It’s time to talk about anti-Asian racism in the UK

The US appears to be taking steps to end anti-Asian discrimination and hate in the wake of the Atlanta shooting. In Britain, however, the problem is still widely ignored.

Pedestrians walk past closed restaurants in Chinatown in London, UK, on March 1, 2021 [Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

On March 16, a man opened fire in three spa parlours in the US city of Atlanta, killing eight people, including six Asian women. The shootings, the worst mass killing in the United States since 2019, drew long-overdue attention to the rising wave of physical assaults, racial slurs and verbal abuse Asian communities in the country have faced in the past year.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and former President Donald Trump and his supporters’ attempts to baselessly blame it on China, there has been a major spike in anti-Chinese sentiment in the US. And in a country where many struggle to differentiate between Chinese people and other Asian ethnic groups, this resulted in a rising number of hate crimes against all East and Southeast Asians.

The Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center, which tracks incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the US, recently revealed that they have recorded 3,795 anti-Asian racist incidents including verbal harassment, shunning and physical attacks between March 2020 and February 2021. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, meanwhile, found that the number of anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police rose 149 percent between 2019 and 2020.

Of course, the rise in anti-Asian sentiment in the US in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic did not happen in a historical vacuum. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Japanese internment camps of World War II, America has a long history of scapegoating its Asian communities during major conflicts, crises and catastrophes.

The Atlanta shootings finally brought the issue under the national spotlight and led authorities to promise that they would take action to turn the tide. On March 19, President Joe Biden publicly condemned rising hate crimes against Asian Americans for the first time after meeting with Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders in Atlanta.

“The conversation we had today with the leaders, and that we’re hearing all across the country, is that hate and violence often hide in plain sight. It’s often met with silence,” Biden said. “That’s been true throughout our history, but that has to change because our silence is complicity.”

The president also urged Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which he said would expedite the federal government’s response to hate crimes that have risen during the pandemic, support state and local governments to improve hate crimes reporting and make information on hate crimes more accessible to Asian American communities.

While the US administration appears to be finally acknowledging the urgent need to address anti-Asian hate and discrimination, in the United Kingdom, where the problem is equally grave, the authorities are still turning a blind eye to the plight of Asian communities.

UK police data suggests a rise of 300 percent in hate crimes towards Chinese, East and Southeast Asians in the first quarter of 2020 compared with the same period in 2018 and 2019. According to End the Virus of Racism, a UK-based advocacy group, this trend continues to this day.

In November last year, Edinburgh mum Wei Saik was physically assaulted and racially abused by a group of teenagers while walking home with her two small children. She said they shouted “COVID” as they smacked her on the head, leaving her terrified. On March 1, Chinese university lecturer Peng Wang was attacked by a gang of men in the city of Southhampton. When asked what the men told him during the attack, he said “They were saying things like Chinese virus, get out of the country and dirty words”. These are only two of the hundreds of racially motivated attacks faced by East and Southeast Asians in Britain since the beginning of the pandemic. Even Asian health workers, who have been on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic since the very beginning, were not spared from such attacks. In January, for example, a Filipino nurse named Aldarico Jr Velsco revealed that he was called a “f***ing Chinese c***” by one of his patients.

Just like in the US, anti-Asian sentiment in the UK has its roots in history.

According to Dr Anne Witchard, an expert on British-Chinese cultural relations from the University of Westminster, anti-Asian discrimination in the UK started as early as the turn of the 20th century, when Chinese immigrants started settling in the Limehouse area of London. In 1901, when the first Chinese laundry in the British capital opened, it was immediately stoned by a hostile crowd. In 1908, in opposition to cheap Chinese labour, crowds of angry British seamen prevented their Chinese colleagues from signing on as ships’ crew.

As more Chinese nationals began to settle in London and Liverpool during the 1910s, Britain’s newly emerged Chinatowns started to be seen as centres of an exotic and highly dangerous underworld. As Witchard explained: “Politicians manipulated local fears about cheap Chinese labour and writers of popular fiction began to exploit the dramatic potential of Chinese Limehouse in London as a locus of drug-trafficking, gambling and the sexual ensnarement of young white women.”

As a result, anti-Asian sentiment grew across Britain, and discrimination and attacks against East and Southeast Asians in the country remained the norm for decades to come. In the aftermath of WWII, for example, Britain forcefully deported hundreds of Chinese seamen who had been recruited by the Royal Navy to help the war effort, deeming them an “undesirable element” in British society.

The state-sanctioned anti-Asian racism of the 20th century has not been addressed by the British authorities, and its legacy is still shaping the way thousands of East and Southeast Asians are being perceived and treated in the country to this day.

British East and Southeast Asians are rarely represented in British television, theatre and cinema, even though they are the third-largest racial-ethnic minority in the country. And on the rare occasions they appear on screens or stages, they are often depicted in ways that feed into racist tropes.

In the past year, East and Southeast Asians appeared in British media more than ever before, but always in the context of COVID-19 and the measures taken to stem its spread. These depictions helped further establish the baseless belief that these communities are responsible for spreading the virus in Britain, and contributed to the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the country.

The state, meanwhile, failed not only to stop this wide-spread scapegoating of British East and Southeast Asians for the pandemic but also to protect these communities from the racially-motivated abuse that followed.

Just like it is the case in the US, the pandemic-related rise in anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes in the UK can only be brought to an end if the state takes appropriate action. Governments, however, cannot end modern-day anti-Asian racism without first addressing the historic roots of the problem. Not any virus or disease, but a century of state-sanctioned exclusion and exoticisation paved the way for the current wave of racism against British East and Southeast Asian communities. Therefore, a historical reckoning needs to be at the core of any efforts to stop it.

But acknowledging and apologising for past mistakes alone would not solve the problem either. Increasing East and Southeast Asian representation in all areas of British life, from politics to entertainment, also needs to be part of the game plan. British East and Southeast Asian stories, issues and traditions need to be put under a spotlight to ensure these communities are not reduced to racist stereotypes and instead accepted as intrinsic and valued parts of British society. Only then would Britain’s East and Southeast Asian citizens and residents stop being devastated by the deadly virus of racism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.