Keeara Ofren interviews Hanna Lu, University of Auckland student and researcher of Chinese New Zealand history.
As Aotearoa is in lockdown, we have become reliant on technology more than ever for communication and news. But what does that mean for us when the media grows prone to conspiracy and fear?
Since the news broke of a zoonotic disease breaking out in China, reports of Anti-Asian racism have increased internationally, from microaggressions to vicious beatings and vandalism. Fake news spread quickly of a ‘bat soup’ used to propel the view that Chinese people were ‘disgusting’ and ‘barbaric’. Instead of thinking critically about the cultural and political factors which aggravated the pandemic, politics of hygiene set the stage for legitimising acts of violence.
Sociologist Srirupa Prasad discusses this concept regarding the SARS phenomenon. By assigning feelings of ‘dirty’ or ‘contagion’ to a group, the emotional reaction can yield nationalistic feelings of anxiety, a need to shun this threat.
Recent reports have emerged about a series of bizarre sponsored posts from self-proclaimed white supremacist individuals New Zealand. Indeed, these may not be limited to the dark corners of the internet but internalised. Incidents of racial profiling have been reported at Countdown Meadowbank, with Asian customers questioned by staff regarding their travel movements upon entry. A spokesperson for Countdown on behalf of Countdown Meadowbank said in response to the reports of racial profiling “we’re sorry to hear this. Our team are working under incredible pressure at the moment as I’m sure you can understand. We continue to expect our team to treat every customer with courtesy and respect.”
As expert opinion becomes drowned out with anecdotal evidence and seemingly potent emotional appeals, messages of cyber safety become increasingly outdated and ineffective. According to the Washington Post, Facebook’s moderators are unable to work from home due to confidentiality agreements, leaving algorithms to assess posts for removal. This delay is exploited by proponents of far-right views and fake news. Unless the moderation issue gets fixed and there is an active challenge to such rhetoric in our society, acts of racism will only continue.
I interviewed UoA student Hanna, to hear her views on the situation.
What are your feelings about recent incidents of anti-Asian racism on the internet or in person?
Anti-Asian racism has always circulated — and it all comes together during times of stress. I seize up a little and know to be extra careful for my personal safety every time China or anything Chinese is mentioned negatively in the news. This time it’s worse because of COVID-19’s reach and scale. Almost every Chinese person I know went into isolation early to stay safe, but even that hasn’t been enough to help us avoid it entirely. My mum has been yelled at the very few times she’s gone shopping, and I don’t go on walks any more, not because I’m afraid of catching the virus but because of family fears for my safety.
The incidents that I see, experience or hear of emphasise the precarity of any positive perceptions of Chinese people that do exist. There’s love of boba, or admiration of China’s economy, or idealisation of ‘Confucian values’, or the idea of Chinese people as the ‘model minority’ which sets us up in opposition to other people of colour — but that is abandoned whenever it is convenient.
Many New Zealanders will want to think critically about how China has suppressed whistleblowers and media in the pandemic. But this thinking has also straddled into conspiracy and racist whistleblowing. So, I wanted to know your response to that.
Chinese people are not a monolith. Chinese New Zealanders can’t take responsibility for what the Chinese government does — neither can Chinese people in China, for that matter, and if there’s anything they deserve, it’s sympathy for what they have to face.
Do you think sinophobia is becoming emboldened here in New Zealand, or, is it simply an incarnation of sinophobia in New Zealand’s history through times of uncertainty, or is it both?
New Zealand has certainly had a history of sinophobia, ever since Chinese people first arrived in the 1860s. The accusations were all the usual ones we’ve seen throughout the world: that Chinese people were a threat to Western survival, that they carried disease, that they were both physically inferior and would wrest from New Zealanders what rightfully belonged to them.
Not everyone thought this way, but those who did were able to transform these ideas into law. Some examples: the poll tax (100 pounds from 1896) which only Chinese arrivals had to pay, the abolishment of naturalisation fees for all except Chinese people in 1892, their exclusion from old age pensions in 1898, the 1901 Opium Prohibition Act that gave police the right to enter Chinese homes without a search warrant, and the 1908 cessation of naturalisation for Chinese people.
Sinophobia has been strongest during times of uncertainty — in the Depression, for example, especially in the conversation on labour when some unionists blamed Chinese workers for accepting lower wages.
Recent incidents of sinophobia seem to be reincarnations of these old views. I’d say that racist people, for the most part, aren’t very imaginative.
I am concerned about enclaves of racism (especially online) where it festers and grows and gives its participants no way out.
If you could tell New Zealanders one thing about your experience as a Kiwi Asian, and researcher of Chinese experiences in New Zealand, what would it be?
Racism has real costs — to health, safety, and our political wellbeing. Perhaps that doesn’t matter to its perpetrators, but I think it all comes from a simple kind of fear that assumes ‘New Zealander’ is a distinct identity, when it is not. Alienation is not going to protect anyone from becoming ill, or from any future pathogens that we will encounter.