Race and mobility: Asia, Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand during COVID-19

Race and mobility: Asia, Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand during COVID-19

Vidya Ramachandran


Ramachandran, Vidya. 2021. Race and mobility: Asia, Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand during COVID-19. MoLab Inventory of Mobilities and Socioeconomic Changes. Department ‘Anthropology of Economic Experimentation’. Halle/Saale: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

Download via DOI: https://doi.org/10.48509/molab.9920


Medicalising China

Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand have long received significant migrations from Asia, and have come to outwardly pride themselves on their ‘multiculturalism’.[1] However, this relationship has not always been easy. ‘Asians in Australia’[2] are heavily politicised,[3] and their perceived threat to the country’s social and racial cohesion has been often used to justify anti-immigration platforms.[4] In Aotearoa-New Zealand, anti-immigration sentiment has similarly centred on racialised discourse around Asian migration.[5] These have often been exacerbated by political tensions with China, which have again recently escalated following China’s passage of the National Security Law, and suspension of civil liberties in Hong Kong.[6]

This historical context is important when considering racialised hostilities during COVID-19. The pandemic has not created anti-Chinese sentiment anew – it has simply given such sentiment a perceived sense of legitimation. Globally, the fact that the pandemic broke out in China has led to widespread condemnation of Beijing. Chinese institutions are accused of intentionally manufacturing, or ‘covering up’, the pandemic; and Chinese people condemned for the practice of ‘wet-markets’, and for eating wild animals, or any animals at all – even similar practices exist in many other parts of the world. But this discourse is neither novel, nor surprising. Ari Larissa Heinrich highlights that the West has historically characterised China as a place rife with sickness, and Chinese people as inherently vulnerable to disease.[7] Anti-Chinese xenophobia is also rife in other contexts, including other Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.[8] This hostility is often attributed to political disputes between the countries, concerns over Chinese tourism and immigration, and embedded racialised prejudice.[9] More broadly, anti-immigrant sentiment in many parts has often been justified by fears of disease.[10] These tropes have again emerged during COVID-19, and for some, have legitimated anti-immigrant, anti-mobility, and anti-Chinese sentiment.

In early February, China became the first country subject to incoming travel bans by Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand: all foreign nationals who had recently been in mainland China were barred from entry to both countries. Similar bans followed in other parts of the world. In the United States, Trump’s early imposition of a travel ban on China has been condemned as a racist act; commentators have highlighted that similar bans were not extended to European countries, including those that were severely hit by the virus for quite some time, raising suspicions that the Chinese ban was racially motivated.[11] The Oceanic context is slightly different: in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, bans against other countries quickly followed the early bans on China, and by March, both countries had categorically banned travel by all non-citizens and non-residents, arriving from any country in the world. Even so, both states’ early bans on China have been suspected of being racially motivated. In Sydney, a rally at the Department of Immigration in February protested the ban as racist and unjust.[12] Meanwhile, Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, the president of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Union of Students’ Association, suggests that the country’s travel ban against China has heightened the “hysteria and misinformation that Covid-19 is a ‘Chinese’ disease.”[13]

Racialised violence

Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand have long had close yet complicated relationships with their neighbours in the Asia-Pacific. As white-settler states, non-Europeans were mostly barred from entry and stay in both countries from their colonisation in the 18th and 19th centuries until the latter half of the 20th century.[14] Still, both countries have long received some Asian migrants, including Chinese miners seeking fortune in the 19th century Gold Rush period. Migration from Asia, however, greatly accelerated in the late 20th century, following changes to both states’ racialised immigration policies. The ‘White Australia’ policy, a series of policies which explicitly favoured immigration by Europeans, was officially abolished in 1973.[15] Aotearoa-New Zealand’s immigration policy was also racialised, though less explicitly so: for most of the 20th century, the country favoured migration from certain ‘source’ countries, including the UK, Ireland, and other countries in Europe and North America, which drew predominantly white migrants.[16] In 1987, Aotearoa-New Zealand opened further immigration from non-European countries, a move that marked its orientation away from Britain, and towards Asia.[17]

Anti-China sentiment during COVID-19 has, however, further raised questions about the future of the country’s relationship with Oceania, and particularly, Australia. A tragic consequence of increasing anti-Chinese sentiment is the increasing incidence of racialised discrimination and violence against peoples of Chinese descent around the world. In the West, this has often translated into discrimination against peoples of Asian descent more broadly.[18] In January, Aotearoa-New Zealand’s media documented several incidents of racially-motivated violence against Asian-Kiwis.[19] This coverage continued over the following months, highlighting incidents such as the violent assault of a 60-year-old photographer in Christchurch, and a young student’s withdrawal from a Whangarei school after experiencing racist abuse.[20] In May, Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner, Meng Foon, announced that 34% of the 250 COVID-19-related complaints so far received by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission had been race-related.[21]

