Nearly one in five Chinese-Australians threatened or attacked in past year, survey finds

Daniel Hurst
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Wendell Teodoro/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Wendell Teodoro/AFP/Getty Images

A landmark survey of the Chinese-Australian community has found nearly one in five have been physically threatened or attacked in the past year because of their Chinese heritage – a result likely to spark new calls for action against racism.

Researchers from the Lowy Institute said the “dispiriting” finding showed how the Covid-19 pandemic and worsening tensions in the relationship between the governments of China and Australia were spilling over into experiences of discrimination.

The comments coincided with a senior Chinese diplomat raising alarm about the current political and media climate in Australia, with the deputy head of the embassy in Canberra arguing it was becoming “really difficult to be China’s friend in Australia” amid growing “suspicion”.

The Lowy Institute launched a project, “Being Chinese In Australia: Public Opinion in Chinese Communities”, to gather some firm data after media reports pointed to an increase in abuse and racism directed at Chinese-Australians after the Covid-19 outbreak.

Related: We don’t need China to tell us Australian racism exists – just ask international students | Yang Tian

Of the 1,040 survey respondents, including Australian citizens, permanent residents and long-term visa holders, 18% said they had personally been physically threatened or attacked in the previous 12 months because of their Chinese heritage, while 82% said they had not been.

The findings of the national survey, published on Wednesday, also show about one in three (31%) said they had been called offensive names because they were of Chinese heritage, and 37% said they had been treated differently or less favourably because of their background.

On the flipside, four in 10 respondents (40%) said somebody had expressed support for them because they were of Chinese heritage during the same 12-month period.

Of those participants who reported any of those experiences, two-thirds said they believed the Covid-19 pandemic was a contributing factor, while 52% saw China-Australia relations as a factor.

Dr Jennifer Hsu, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute who co-authored the report with former Australian diplomat Natasha Kassam, said Chinese-Australians have “had it tough with regards to racism and discrimination over the last 12 months”.

Hsu said the “really huge” number of reported physical threats or attacks was “dispiriting”, given that multiculturalism was meant to promote values of cohesion and tolerance.

She said the deterioration in the relationship between China and Australia over the last few years was partly “a response to the Chinese Communist party seeking to influence or interfere with Australian politics”, and that had led to “increased scrutiny on Australians of Chinese background”.

Hsu said everyone involved in public debate, including politicians and the media, should be mindful about how language can “filter down and affect the day-to-day experience of Chinese-Australians”.

She argued there was a need for nuance in the policy debate about the Beijing-Canberra relationship and “to differentiate between someone who is Chinese and the Chinese government”.

“I know for me personally this is something I hope that my child will be taught in school: the concepts of multiculturalism including tolerance, social cohesion, recognising and acknowledging differences.”

Apart from experiences of discrimination, the survey investigated attitudes to a range of issues including Australian culture, belonging and community, foreign interference and security policy, media and news habits and immigration.

It found that 69% of Chinese-Australians surveyed said they personally felt accepted in their day-to-day life as a part of Australian society, although that feeling was strongest among Australian citizens and permanent residents and was lower among long-term visa holders.

Seven in 10 Chinese-Australians also felt a sense of belonging to Australia, either to a great or moderate extent – a figure that was lower than the levels found when the Scanlon Foundation surveyed the Australian population in its 2020 social cohesion project.

Related: Toughing out Covid: how Australia’s social fabric held together during a once-in-a-century crisis

While most Chinese-Australians expressed attachment to both Australia and China, about 46% of the sample indicated they were personally concerned about the influence of China on Australia’s political processes.

That was much lower than the 82% level of concern about China’s influence that was identified in a parallel Lowy-commissioned survey of the Australian population.

Two-thirds of the Chinese-Australians surveyed said they saw China as more of an economic partner to Australia than a security threat. But at the same time, two in three in the sample said they would support imposing travel and financial sanctions on Chinese officials associated with human rights abuses.

The project also found 84% of Chinese-Australians surveyed used the Chinese social media platform WeChat to read Chinese language news, either often (34%) or sometimes (50%).

The Lowy Institute report said this high level of reliance on WeChat for news “may affect respondents’ perception of political events in Australia, as WeChat routinely censors content, even outside China”.

The report comes amid ongoing tensions in the relationship between China and Australia.

The deputy head of the Chinese embassy in Australia, Wang Xining, rejected “totally ridiculous” fears that China posed a threat to Australia’s sovereignty and security, in a transcript of a speech posted on the Chinese mission’s website this week.

Wang said it appeared politicians had to take a “stern face against China” in order to “win the heart of the Australian population”.

Speaking to a Chinese New Year Dinner hosted by the Australia China Business Council ACT, Wang said friends of China were given a nickname “panda-hugger”, which used to be a term of appreciation but now carried a derogatory meaning.

Wang raised concern about the impression many people in Australia would get “if these people are immersed by those negative portraits of China by the major media outlets and brainwashed by the vulgarised and simplified political slogans”.

Wang said both countries had managed to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic successfully, but argued the relationship was being undermined by unfounded suspicion.