Politics can be cutthroat, but Australian businessman Jason Yat-sen Li wasn’t expecting to have his loyalty to his country questioned when he ran for a seat in the New South Wales legislative assembly in a mid-February by-election.
A sister-in-law, as well as several other people, told him they were being approached by polling station voters to spread rumors. “They’d say, ‘Jason is associated with the Chinese Communist Party,’ and things like that,” he tells TIME.
Li, whose parents came to Australia from China more than 60 years ago, isn’t sure who was behind it, nor does he think it was sanctioned by his rival’s campaign. But while he won the by-election, he does think discrimination against Chinese Australians—who make up just under 5% of the country’s 26 million population—is being exacerbated by the anti-China rhetoric that’s become a feature of the May 21 federal polls.
Scott Morrison (Australia’s Prime Minister) arrives at Canberra’s National Press Club on Monday February 1, 2021. Morrison declared, “We remain committed towards engagement with China.”
Mark Graham/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Australian politicians get tough with China
Although issues like the economy and cost of living are front and center of the campaign, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party has positioned himself as tough on China—even making baseless claims that opposition leader Anthony Albanese is Beijing’s preferred candidate. On Feb. 16, Morrison also called the opposition Labor Party’s deputy leader Richard Marles a Manchurian candidate—implying that Marles was a puppet of Beijing. Although the remarks were later withdrawn, last week the prime minister taunted Marles for having what Morrison described a “strangely high” number of meetings with Chinese diplomats.
Meanwhile, Peter Dutton (defense minister) announced during a May 13, press conference that a Chinese spy boat had been seen off Western Australia. While Dutton called it an “act of aggression,” a senator from the Greens party called it a “desperate” move to make people “scared” and former prime minister Kevin Rudd dismissed Dutton as an “idiot.”
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Such rhetoric doesn’t just come from the Liberal Party, however. Labor Party’s ads about social media have raised security concerns over Gladys Liu (a Liberal member of parliament who is Hong Kong-born). In 2019, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation claimed that Liu had past ties with “a Hong Kong-based organisation that experts say is affiliated with China’s efforts to exert influence on foreign governments and expatriate Chinese.”
Things have gotten worse thanks to fringe groups. A truck-mounted billboard featuring a photo of Chinese president Xi Jinping, casting a ballot with the text “Vote Labor,” was driven around Parliament House in Canberra in March. Advance Australia, a conservative lobbying organization, supported the billboard.
Australia’s history of anti-Asian racism
Although the political establishment loves to portray Australia as an example of multiculturalism, anti-Asian racist tendencies are deep-rooted. Starting in the late 19th century, a series of laws aimed at restricting Chinese migration to Australia were passed, eventually evolving into the “White Australia” policy that prevented migration by non-Europeans for much of the 20th century.
That discrimination’s painful legacy has been made worse by the current pandemic. The relationship between Australia and China deteriorated significantly in 2020. Australia requested an inquiry into COVID-19’s origins, to which Beijing replied by blacklisting certain Australian exports. According to the report, in 2021 18% of Chinese-Australians felt physically or verbally threatened by their Chinese heritage and 34% suffered discrimination. Being Chinese in AustraliaThe Lowy Institute, a think tank, released the following month. Asian Australian Alliance, an advocacy group, has received over 600 reports of attacks and abuse against Asian Australians in the past year.
June Loh is an Australian of Chinese descent. She moved to Australia about 15 years back from Singapore, and eventually settled in Melbourne. In the two-years since her marriage, she says that racism has increased. Her husband was called a “cockroach” as he walked down the street, and a man threw her and her son’s bags off a bench at the local swimming pool. Loh who is a real estate agent claims that abusive graffiti has been placed on her signs about COVID-19.
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It’s changed the way that the 42-year-old and her family behave. “We are more aware of our surroundings. We used to like to go to country towns but now, there’s this fear of, ‘Oh it’s going to be so white, will we face racism? We used to go out at night—now we’re like, hm, maybe not a good idea.’”
Many other Asian Australians also have similar stories. Sally Sitou is a politician running for the seat in Reid’s suburban Sydney electorate. posted on Twitter about abuse she’s received. “My loyalties have only ever been to Australia,” she wrote.
For Asian Australians, worsening economic conditions
The anti-China rhetoric during the election campaign, advocates claim has caused a shift in anti-Asian racism. Erin Wen Ai Chew co-founded the Asian Australian Alliance. According to her, tabloid media as well as the government focused on China’s enemy status, creating divisions. “We are now perceived as all suspicious and our loyalties get questioned.”
Li says that anti-Asian racism has changed from what he describes as “schoolyard-type racism” that he faced at school. “Now, it’s much more dangerous because it’s not about what you like, which is just at the surface. It’s about what you believe, what your values are, where your allegiances lie and can you be trusted.”
He continues: “I don’t think it’s something that we’ve dealt with before. These are some of the commonalities with, for example, anti-Muslim sentiments and terrorism. It’s a specific country with a specific government that is being described, politically as a threat, and that rubs off on domestic populations that have cultural and family ties … with that place.”
On Friday, May 13th, 2022, campaign posters were displayed at an early polling station in Box Hill, Victoria.
Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images
In Melbourne, Loh says she didn’t dare leave her office for several hours recently when a rally by the United Australia Party took place nearby. Unsubstantiated claims have been made by the fringe right-wing group that a Western Australian airport, constructed in Sino Iron’s name to allow workers to travel in and out from remote locations, might be used for a Chinese military invasion. These airports are found in many large mines across Western Australia, no matter who they belong to.
“During this campaign, they’ve just charged people people’s emotions, making people fearful of Chinese people, creating anger,” Loh says.
Li agreed that the current environment has been highly politicized. “I hope that when the election is over,” he says, “at least this rhetoric, this drums-of war-stuff, can subside from the public discourse.”
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