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A candlelight vigil in Garden Grove, California, on March 17, 2021 to unite against the spate of violence targetting Asians and to express grief and outrage after yesterday's shooting that left eight people dead in Atlanta, Georgia, including at least six Asian women. Image Credit: AFP

Since the shooting to death of six women of Asian origin in Atlanta by a lone gunman, there has been a global concern over rising hate crimes in the US against Asian-Americans.

As per the data of the ‘Stop ‘AAPI (Asian American & Pacific Islanders) Hate’ — between 19 March 2020 to 28 February 2021, there were 3,795 reported hate incidents against Asian-Americans in the US. This number is significantly higher than the previous year’s count.

The US President Joe Biden, immediately after taking the oath of office, passed an executive order condemning what he calls Covid-fuelled racism against Asians. Even the UN Secretary-General has issued a statement on 22 March 2021 expressing his profound concern on the rise of violence against Asians during the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the hate against people of Asian descent is not confined to the US only, and it was not absent before the pandemic.

More by Prof Ashok Swain

The Trump factor in branding coronavirus as a Chinese virus has emboldened people with racial prejudices. Still, it will be naive to think that the hate crime against Asians is only an American problem, and it will disappear with the pandemic.

The ongoing spurt in anti-Asian hate crime in the US has taken place since 2015, much before the Covid crisis. Thus, it is not a pandemic problem. Anti-Asian mindset has some historical roots. Even in 1871, a mob had killed 19 Chinese in the China Town of Los Angeles.

In 1875, the US banned Chinese women’s entry, and in 1882, it prohibited the immigration of Chinese labourers. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War also had brought bouts of hate crimes against Asians in the US.

Beyond the US

Not only the US but Canada has a similar history and it had also witnessed the anti-Asian riots in 1907. Canada has also seen a significant increase in anti-Asian hate crimes recently, which has started for some years now. Though Canada didn’t have someone like Trump, this has not been much of a help either.

As the ‘Racism Incident Reporting Center’ data show, it has a higher number of anti-Asian racism reports per capita than the US during the pandemic.

Anti-Asian bigotry is not only confined to North America. The hate against the people of Asian descent was not historically evident in Europe as it has been on the other side of the Atlantic.

However, in recent years there has been a profound change, and the discrimination against Asians are not confined only to being structural. There are a three times more increase in hate crimes in the UK in 2020 towards Asian communities than years before. However, this trend has not become evident with Covid but with the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Nazis had forced some Chinese living in Germany into concentration camps. However, Germany had also witnessed anti-Asian sentiments after its reunification as East Germany brought 60,000 Vietnamese workers with it. Vietnamese workers taken by Communist regimes had become targets in most Eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

History of anti-Asian hate crimes

So, the anti-Asian hate crimes in the early 1990s in Germany were part of that trend. Asians have become the targets of racial abuse and violence in Germany for several years now though it has taken a big jump since the Covid-19 outbreak.

Anti-Asian sentiments, or to be precise anti-Chinese sentiments, have been on the rise in all of Europe’s countries with the rise of populism in the continent and much before the Covid crisis. The alleged mistreatment of Chinese tourists by Swedish police had also led to a bitter diplomatic spat between Sweden and China in 2018.

As per the Pew Research Center’s report in October 2020, the views about China have grown more negative in most of the advanced economies in Europe with the Covid-19 outbreak, but that negative trend has started at least for a decade now.

Australia, where a large Chinese community lives, has also experienced a massive surge in anti-Asian hate crimes in recent years. More than a third of Chinese-Australians surveyed by the Lowly Institute reported facing racial discrimination in 2020. However, the rise in hate against the Chinese in Australia has been attributed not only to Covid-19 but also to diplomatic tension between two countries.

In India, not many Chinese live, but people from the Northeastern part of the country have been targeted for years for their East Asian looks in the mainland.

In the last year, the hate crimes, racial slurs, and discrimination against Northeast Indians have gone up many folds, but this has been not coronavirus fuelled only. The border clash between China and India made a significant contribution to the rise of ‘anti-Asian’ hate crimes in India.

A close look at the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes worldwide shows that the current trend has started much before the Covid-19 crisis. Though this is being branded as racism against Asians, these hate crimes target people perceived to be from China mostly.

The onset of the Covid crisis and the anti-China rhetoric of some populist leaders had undoubtedly emboldened racists in recent months. However, coronavirus has now many mutants and many vaccines but that has not stopped hate crimes.

The awful drift of hate against people with East Asian looks has been almost a decade old with China’s spectacular economic growth and its claim to be the global superpower. This hate and bigotry are the expressions of being envious of China’s impressive success and meteoric rise.

Unless the rest of the world accepts and admits it and educates itself to fix this appalling reaction, the use of coronavirus as a ruse to hide the bitterness-led abhorrent deeds will only make this wave of anti-Asian hate much worse.