One of the most popular Asian stereotypes is the doctor. Often depicted as calm, collected, with robotic-like intelligence, the Asian doctor swoops in to save the day. However, even when 20% of total National Health Service health occupations in the United Kingdom are BAME (Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic), and the 44% of BAME medical roles specifically are mostly Asian and Chinese, the stereotype of the Asian doctor has not prevailed in the fight against the Coronavirus. Far from celebrated, Asian-Britons, many of whom are putting their lives at risk to help protect the community, are facing an unprecedented hostility.
(For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the East Asian experience when I say “Asian”. It is a frustrating umbrella term; South Asian – and particularly Indian – populations have had an entirely separate history with British colonialism, but of course there is some overlap worth acknowledging.)
With government minister Michael Gove’s statements on the failings of China’s reporting, President Donald Trump’s vague remarks on China’s accountability and allusions in the press to biowarfare, politicians and news outlets alike are leaning on the “Blame China” narrative.
Much of this accusatory reporting is not without justification; claims of governmental “cover-ups” have been supported by the expulsion of Western journalists and the persecution of Chinese doctor and whistle-blower Li Wenliang (who was later formally exonerated). The Communist Party has also sent little aid to countries in need and spokespeople for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs even made combative claims that it was the United States who brought the virus to Wuhan.
"The message behind this apathy rings clear: Asians are dangerous, and so is helping them."
However, these reports have been accompanied by an unprecedented surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. Chinese-owned businesses have been vandalised with racist graffiti like “F*ck off home china scum” and “We don't want you here f*ck off” (both written on the walls of Tin Sing Take-away on High Street, Quarry Bank). As The Monitoring Group, a leading anti-racist charity points out, the vandalism of Chinese shops is particularly traumatic as owners often live above their businesses; the charity has received multiple reports of people feeling like they cannot escape the racist attacks they are victim to.
Corona-related anti-Asian attacks are not exclusive to Chinese populations. In Kent, a Japanese person, profiled as Chinese, was urinated on in public. Singaporean student Jonathan Mok was assaulted on Oxford Street in London, sustaining multiple facial fractures as his attackers screamed “I don't want your coronavirus.” Clearly “Chinese” is now not only a blind insult, but an insult that merits physical violence.
These attacks have been met not with outrage but with complacency, even by those who witness them. Why, when a student was spat at on the tube and cried out for help did no one come to her aid? Perhaps it is out of fear of infection, as cited by the bystanders who refused to give a Chinese man life-saving CPR in Sydney. Or perhaps it is from fear of the sort of violent retaliation faced by Meera Solanki, a woman punched in the face after confronting the man who told her Chinese friend to “"take your f***ing coronavirus and take it back home”. The incident resulted in her hospitalisation and an obliged week off work. The message behind this apathy rings clear: Asians are dangerous, and so is helping them.
"There were 267 anti-Asian hate crimes in the UK between January and March, which is already 70% of the total last year."
There were 267 anti-Asian hate crimes in the UK between January and March, which is already 70% of the total last year. With Asians, specifically Chinese groups, being less likely to report hate-crimes, the number could be much higher, and that is to say nothing of the non-violent but nonetheless damaging feelings of anxiety and fear.
Despite this, there has been little effort from the Home Secretary or leading British politicians to condemn these crimes, let alone actively work against them. Even within the few conversations taking place, the effect of these hate crimes is devalued. In a statement on the topic, Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, the national policing lead for hate crime, told Sky News they have had reports about a “small number of offenders”. The Liberal Democrats party, comparatively vocal on the issue, has urged the Home Secretary to “condemn this pernicious new form of racism”.
Anti-Asian racism is far from “new.” Asians have long been associated with contamination, both social and viral. This association is closely tied to the “model immigrant myth” which formed the foundation of Asian-American identity and set precedence for how we view migrant Asians.
The Chinese Exclusion act was instigated in 1882 in the US and was the first law to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating. This was followed by a series of large-scale attacks launched on Chinese-Americans called the “Driving Out” period, including the largest mass lynching in American history. During this time, Chinese communities were consistently blamed for smallpox outbreaks and the bubonic plague, a narrative used to legitimate the withholding of medical attention and social rights.
The travel restrictions were repealed in 1965. However, Asian immigrants were largely welcomed back in order to squash black civil rights, using the prototype of the “model Asian immigrant” to justify black exploitation by comparison. In other words, the acceptance of Asians in the West was conditional.
"The rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes is not an isolated moment, but rather another stitch in the rich fabric of Asian diaspora history."
The conditional acceptance of Asian immigrants manifests today in assumptions around complacency and passivity, a stereotype most extreme for women. Surmised by Cathy Park Hong in Minor Feelings, “Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post racial we’re silicon.”
It is worth noting here that, unlike black communities, the assumption of passivity has largely granted us great privileges. It is largely due to this systemic invalidation that anti-Asian racism is often disregarded; since Asians have been granted privileges, racial attacks are seen as an impossibility.
The rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes is not an isolated moment, but rather another stitch in the rich fabric of Asian diaspora history. Time has revealed a pattern wherein the place of the Asian immigrant population is violently called into question when Asia poses a threat to the West. We saw this during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and we are seeing it now as hate crimes are treated as collateral damage in pursuit of the true enemy: China.
Solidarity with Asian diasporas is not a concession to the CCP’s agenda. The behaviour of the CCP need not invalidate, or even inform, the lived reality of our British Asians, and to believe otherwise denies Asian immigrants their individualism. The omission of the concurrent rise in xenophobia from the “Blame China” narrative, however unintended, tells our British Asian populous that their marginalisation is unimportant, deserved or imagined. We tell them that they do not warrant the same respect and protection as their white counterparts.
Yes, the CCP’s propaganda, abhorrent treatment of Uyghur populations and abuse of Hong Kong protestors absolutely needs press. The notion that it is impossible, or unnecessary, to criticise the CCP whilst actively supporting our Asian communities and denouncing the racist hate crimes they are being subjected to is a false propagation. This is an assumption forged from colonial bias, not a post-racial society. Through the simple expression of empathy for British Asians, we can disrupt the idea that Asia is an unwelcome and homogeneous force, void of value beyond what it can offer the West.