Chinese and East Asian Communities: Racism during Covid-19

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:09 pm on 13th October 2020.

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Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:09 pm, 13th October 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, on your first day in the Chair. I thank Sarah Owen for securing this vital debate, and hon. Members for their many contributions. It was powerful to hear about the experiences of the hon. Lady, particularly when she was at school, and the frightening experiences that she was subjected to. Also, however, the account of Catherine West, including the experience of one of the mental health workers in her constituency, was very powerful, as was the speech by Kim Johnson, in which she outlined some of the historic events in her constituency, which are still felt very acutely by the community there.

I am sure that some hon. Members will know that one of the most famous poems in the Chinese language is actually about this country. The poem “On Leaving Cambridge”, by Xu Zhimo, was written nearly a hundred years ago. However, it has stood the test of time, not just in the canon of Chinese literature but as a powerful symbol of the ties that bind our country with the Chinese-speaking world. These ties connect with every part of our national life, from the people we elect to this House to our educational establishments, and from the food we eat to our own language. Few communities can claim to have had such a powerful effect on our culture, and people of Chinese and East Asian heritage have been particularly successful at integrating into the fabric of our society. Equally, few countries can claim to have been as tolerant and as welcoming as the United Kingdom, a place where people of all ethnicities are free to lead successful and rewarding lives.

I deeply regret that the covid-19 pandemic has brought out the very, very worst in a small minority of our citizens. Chinese and East Asian communities, through absolutely no fault of their own, have had to contend with a significant and completely unacceptable rise in hostility towards them, as has already been outlined. According to police reporting, in the period following the start of the pandemic, Chinese and South-East Asian citizens accounted for 1% to 2% of all hate crime victims, but they accounted for 12% to 18% of the victims of hate crimes where covid-19 was mentioned.

As the hon. Member for Luton North said, people were rightly horrified at the dreadful assault on Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student who was badly injured in central London. It is also very disturbing to read and hear about other such attacks. Although they are rarely as violent as the one I have just mentioned, we can all agree—quite clearly, there is a consensus in Westminster Hall today on this issue—that such incidents are abhorrent, and totally and utterly unacceptable in the United Kingdom in 2020.

I am equally concerned by reports of people experiencing lower levels of intolerance. Although those actions have not always been criminal, they are undoubtedly immoral, dehumanising and totally distressing to the individuals who have to hear and live with such comments. This type of prejudice has also had an impact on Chinese businesses, which had found themselves struggling for custom even before the lockdown began.

My Department works closely with Chinese and East Asian community organisations, and in those early weeks of the pandemic we engaged with communities where we could see that tensions were rising. We held community events and spoke to community members. They told us of a sudden change, and of increasingly negative social attitudes towards anyone believed to be Chinese. They reported the fear and anxiety experienced by people who had not faced such hostility before. They also expressed concern that their communities were not always well served by portrayals in the media, not least the labelling of covid-19 in some quarters as “the Chinese virus”, as has been outlined by a number of Members here today. I am totally against such labelling.

One of the comments by the hon. Member for Luton North was about the “cesspit” of social media. We are in agreement on that point. After this debate, I hope that the media will reflect on their use of images when reporting on covid-19. I absolutely understand the pain and anguish caused to individuals who are living in the United Kingdom. Obviously, as outlined, the online harms White Paper is coming, and one of the commitments in that is to form a communications campaign about hate crime. Part of that will involve working through some of those issues with the Society of Editors and the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

I want to be clear, as Members in the Chamber have said, that no single community is responsible for the spread of the disease, and no single person should face abuse for it, in any way, shape or form. We, this Government, condemn that completely. We condemned it at the time—the Minister for Faith and Communities did so publicly, and so did the Home Secretary—and I, today, condemn it again.