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'There's always been the light-hearted 'the Chinese are a great bunch of lads' comments - but things have changed'

Anti-Asian abuse has increased in Ireland and around the world during the pandemic, including in memes, posts and videos.

FOR MOONYOUNG HONG, the killing of six Asian-American women on 16 March in Atlanta, Georgia was the latest incident in an unrelenting time of anti-Asian violence around the world and a tipping point for her to speak up. 

The PhD researcher in the School of English at Trinity College said the relative silence in Ireland toward the anti-Asian hate movement, in comparison with global actions, left her feeling neglected and somewhat vulnerable.  

Being from South Korea, Moonyoung says she has frequently been the target of abuse since she arrived in Ireland to study in 2015, but remarks since the onset of the pandemic have become more frequent and tend to “always refers to being Chinese”. 

“The way racism is being manifested is definitely through words and language coming from anti-Chinese sentiments,” she said, “and it does seem like the frustration or the anger is coming from how the Chinese government is being portrayed in the media.”

What started as an open letter – by Moonyoung and fellow Trinity postgraduate student Xi-Ning Wang – calling for action and an anti-Asian racism campaign has become Asian Alliance Ireland -  the first dedicated group to represent the Asian community in the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR).

A record 700 racist incidents were recorded by INAR in 2020 in Ireland, up from 530 in 2019. 16% of these incidents were against South Asians, while another 16% were against Chinese and people from other Asian countries – though many are believed to have gone unreported.

Accounting for 32% of reported racist incidents, Asian people are the second most commonly discriminated against group in Ireland – just behind the grouping of Black-African, Black-Irish and Black-Other who experienced 33% of all criminal cases in 2020. 

“Oftentimes it’s so subtle or it’s something that feels like it’s not worth going to the gardaí about it,” said Moonyoung. “So I think a lot of the time you just repress it or you just don’t really talk about it, and you just get on with it.”

Asian people were the victims of more than one-third of the most serious incidents logged in INAR’s racist incident reporting system - iReport - involving assaults and threats to kill or harm. 

INAR’s annual report also details several cases of assault and harassment towards the Asian community in the last year, including the repeated harassment of two Chinese-run businesses by groups who attacked them with racial slurs and references to Covid-19, resulting in criminal damage. 

INAR says these are hate crimes and are often linked to rhetoric that blames ethnic Asian people for the spread of Covid-19.

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Early in the pandemic, INAR director Shane O’Curry says he saw Irish editions of British tabloids talking about the ‘China virus’ – an attachment of a national/racial identity to a public health emergency which he found alarming. 

Former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric regarding the coronavirus has been linked to the rise in anti-Asian sentiment in the US. A study published by the University of California recently found that a tweet from Trump’s account on 16 March 2020, referring to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’, led to a sharp increase in anti-Asian hashtags on the platform. 

Some 6,603 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported across the US between March 2020 and March 2021, according to Stop AAPI Hate. The recent rash of violence against Asian-Americans prompted US President Joe Biden to sign into law the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act.

“Trump made all kinds of unsubstantiated claims about the origins of Covid-19 and fitted it into his already Sinophobic discourse – and there’s a long record of it,” O’Curry said, noting that it didn’t take long for the iReport system to start seeing memes, posts, and videos based on misinformation reflecting Trump’s claims about China. 

Posts reported in Ireland were “defamatory stories” about Chinese people and their cultural habits which O’Curry believes contributed to an atmosphere that normalised the scapegoating of racism towards Chinese and other Asian people.

“These things are seen as a signal from above, and then they encourage the proliferation of anti-Chinese sentiment on what is very fertile ground,” said O’Curry. 

It was last March when INAR started to pick up on incidents where Asian people in Ireland were blamed for the virus in person and online. Not long afterwards, a number of very serious incidents on the street, in shops, and on public transport were logged.

This translated into a significant number of very serious real-life incidents including Xuedan (Shelly) Xiong being pushed into the Royal Canal and Martin Hong and Arthur Ma in Cork being physically assaulted in August of last year. 

“We also began to pick up on the scapegoating of other minorities,” said O’Curry.“They found themselves the targets of either abuse in public places, or discourse on social media, blaming them for the virus, or associating them with virus outbreaks.”

Joe Biden’s ordering this week of US intelligence agencies to investigate whether the Covid-19 virus first emerged in China from an animal source or from a laboratory accident is gaining increased traction in the US – where it was initially fueled by Trump and his aides and dismissed by many as a political talking point.

The US and other countries have called for a more in-depth probe into the pandemic’s origins after a report by an international team sent by the World Health Organisation to China earlier this year proved inconclusive.

The answer has immense implications both for China, which says it is not responsible for the pandemic, and for the United States. But in the meantime, fears are mounting that finger-pointing in the absence of evidence will further fuel hatred towards Asian minorities, both in Ireland and around the globe. 

‘Because I’m Chinese?’