The situation across the Tasman is no better. In February, the Australian Human Rights Commission (‘AHRC’) recorded more complaints under the country’s Racial Discrimination Act than at any time in the preceding year.[22] And between April and June, an online survey by the Asian Australian Alliance and a think tank, Per Capita, recorded 377 reports of having experienced racial slurs, name-calling, jokes, verbal threats, being shunned or excluded, being barred from establishments or transportation, being spat, sneezed or coughed on, or being physically intimidated.[23] The Australian Hate Crime Network (AHCN) further records incidents of racialised graffiti and vandalism of Asian-Australian homes.[24] The actual numbers of incidents are likely to be even higher than those reported: the AHRC recognises that its complaints only relate to breaches of racial discrimination legislation, and that their figures likely constitute a relatively small proportion of the total number of incidents of racial abuse.[25] Meanwhile, the Asian Australian Alliance notes that 90 percent of its respondents have not reported the incidents to the police or a statutory body, due to a lack of confidence in authorities, or not believing they will get adequate redress.[26]

Future mobilities

These racialised hostilities have already impacted mobility between the regions. In June, Beijing warned students and tourists against travelling to Australia due to the risk of racialised violence, raising concerns regarding the mobility of international students, on whom the Australian higher education industry is heavily reliant.[27] 15% of the Asian Australian Alliance’s respondents were international students, 80% of whom were from a mainland Chinese background.[28] A report by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative (MWJI) finds that even under normal circumstances, Chinese students experience heavy discrimination in the Australian labour market. Chinese students are more likely than other international students to experience severe underpayment.[29] The report further recognises that international students’ circumstances have likely worsened during COVID-19, as many have lost their jobs, or have been forced into even more precarious working conditions to support themselves.[30]

A survey conducted by Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology in June reveals that only 40% of students in China who previously intended to study overseas still plan to, while under 50% of those who had studied overseas plan to return to their study after borders reopen.[31] Both the Chinese government warnings, and fear of violence or discrimination, were commonly cited as reasons to avoid studying overseas. However, some Chinese students and academics have advanced alternative views in the media; acknowledging the increasing risk of violence and discrimination, while simultaneously recommending Australia as a generally safe country.[32] Australia’s success with suppressing the virus has further bolstered its appeal as a destination for study, compared to other popular destinations like the US or the UK.[33] While Aotearoa-New Zealand’s response to international students during COVID-19 has generally been viewed more favourably, the Swinburne survey also included respondents who had studied in, or planned to study in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Ongoing travel bans also continue to complicate international students’ plans to study in both countries. While Australia has plans to allow some students to re-enter from September, Aotearoa-New Zealand does not intend to open its borders to students until 2021.

In the preceding decades, both Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand had taken strides towards strengthening ties with Asia. This has necessitated some introspection into their white-settler roots. Ang notes that Australia “has attempted… to erase its legacy as an explicitly and self-consciously racist nation-state.”[34] Meanwhile, since the late 1980s, Aotearoa-New Zealand has witnessed a comprehensive “re-orientation” towards Asia and away from Britain, marked by an influx of migrants from the former.[35] Despite these efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic has arguably drawn attention to both states’ continuing unease with Asia and Asians, in spite of their political and economic necessity. While the pandemic’s long-term impacts for the relationship between the regions remains to be seen, a genuinely ‘Asian century’ may yet be a while away.


[1] Ongley, Patrick and David Pearson. 1995. Post-1945 International Migration: New Zealand, Australia and Canada Compared. International Migration Review 29(3): 765-793;

Tavan, Gwenda. 2004. The dismantling of the White Australia policy: elite conspiracy or will of the Australian people?. The Australian Journal of Political Science 39(1): 109-125.

[2] Persons of Asian descent – in Australia and New Zealand, ‘Asian’ most commonly refers to a person of East or South-East Asian descent. 

[3] Ang, Ien. 2000. Asians in Australia: A Contradiction in Terms? in John Docker and Gerhard Fischer (eds) Race, Colour and Identity in Australia and New Zealand. Sydney: UNSW Press: 115-130.

[4] Zang, Xiaowei. 2000. Ecological Succession and Asian Immigrants in Australia. International Migration 38(1): 109-125.

[5] Bartley, Allen and Paul Spoonley. 2008. Intergenerational Transnationalism: 1.5 Generation Asian Migrants in New Zealand. International Migration 46(4): 63-84.

