Chinese and East Asian Communities: Racism during Covid-19

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 13th October 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North 4:30 pm, 13th October 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Chinese and East Asian communities’ experience of racism during the covid-19 pandemic.

I thank Members for joining this debate, which is the first parliamentary debate to look specifically at racism against the Chinese, East Asians and South-East Asians. I will use those terms throughout my speech, because it is vital to get the language right. Chinese, East Asians and South-East Asians have been subjected to horrific hate crimes, especially recently due to the pandemic. I wish we did not have to have this debate, but it is particularly fitting that this is National Hate Crime Awareness Week. Given the sharp rise in hate crime against British East and South-East Asians and the trebling of racist attacks since the covid pandemic, it is absolutely necessary.

I am proud of my roots and my mixed heritage, both Asian and British. It allows me the best of both worlds but, unfortunately, it also allows me to experience some of the worst. Racism against Chinese and South-East Asians is absolutely nothing new. An undercurrent of anti-Asian racism plagued this country before the pandemic started, but now the lid has been lifted and the far right has wrongly been given legitimacy to air its derision, violence and hatred.

From an early age, it was made clear to me that I was seen as different. Sitting backstage at the age of about seven or eight, waiting to perform in a play set in a Chinese courtroom, the person doing our make-up pointed at me and said, “Make the other kids look like her.” The other children had their hair covered in black tights, their eyes coated in exaggerated black eyeliner and I remember sitting there thinking, “Do I really look like that?” Thirty years later, sadly, we still see examples of yellow face all over western culture, whether it is Ting Tong in “Little Britain”, productions of “Madame Butterfly”, Scarlett Johansson or countless examples on Amazon, which has yet to take down its offensive adverts.

Only in my teens, though, did I feel that my racial identity meant that my safety was threatened, when a student brought a knife into school to stab me with because she did not like it when races mixed. I therefore understand the fear and frustration that many British East and South-East Asians are feeling right now, as racists add another powerful tool to their arsenal: coronavirus. A month ago, police chiefs warned that the far right is using covid-19 as an excuse to attack what the Metropolitan police describe as “oriental people”. We do not have enough time in this debate to unpack what is wrong with that term, but it is 2020, not 1920.

The figures obtained by the organisation End the Virus of Racism showed that there were 261 hate crimes against Asians in April, 323 in May and 395 in June, rising each time as lockdown eased. Those do not include the number of hate crimes that have gone under-reported, so I expect the real figures to be much higher, and they are rising across the board: covid-related racism has increased for the Jewish and Muslim communities as well. Protection Approaches reported that this July saw the highest ever numbers of recorded hate crime against protected groups—40% higher than even after 7/7.

In March, Jonathan Mok, a 23-year-old student from Singapore, was punched and kicked in the face on Oxford Street by a group of men. He heard shouts of “Coronavirus!” and was told, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country!” British-Chinese filmmaker Lucy Sheen was on her way to rehearsals on a bus, when a white male passenger whispered in her ear—forgive me for the unparliamentary language: “Why don’t you f-off back to China and take your filth with you?” In Hitchin, just down the road from my constituency, a takeaway owner was spat at and repeatedly asked if he had coronavirus. In Luton, people have been shouted at from cars. One woman wrote to me to say that she no longer feels safe, and walks about with her mask on and a hood up to cover her face.

That is all without looking at the cesspit of social media. During the pandemic, blatant racism and conspiracy theories have been allowed to spread, unchecked and unaccountable. I report racist videos I am sent of people eating live animals or claiming that I am some part of a global conspiracy, but it is exhausting and the onus is on the wrong person. I hope that the Government will address that in the forthcoming online harms Bill. Social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook should be held responsible for what is published on their sites.

Coronavirus has been given the face of a Chinese Asian person. This sort of racism punches up as well as it punches down. Asians are equally dehumanised, to the extent that we are all the same and all eat live animals, as well as somehow being part of a global conspiracy. The mainstream media have added fuel to the fire. The petition started by the fantastic Viv Yau, Mai-anh Peterson, Amy Phung, Charley Wong and Karlie Wu called for media outlets to stop using East and South-East Asian-related imagery when discussing covid-19. Their work has revealed that some 33% of images used to report covid-19 in the British media have used the image of someone who looks like me, completely unnecessarily and unrelated to the story. The problem has been compounded by our under-representation in the UK media, so the negative coverage has no balance by positive representation.

I am grateful to the Minister for Digital and Culture, Caroline Dinenage, for her recent meeting with us to find a way forward on the Government’s own advertising around covid-19. But political leadership, standing up for and standing alongside British East Asians and South-East Asians has been virtually non-existent, and at its worst it has incited further hatred.

Donald Trump this week called covid-19 the “China plague”. We have seen Tory Ministers sharing covid-19 jokes with caricatures of a person in a Chinese pointy hat, bucked teeth and slanting eyes, yet this was not addressed by the party. A Tory council leader said in a meeting that this was all because someone was eating undercooked bat soup in China. Again, that was not addressed by the party.

A couple of weeks ago, two MPs sat in the same room as me and referred to the Chinese—I will quote this unparliamentary language—as “those evil bastards”, and “oh, you know how they look.” They were rightly discussing the awful human rights abuses being carried out by the Chinese state, but this is an othering of an entire ethnicity, which should have no place in society, let alone this House. We need to lead by example. We should absolutely criticise the Chinese state for its appalling abuses against the Uyghur people and actions in Hong Kong, but we need to find a way that does not fuel racism or make Chinese-British East Asians even more vulnerable or fair game to racists. I believe that we can and must do better.

First, we need a clear statement from the Minister that she condemns anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism. It is a basic ask but it is a start, and something that we have yet to hear officially. Secondly, our community must be supported to tackle this unprecedented rise in hate crime. We need targeted support for anti-racism organisations working with the British East and South-East Asian communities. Thirdly, the Government need to work with media outlets to stop the lazy overuse of East Asian imagery in their reporting of covid-19, especially when it bears no relation to the story, and to hold social media companies to account when it comes to ridding their sites of racism and conspiracy theories. Fourthly, include our community in the conversation—give us a seat at the table. Whether it is about financial support, health or messaging on covid-19, the black, Asian and minority ethnic community has been left out of the conversation altogether.

Lastly, I ask the Minister not just to tell us that she is grateful for our contributions, our culture, our skills, our healthcare workers and our businesses. Please act on it. Act on it and let us end the virus of racism for good.