he said. “The council staff gave me a call and warned me, saying: ‘Look councilor, we received a disgusting letter that was addressed to you. Do you want to see it?’”
“I thought: ‘Yes.’ I have worked for federal and state MPs before. I had seen a lot of crazy letters. I said: ‘Send it through.’ Then I realized: ‘Wow, this letter is disgusting.’ There is no other way to describe it,” Huang added.
The letter to him and other councilors, who represent different political parties, wrongly said that only “white Australians” had “built Australia” and called for Chinese people to be killed by “fumigation.”
“I do not give a fuck if you are born here or not,” the letter stated.
Huang puts the rise in anti-Chinese racism down to “a combination of things.”
“Obviously the pandemic, you have Trump in America, and also the [media] reports about Chinese Australians,” Huang said. “They have also helped create this kind of suspicion toward the Asian community.”
A souring of Australia’s diplomatic and trade relationship with China over the past two or three years has coincided with a “creeping distrust” of people of Chinese heritage, said Osmond Chiu, a researcher at the progressive think tank Per Capita.
In October last year, Chiu was grilled by Australian Senator Eric Abetz in what Chiu called a “McCarthyist” loyalty test. Chiu and two other Chinese Australians appeared before a Senate committee to talk about the under-representation of non-white people in the Australian Parliament.
He was abruptly asked by Abetz, “to very briefly tell me whether they are willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] dictatorship.”
Chiu, who was born in Australia, and has publicly criticized in writing the Chinese government and its treatment of minorities, such as the Uighurs, was nevertheless still put under the spotlight.
Abetz has said that his questioning had “nothing to do with race and everything to do with values.”
Chiu said that his experience was reflective of how “the conversation has started changing over the past three years.”
The discussion of China as a foreign threat used to be mostly the domain of foreign policy aficionados, he said.
“Whereas, as a result of two things — firstly, China’s actions in Hong Kong, as well as COVID-19 — it has now seeped into the mainstream,” Chiu added.
In media, politics and on the street, “people who were traditionally not that interested in China, are now talking about it as a threat,” he said. “I think it has really cut through publicly in the last year or two.”
In December last year, the BBC published a story that interviewed several public servants of Chinese heritage, who said that they had been “questioned by colleagues” for taking trips to China or learning Chinese at Confucius Institutes.
This is in part due to the way that the CCP operates in “shadowy” ways, but this suspicion has resulted in an “inversion” of the burden of proof, Chiu said.
“If you are of Chinese heritage or have any potential links to China, however tenuous they might be, you have to prove you do not have links,” he said. “Even expressing that you don’t support [the CCP] is enough. You almost need to show an evangelical zeal.”
“There are plenty of examples where someone has been accused of having links — all you need to do is be in a photo with someone, be in an organization with someone. It’s almost enough — it’s not like you have to have done something,” Chiu said.
“It is a challenging thing — which makes this conversation much more difficult. Distrust may be subconscious rather than overt ... but it kind of eats away at people and it is very corrosive. It challenges this idea that everyone is equal,” Chiu added.
The political right and left are expressing distrust — a change in the past two years, said Asian Australian Alliance convener Erin Wen Ai Chew, who organized the racist incident tracker.
“This is one of the first few times we have seen that blurring of lines between the right and the left,” she said.
Chew also makes the point that while a lot of surveys show negative sentiment toward Chinese “nationals,” people often cannot tell someone’s nationality — whether they were born in Australia or overseas — from appearances.
This means that anti-Chinese sentiment frequently spills over into anti-Asian sentiment, she said.
An equivalent tracking project in the US, called Stop AAPI [Asian Americans and Pacific Islander] Hate, recorded more than 2,800 incidents between March and December last year.
Chew drew links between the data on racist assaults in Australia with a spate of assaults in the US, which are making international news.
“We have to remember that Australia is a consumer of anything and everything American — in terms of politics and media,” Chew said.
“When Trump was president and kept calling it the China virus, it just normalized that. Those who may or may not have racist intentions might see it as: ‘Well, if the president of the US calls it the ‘China virus,’ we can say that, too.’”
Australia should commit to a national database to track and record incidents of racist violence, which Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan had called for, she said.
“California just passed a bill with US$1.4 million to track and put money into tracking anti-Asian hate,” Chew said. “In Australia, it needs to be centralized.”
Chung, who also received the letter, said that he does not “want to really shine a spotlight on the author of the letter, because that is what they are seeking.”
“I truly believe the best way we can combat racism is through community activism and involvement,” he said. “It is important that we as leaders stand up.”
However, anti-Chinese sentiment, from the left and the right, is having an effect on political representation, and dampening the voices of Asian Australians, Chung added.
“The last two years have been particularly damaging,” he said.
“A very prominent Asian Australian, when I was asking them if they would consider running for office, they said these last two years have been terrible, and they said now is not the time for a Chinese Australian to run for office,” Chung said. “That to me is a terribly sad outcome. And that person wasn’t from my party. I strongly support them.”
Chung’s family has been in Australia for four generations, since 1882, but like Chiu, he said that it should not need to be said to prove someone’s independence from China.
“All of us who are not Aborigines come from other parts of the world,” he said.
Wu, who received the letter, said: “It’s absolutely disgusting. It’s a reflection on them.”
Chiu, who is also an organizer of the hate incident tracker, makes the point that the surge of racism during the pandemic is linked to historical racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
A “multitude of factors” underpin this racism, including “issues about property prices, migrant labor as well — those historic things,” he said.
“The vast majority of people, if they knew an immigrant from China, would not have any negative sentiment,” Chiu said. “But this abstract idea of migrants from China taps into a deeper, historical concern, about a changing Australia.”
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