People are seen out in Chinatown on November 18, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia.
Daniel Pockett/Getty Images
May 20, 2022 6:49 AM EDT

Politics can be cutthroat, but Australian businessman Jason Yat-sen Li wasn’t expecting to have his loyalty to his country questioned when he ran for a seat in the New South Wales legislative assembly in a mid-February by-election.

His sister-in-law and several others told him that they had been approached at polling stations by voters bandying rumors. “They’d say, ‘Jason is associated with the Chinese Communist Party,’ and things like that,” he tells TIME.

Li, whose parents came to Australia from China more than 60 years ago, isn’t sure who was behind it, nor does he think it was sanctioned by his rival’s campaign. But while he won the by-election, he does think discrimination against Chinese Australians—who make up just under 5% of the country’s 26 million population—is being exacerbated by the anti-China rhetoric that’s become a feature of the May 21 federal polls.

Scott Morrison, Australia's prime minister, arrives at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. "We remain committed to engagement with China," Morrison said. (Mark Graham/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Scott Morrison, Australia's prime minister, arrives at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. "We remain committed to engagement with China," Morrison said.
Mark Graham/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Australian politicians getting tough on China

Although issues like the economy and cost of living are front and center of the campaign, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party has positioned himself as tough on China—even making baseless claims that opposition leader Anthony Albanese is Beijing’s preferred candidate. On Feb. 16, Morrison also called the opposition Labor Party’s deputy leader Richard Marles a Manchurian candidate—implying that Marles was a puppet of Beijing. Although the remarks were later withdrawn, last week the prime minister taunted Marles for having what Morrison described a “strangely high” number of meetings with Chinese diplomats.

Meanwhile, defense minister Peter Dutton announced at a May 13 press conference that a Chinese spy ship had been spotted off the coast of Western Australia. While Dutton called it an “act of aggression,” a senator from the Greens party called it a “desperate” move to make people “scared” and former prime minister Kevin Rudd dismissed Dutton as an “idiot.”

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Such rhetoric doesn’t just come from the Liberal Party, however. The Labor Party has rolled out ads on social media raising national security concerns about Hong-Kong-born Liberal member of parliament Gladys Liu. In 2019, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation claimed that Liu had past ties with “a Hong Kong-based organisation that experts say is affiliated with China’s efforts to exert influence on foreign governments and expatriate Chinese.”

Fringe groups have made things even worse. A truck-mounted billboard featuring a photo of Chinese president Xi Jinping, casting a ballot with the text “Vote Labor,” was driven around Parliament House in Canberra in March. The billboard was backed by the conservative lobbying group Advance Australia.

 

Australia’s history of anti-Asian racism

The political establishment likes to tout Australia as a model multicultural society, but anti-Asian racism has deep roots. Starting in the late 19th century, a series of laws aimed at restricting Chinese migration to Australia were passed, eventually evolving into the “White Australia” policy that prevented migration by non-Europeans for much of the 20th century.

The painful legacy of that discrimination has been compounded by the pandemic. Relations between China and Australia deteriorated markedly in 2020, when Australia called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, and Beijing responded by blacklisting some Australian exports. In 2021, 18% of Chinese-Australians were physically threatened or attacked because of their Chinese heritage, and 34% were discriminated against because of it, according to the report Being Chinese in Australia, released last month by think-tank the Lowy Institute. The advocacy group Asian Australian Alliance has recorded more than 600 reports of abuse and attacks against Asian Australians since April 2020.

June Loh is of Chinese descent and moved to Australia from Singapore about 15 years ago, settling in Melbourne. She says racism has increased over the last two years. Her husband was called a “cockroach” as he walked down the street, and a man threw her and her son’s bags off a bench at the local swimming pool. Loh, who works in real estate, says that her signboards have also been vandalized with abusive graffiti about COVID-19.

Read More: Anti-Asian Attacks and Hate Crimes on the Rise Worldwide

It’s changed the way that the 42-year-old and her family behave. “We are more aware of our surroundings. We used to like to go to country towns but now, there’s this fear of, ‘Oh it’s going to be so white, will we face racism? We used to go out at night—now we’re like, hm, maybe not a good idea.'”

Other Asian Australians have had similar experiences. Politician Sally Sitou, who is running in the upcoming federal election for a seat in the suburban Sydney electorate of Reid, posted on Twitter about abuse she’s received. “My loyalties have only ever been to Australia,” she wrote.

Worsening conditions for Asian Australians

Advocates say that the tone of anti-Asian racism has changed as the result of the anti-China rhetoric used during the election campaign. Erin Wen Ai Chew, the co-founder of the Asian Australian Alliance, says the government and tabloid media have focused on China being an enemy of Australia, which has fueled a divisive mentality. “We are now perceived as all suspicious and our loyalties get questioned.”

Li says that anti-Asian racism has changed from what he describes as “schoolyard-type racism” that he faced at school. “Now, it’s much more dangerous because it’s not about what you like, which is just at the surface. It’s about what you believe, what your values are, where your allegiances lie and can you be trusted.”

He continues: “I don’t think it’s something that we’ve dealt with before. There are kind of loose similarities with, for instance, terrorism and anti-Muslim sentiments. It’s a specific country with a specific government that is being described, politically as a threat, and that rubs off on domestic populations that have cultural and family ties … with that place.”

Campaign posters displayed outside an early polling station in the Box Hill suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, on Friday, May 13, 2022. (Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Campaign posters displayed outside an early polling station in the Box Hill suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, on Friday, May 13, 2022.
Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In Melbourne, Loh says she didn’t dare leave her office for several hours recently when a rally by the United Australia Party took place nearby. The fringe, right-wing group has made unsubstantiated claims that an airport in Western Australia, built by Chinese-owned Sino Iron to fly workers in and out of the remote site, could be used in a Chinese military invasion. (Many big mines in Western Australia have such airports, regardless of ownership.)

“During this campaign, they’ve just charged people people’s emotions, making people fearful of Chinese people, creating anger,” Loh says.

Li agrees that the environment has become highly politicized. “I hope that when the election is over,” he says, “at least this rhetoric, this drums-of war-stuff, can subside from the public discourse.”

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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com.

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