[6] The Guardian. 2020. Australian judge steps down from Hong Kong court over new national security law. 18 September 2020. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/18/australian-judge-steps-down-from-hong-kong-court-over-new-national-security-law. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[7] Heinrich, Ari Larissa. 2020. Before coronavirus, China was falsely blamed for spreading smallpox. Racism played a role then, too. The Conversation. 7 May 2020. Available online at: https://theconversation.com/before-coronavirus-china-was-falsely-blamed-for-spreading-smallpox-racism-played-a-role-then-too-137884. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[8] Rich, Motoko. 2020. As Coronavirus Spreads, So Does Anti-Chinese Sentiment. The New York Times, 30 January 2020. Available online at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/world/asia/coronavirus-chinese-racism.html. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The World. 2020. For centuries, migrants have been said to pose public health risks. They don’t. 23 May 2020. Available online at: https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-05-23/centuries-migrants-have-been-said-pose-public-health-risks-they-don-t. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[11] Penney, Joe. 2020. Racism, Rather than Facts, Drove U.S. Coronavirus Travel Bans. The Intercept. 16 May 2020. Available online at: https://theintercept.com/2020/05/16/racism-coronavirus-china-europe/.

[12] McNab, Heather. 2020. Rally calls for end to China travel ban. The Canberra Times, 7 February 2020. Available online at: https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6620353/rally-calls-for-end-to-china-travel-ban/?cs=14231.

[13] Lenihan-Ikin, Isabella. 2020.The Covid-19 travel ban is racist and disastrous for international students. The Spinoff, 27 February 2020. Available online at: https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/27-02-2020/the-covid-19-travel-ban-is-racist-and-disastrous-for-international-students/.

[14] Ongley et al. 1995.

[15] Tavan. 2004.

[16] Ongley et al. 1995.

[17] Bartley et al. 2008.

[18] Rich. 2020.

[19] Leahy, Ben. 2020. Coronavirus outbreak: Calm urged as anti-Chinese sentiment felt in New Zealand. New Zealand Herald. 31 January 2020. Available online at: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12304816. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[20] Peters, Tom. 2020. New Zealand Sees Increase In Racist Anti-Chinese Attacks. Scoop. 12 May 2020. Available online at: https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL2005/S00092/new-zealand-sees-increase-in-racist-anti-chinese-attacks.htm. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[21] Foon, Meng. 2020. Meng Foon: Covid 19 coronavirus fear no excuse for racism. New Zealand Herald. 1 May 2020. Available at: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/meng-foon-covid-19-coronavirus-fear-no-excuse-for-racism/BBSDTKL3IQ7RWSADZDBOQANEL4/. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[22] Tan, Chin. 2020. Where’s all the data on COVID-19 racism?. Australian Human Rights Commission. 9 May 2020. Available online at: https://humanrights.gov.au/about/news/opinions/wheres-all-data-covid-19-racism. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[23] Chiu, O. and P. Chuang. 2020. COVID-19 Coronavirus Racism Incident Report: Reporting Racism Against Asians in Australia Arising due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic. Penrith: Asian Australian Alliance. 

[24] University of Sydney. 2020. COVID-19 and hate crime in Australia. 7 May 2020. Available online at: https://www.sydney.edu.au/law/news-and-events/news/2020/05/07/covid-19-and-hate-crime-in-australia.html. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[25] Tan. 2020.

[26] SBS News. 2020. Victoria urged to toughen hate crime laws as anti-Asian attacks rise. 12 June 2020. Available online at: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/victoria-urged-to-toughen-hate-crime-laws-as-anti-asian-attacks-rise. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[27] Morris, Alan, Catherine Hastings, Shaun Wilson, Emma Mitchell, Gaby Ramia and Charlotte Overgaard. 2020. The experiences of international students before and during COVID-19: Housing, work, study and wellbeing. Sydney: University of Technology, Sydney.

[28] Chiu, O. and P. Chuang. 2020.

[29]Farbenblum, Bassina and Laurie Berg. 2020. International Students and Wage Theft in Australia. Sydney: Migrant Worker Justice Initiative.

[30]Ibid.

[31] Zhang, Marina Yue. 2020. Students in China heed their government’s warnings against studying in Australia. The Conversation, 6 July 2020. Available online at: https://theconversation.com/students-in-china-heed-their-governments-warnings-against-studying-in-australia-141871. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[32] Xiao, Bang and Samuel Yang. 2020. Chinese international students defend Australia as a ‘safe’ educational destination. ABC News. 10 June 2020. Available online at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-10/chinese-international-students-defend-australia/12340820. Last accessed 22 December 2020.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ang 2000: 117.

[35] Bartley et al. 2008: 65.

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