A Singaporean university student was walking down a London street when he heard someone shout, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” When the student turned, he said four men attacked him, giving him a bloody nose and a broken bone near his right eye.
A similar story played out in Madrid, where a Chinese-American expat was so violently beaten that he woke up two days later in the hospital. He told police that all he remembers was hearing someone say “something about the coronavirus” before everything went black.
Incidents like these occurred a few months after the novel coronavirus—the virus that causes COVID-19—was first reported in a market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. As infection rates once again rise around the world, spurred by new, more contagious “super strains,” these attacks aren’t going away. From the United States to the United Kingdom, people who look Chinese are being targeted for racially motivated assaults, fueled by fear of a virus that knows no race, country of origin, political affiliation, or economic status.
While this simmering racism has largely affected those already residing in a country, it’s causing Asians who travel to feel especially vulnerable in an increasingly fraught landscape. Tourism companies, too, may feel the effects, especially around Lunar New Year on February 12, which is normally Asia’s busiest travel season.
Recently, the Chinese government’s call to avoid “nonessential” trips during the holiday period to prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus puts a significant, if necessary, damper on the largest annual human migration on Earth. As vaccines become widely disseminated, travel restrictions will be updated and borders will begin to reopen. When that day comes, travelers of Asian descent will have to decide if they feel safe to go abroad once more, whether for work, school, or leisure.
Racist incidents on the rise
Since March 2020, the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center has been tracking a rise in attacks in the U.S. Its latest available report revealed that as of October 2020, more than 2,800 incidents—ranging from verbal and physical assault to vandalism—have been logged by individuals around the country. A majority (33 percent) of those affected were in their 30s, followed by 24 percent in their 40s, and 19 percent in their 20s.
Anti-Asian aggression mapping project I Am Not A Virus logged a similar spike. Twelve days after launching last spring, the site co-founded by an international Harvard doctoral student, Boram Lee, recorded more than 100 submissions.
The rise in aggression isn’t isolated to America. Since the pandemic began, there has been a surge of anti-Asian harassment around the world, affecting anyone who looks vaguely Chinese, regardless of nationality or heritage. In the U.K., hate crimes against those of Chinese and East Asian descent have gone up by 300 percent. By August, the Asian Australian Alliance had received approximately 600 incident reports. Human Rights Watch reported a number of cases involving discrimination and xenophobia in Italy, Russia, India, and in the Middle East.
A shift in travel?
These incidents are creating a charged atmosphere for Asians who travel. Before the pandemic, Asian American spending power was projected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2022. Similarly, Chinese citizens were enjoying a golden age of leisure travel. A 2018 Skift study found that 130 million Chinese tourists took an international trip in 2017, up 6 percent over 2016, “making China the world’s largest outbound tourism market.” Forty-two percent of these globetrotters were “independent,” or seeking experiences not tied to tour groups.
That may be changing now. Helena Beard, managing director of public relations and marketing agency China Travel Outbound, believes that when borders reopen, Chinese travelers may avoid places like the U.S. and Australia. When they do travel, she says tourists will likely seek bespoke, small-group tours with a driver and a guide to manage the experience.
“For America, the messaging at a very high political level has been the talk of the ‘China virus’ and the talk of conspiracy theories and all sorts of things which will have been listened to in China and definitely have been considered,” says Beard. “Australia, too, with the Chinese government putting out a ‘do not travel message’ ... because they were worried about racial attacks. So America and Australia, I think, are going to suffer quite a lot from this when the borders open up.”
Beard predicts that the number of Asian students attending summer camps, study tours, and universities—all lucrative businesses for host countries—may be impacted, too. Pre-COVID, China’s study tours and education camps market was predicted to be worth 172.5 billion yuan ($26.67 billion) by 2021. As for university students, one estimate suggests that Chinese students based in the U.K. have on average £28,236 ($38,494) a year in disposable income to spend on things like travel, not to mention the added value from visiting family members.
