The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a global surge in anti-Asian racism. Although the instigators of that surge claimed they were focusing on China as the source of the virus, it really targeted people of Asian appearance all over the world.
In France, passengers on a public bus abused a woman of Vietnamese and Cambodian origin. In India, citizens from the country’s northeast have been insulted and spat on because of their appearance. And in Indonesia, Japanese nationals have endured harassment.
In the United States last year, authorities logged fifteen hundred reports of incidents of racist abuse against Asian Americans from March 19 to April 15 alone. They detailed instances of people being spat on, yelled at, and threatened. In Chile, people of East Asian descent suffered verbal and physical assaults. Racists circulated flyers saying “Chinese get out.”
Australia also saw a surge in anti-Asian racism. In late March, as lockdowns began across the country, a teenager spat on and verbally abused two sisters, Sophie and Rosa Do, as they crossed a Sydney street. The assailant called them “Asian dogs” and accused them of bringing COVID-19 to Australia. It was not an isolated incident — a survey by the Asian Australian Alliance recorded 377 incidents over a forty-seven-day period from April to June.
These attacks were mostly opportunistic and mostly consisted of verbal insults and threats made in public. Most targets were women, and the majority of perpetrators were unknown to the victims. Far from being random, however, these incidents draw on a long history of anti-Asian sentiment and persistent structural racism.
The ongoing failure to address racism in public discourse tacitly encourages them. Indeed, one analysis of relevant opinion pieces in Australian newspapers during the pandemic found that most employed racist stereotypes and scaremongering, often sugarcoated with the appearance of irony.
This analysis shows that the trend is not just the work of garden-variety plebeian racists. Rather, they are enabled and encouraged by an “anti-anti-racist club” whose membership reaches deep into Australia’s political, media, and academic establishments. The club’s main tactic has been to accuse opponents of providing cover for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Anti-Anti-Racist Club
The anti-anti-racist club is a loose coalition of hard-core racists, handwringers worried about political correctness gone mad, and foreign policy hawks determined to escalate tensions with China. Members come from across the political spectrum, including Labor and Liberal parties, with one or two former leftists along for the ride. They are united by their opposition to anti-racism.
It’s hard to say exactly when the club got started. But the publication of Silent Invasion by Charles Sturt University professor Clive Hamilton in 2018 was a key turning point, helping to prepare the ground for the resurgence of anti-Asian racism in 2020.
Hamilton’s book claims to expose the growing influence of the CCP in Australia. He knew it would be controversial. In the introduction, Hamilton predicts, “for writing this book I will be accused of racism and xenophobia,” before going on to say that he won’t allow “xenophobia-phobia” (the “fear of being accused of racism”) to get in the way of his story.
Here, Hamilton demonstrates his total disregard for what racism actually is — a disregard shared by the anti-anti-racist club. Racism is not the same as xenophobia; the two are distinct in important ways. Racism typically focuses on visible difference while xenophobia focuses mainly on foreignness.
But Hamilton doesn’t care what racism is or how it works. Mentioning xenophobia-phobia is simply a perfunctory attempt to deflect potential criticism.
Hamilton was right to expect that he would be accused of racism. Numerous reviews fulfilled his prophecy, pointing out problems with the book’s tone and language, and highlighting specific racist passages. Just as predictably, Kevin Carrico, one of Australia’s foremost anti-anti-racists, dismissed the reviews.
When the Australian race discrimination commissioner at the time, Tim Soutphommasane, raised concerns that the book could promote “anti-Chinese or Sinophobic racial sentiment,” Rory Medcalf, a security expert at the Australian National University — certainly not an expert on racism, however — dismissed these concerns. The Australian race discrimination commissioner, it seems, did not understand racism.
These debates helped consolidate the Australian chapter of the anti-anti-racist club, strengthening their networks and streamlining their arguments. They also perfected their key argument: to mention racism in any connection with China only serves to deflect criticism from the CCP, concealing its infiltration of Australia and its human rights abuses at home.
By the time anti-Asian racist attacks started to rise in early 2020, the anti-anti-racist club had further distilled its wisdom: to highlight and oppose anti-Chinese racism is a CCP talking point.
Under the cover of defending democracy and protecting human rights, this argument sidelines victims of racism, dismisses the work of genuine anti-racists, and justifies a shallow and willfully ignorant understanding of what racism really is and how it works.
Fighting Anti-Racism in 2020
When anti-Asian racist attacks began to increase in 2020, the anti-anti-racist club sprang into action. They denied and trivialized such attacks, arguing they were a distraction from the real problem, namely, the CCP’s cover-up of the virus. Then they labelled opponents of racism “useful idiots,” “CCP bootlickers,” and “shills.” (I’ve had all of these insults thrown at me of late.)