Tian Yu Lloyd, INAR board member, finds herself asking ‘was that because I’m Chinese?’ after the smallest of altercations with people, like being knocked into by someone at the supermarket.

This wasn’t always her experience of living in Ireland but now “it’s kind of becoming part of life”.

“There has always been the light-hearted, ‘the Chinese are a great bunch of lads’, Father Ted kind of comments,” said Yu Llyod, but she started to noticed a shift in public sentiment toward Chinese people after 2016 following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump “when conspiracy theories about China started to fly, unchallenged”. 

“They promote so much misinformation and anti-science – but because it’s related to China it has been ok to say it. Trump used China as a selling point and as a result, five years later public opinion of China in the US is at an all-time low.”

Before taking office, Biden indicated he would change tack in bilateral economic dealings, but has kept some Trump-era China policies in place, at least for now.

A majority of adults (67%) in the US have negative feelings toward China, up substantially since 2018, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Similarly, polling carried out by Ireland Thinks on behalf of TheJournal found that the Irish public had a deep distrust of the Chinese government – with 84% saying they either distrust or strongly distrust the People’s Republic.

Tian Yu Loyd believes that the problem lies in there being a lack of interest in trying to tell China’s side of the narrative:

“Reports tend to be one-sided, and from the western point of view,” said Yu Loyd, adding that she often feels conflicted when talking about China, fearful that praising it in any way will put her “in an awkward situation”.

There is often fear around the difference in governance, and people don’t know what to make of China. Take the series of lockdowns throughout the pandemic, for example – [they showed how] China will carry out draconian actions when they feel like they need to, but not necessarily because they have ulterior motives of any sort.

Professor Kiri Paramore, head of Asian studies at University College Cork, explains that global liberal political thought often identifies China as the antithesis of liberty. 

“Accusations that China could only control the spread of Covid-19 because it’s a ‘despotic authoritarian regime’ is a common trope that has also grown,” said Paramore.

“So there’s this increase in anti-Chinese sentiment to the extent that it becomes racism, to the extent that you have all these incidents… But the way it works or the things that are said, it’s actually playing into something which is quite traditional.”

Paramore says the biggest mistake he notices in commentary is the assumption that there are no political arguments occurring within China “just because it’s a one-party state, [but] things change all the time.”

“Britain, as well as the United States, have particular strategic interests in Ireland’s outlook, and a huge amount of influence here,” said Paramore, noting that Ireland has very few knowledge centres or think tanks focusing on Asia-related issues, leaving us open to the influence of European and American commentary.

He says going forward a critical narrative that doesn’t have culturalist or civilisational racist elements is vital, given the political tensions between the US and China are likely to continue for some time as they compete to be the world’s leading economy.

“If you want to criticise Israel for example, you have to be able to do so without criticising Jewish culture. People are a lot better than they were when talking about Israel in that manner, but they’re not very good when it comes to China.”

President Michael D Higgins wrote earlier this year about how not accepting the negative impacts of imperialism has had an effect on the citizens of countries that had been colonised.

He said that at imperialism’s core was persuading its citizens of an “assumption of superiority of culture” to justify the othering of a population, and imperialistic injustices had a “brutalising effect” that left pain and resentment “sometimes passed down through generations”.

China is a post-colonial country and its politics are dominated by that colonial experience, said Paramore. 

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The INAR says it will be monitoring the effects of the ongoing political narrative on the Asian population in Ireland. In the meantime, INAR director Shane O’Curry says leadership is needed at the highest levels of government in combating all forms of racism and discrimination.

The government published the general scheme for Hate Crime Bill 2021 last month, but it won’t be a silver bullet, according to O’Curry, stressing that people affected by hate crime need to be at the heart of the process as the legislation is refined. 

The Hate Crime Bill will create new, aggravated forms of certain existing criminal offences, where those offences are motivated by prejudice against such things or protected characteristics like race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

The new bill updates the 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, with aggravated offences generally carrying an enhanced penalty, compared to the ordinary offence, and the record of any conviction for such an offence would clearly state that the offence was motivated by prejudice – that it was a hate crime.

The new offences also carry a provision for an alternative verdict, where the ‘hate’ element of the offence has not been proven.  

“While hate crime legislation will deal with the most extreme cases, it’s the structural institutional inequality that minorities face that we have to do the real work – and it’s a much, much tougher task,” said O’Curry. 

The government is also working on a national action plan against racism which has not been made public yet but if it turns out to be robust and ambitious, O’Curry says “it really holds the promise of being able to significantly shift some of the underlying causes of the everyday racism that manifests as hate crime and toxic discourse towards ethnic minorities”.

Tian Yu Lloyd said minorities in Ireland’s won’t feel safe until the deeper inequalities in society and the structural and institutional inequality underpinning all of this is addressed. 

“The housing and homelessness crisis generates the perception of resource competition between groups, and generates anger and resentment. It’s very easy for people to finger point and scapegoat certain groups right now,” said Yu Lloyd. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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