Anti-Asian racism’s global roots
Racism against Asians is not a new phenomenon. In the U.S., anti-Asian sentiment dates back at least to the Gold Rush and the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred anyone from China from entering the country.
Decades later, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. In 1982, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz beat Vincent Chin to death with a baseball bat. They blamed the Chinese American for the loss of their jobs, which was caused by increased competition from Japan’s rising auto industry.
“The Chin case showed the power of the saying ‘You all look the same,’” wrote Frank H. Wu, former chancellor and dean of the University of California’s Hastings School of Law, in the New York Times.
Australia records a similar history that dates back to the country’s Gold Rush period of the mid-1800s, says Erin Wen Ai Chew, founder and national president of the Asian Australian Alliance, a grassroots community organization for Asian Australian civil rights. “Chinese miners were lynched, racially discriminated against, and fatally attacked,” she says.
This entrenched racism is reinforcing the current political climate, says Angela R. Gover, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Colorado Denver. The co-author of a study on COVID-related anti-Asian hate crimes says that while the current political narrative, such as former U.S. President Donald Trump’s use of “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” last year, is inflammatory, it’s reinforced by historical racism in America.
News headlines propagating anti-Asian sentiment have contributed to this, according to Chew. In recent months, Australian tabloids have been using phrases such as “Chinese virus” and “Chinese kids stay home.” “COVID-19 is just a symptom of the bigger problem of anti-Asian racism in Australia,” says Chew. “And like the U.S., it gave those who are ignorant, brainwashed, or who are racists [an excuse] to act on their racism, because being anti-Asian in Australia has become normalized.”
Political rhetoric and media portrayal also appear to be factors in racism in the U.K. Rose Simkins, chief executive for the charity Stop Hate UK, says her organization has received several reports from Asians that mention phrases such as Trump’s “Chinese virus” being used against them.
“Historically, this section of the community has not been a target for race hate in the U.K.,” she notes, “so this rise is undoubtedly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and people’s misconceptions about its cause and derivation, often fueled by the language used in the media they consume.”
“Unfortunately, it is human nature to assign a scapegoat to a pandemic,” adds Leslie Hsu Oh, an adventure traveler and photographer who has a public health degree from Harvard. “This is why the World Health Organization established a guideline in 2015 that diseases should not be named after a geographic location or race,” she adds, referencing the 1918 H1N1 virus, called the “Spanish Flu,” and Ebola, sometimes referred to as the “African Disease.”
“As long as COVID-19 is referred to as the ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘China virus’, it gives people permission to blame or hate anybody who looks Asian for any loss they have incurred from this pandemic,” she says.
The problem may not be resolved even after vaccines are widely administered. Gover says that hate crimes flare up “during times of societal stress” and may die down after the crisis has subsided. But she notes that the sentiments behind anti-Asian racism “will continue to simmer beneath the surface as long as there is not a distinct public acknowledgment and confrontation.”
Some government leaders have publicly condemned the racist rhetoric. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last May urged countries to “strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate” via Twitter. In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning anti-Asian sentiment tied to COVID-19.
Most recently, U.S. President Joe Biden passed an executive order condemning COVID-spurred anti-Asian racism. And in October, Sarah Owens, a member of parliament of East Asian descent, formally requested that the U.K. government address the issue, including through working with the media on “lazy overuse of East Asian imagery in their reporting of COVID-19.” But these measures are largely symbolic.
As the world awaits vaccines in the coming months, one thing is clear: There is no vaccine against hate. Travelers like Oh say it’s up to individuals to push forward, doing what they can to set positive examples.
“Post-COVID, I will continue to ice climb, rappel down waterfalls, fly-fish, paraglide off cliffs, and jump out of planes,” she says. “At the same time, I hope to change the culture that made anti-Asian racism acceptable.”
Qin Xie is a journalist and an editor based in London. Follow her on Twitter.