The anti-anti-racist club didn’t allow their broader agenda to be sidetracked by the pandemic. In June 2020, the Black Lives Matter protests inspired activists to call for the removal of racist statues around the world. In Australia, indigenous commentators argued for the removal of public monuments that celebrate the country’s racist history.
After anti-racist activists defaced one such statue, the anti-anti-racists immediately pointed out that one of them was Chinese. On Twitter, some of their fellow anti-anti-racists called her a “piece of Chinese shit” and a “whore.” Ignoring entirely the point she and other activists were making, they accused her of being a “communistic Chinese plant,” a “Chinese spy,” and a CCP import.
Most of these tweets came from anonymous trolls. But it’s not hard to see how more visible — and more tactical — forms of anti-anti-racism encouraged them. In October last year, Liberal senator Eric Abetz demanded that three Chinese-Australians denounce the CCP during a formal government inquiry. It was blatant racial profiling — only Chinese-Australians were targeted.
Bad Faith Bulverism
The Asian Australian Alliance organized a petition demanding that the senator apologize. In response, the Australian Values Alliance, an anti-anti-racist group that promotes Chinese-Australian opponents of the CCP, organized a counter-petition, claiming that “condemning the CCP is not racist.”
The only problem is, nobody said it was. The issue was that Abetz had racially profiled Asian-Australians. But to the anti-anti-racist club, nuances like that are a distraction from the main game, namely, conflating anti-racism with support for the CCP.
There’s an uncommon but useful word for this logic: Bulverism. A Bulverism is a fallacy that begins by assuming that someone is wrong, before working backward to figure out how. It’s a convenient way to derail an argument and sidetrack one issue for another, more advantageous one.
Although the term Bulverism goes back to C. S. Lewis, Clive Hamilton gave it a new lease on life in his work on climate change, where he identified Bulverism as a tactic commonly used by climate change denialists. Hamilton’s familiarity with bad faith argumentation means he knows exactly what he’s doing with respect to anti-racist arguments — he just doesn’t care.
And if Hamilton’s most recent book is any indication, he’s doubled down on anti-anti-racism. He concludes by saying that we need to “neutralize the underhanded accusation that resistance to CCP influence is motivated by racism.”
According to Hamilton, we don’t need to show any concern for the victims of racism. We don’t need to understand racism or engage with anti-racists in good faith. We just need to neutralize the anti-racists so we can attack the CCP.
Pushing Back Anti-Asian Racism
There are clearly good reasons to be critical of CCP rule in China. Genocide in Xinjiang, colonialism in Tibet, and the mass arrests of democracy activists in Hong Kong are just three issues on a long list of grave problems.
But to say that opposition to anti-Chinese racism is a barrier to discussing these criticisms is disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst. Indeed, since so many human rights abuses in China are rooted in state racism, it’s impossible to criticize the CCP without understanding racism.
This demonstrates the hypocrisy of the anti-anti-racist club: They’re not committed to criticizing and opposing the CCP or defending democracy. Their anti-anti-racism is usually just a cover for nationalism, red-baiting, or bolstering defense and security services. And this agenda always enables anti-Asian racism: against Han Chinese, Cambodians, northeast Indians, Australians, Koreans, against Tibetans, against Uyghurs — and anyone else who looks Asian.
Anti-anti-racism is, in the end, classic dog-whistling. The speaker says, “I’m defending human rights and democracy,” but racists hear, “go ahead, attack Asians — we’ll deflect the backlash.” This sort of dog-whistle rhetoric dates back at least to George W. Bush’s presidency.
Trump’s dog-whistling was so frequent and loud that some commentators have encouraged us to drop the term altogether. After all, dog whistles are meant to be inaudible. Now there’s no way the anti-anti-racists can plausibly deny the racist impacts of what they say.
Seen in this context, last year’s surge of anti-Asian racism is a new variation on an old story. The structural sources of anti-Asian racism in Australia have changed over time. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, panics about an impending “Yellow Peril” were largely about controlling labor markets and super-exploiting migrant workers. That has largely given way to a racism driven by the shifting terrain of global great-power politics.
Anti-Asian racism has persisted. So long as it does, the Left must commit to opposing it while refusing to be Bulverized by dishonest conflations of anti-racism and support for the CCP.
The pandemic has revealed we’ve got a long way to go. The cynical coalition of nationalists, populists, and right-wing pundits didn’t hesitate to use buckshot racism, harming Asians from many backgrounds. The White House may no longer be occupied by Trump — but as China continues to rise in world status, we can expect the anti-anti-racists to carry on as before.
To counter them, the Left has to be confident and clear: whoever opposes anti-racism is, at best, giving cover to genuine racists, and, at worst, cynically goading them on.