Pandemic and Prejudice: Exploring Anti-Chinese Sentiments in Australia and the United States in mid-2021 and mid-2022

Dr. Yu Tao

27 May 2024

The COVID-19 pandemic has notably intensified anti-Chinese sentiment in the West. This upsurge can be attributed to pandemic-driven fear among some. In contrast, others see it as an exacerbation of racial prejudices deeply rooted in historical narratives such as the “Yellow Peril”, which unjustly scapegoat Chinese communities for the spread of the virus. While research in this area has expanded, the predominance of qualitative studies presents challenges in pinpointing the precise causes. Furthermore, initial criticisms of China’s response to the pandemic have morphed into broader concerns over its global influence, further complicating public perceptions of Chinese individuals. Significantly, the virus’s emergence, purportedly in a Chinese wet market, has provided fodder for racist commentators, offering them “evidence” to bolster their arguments and fuel conspiracy theories about the virus being a lab-developed bioweapon. Such extremities highlight not only the multifaceted nature of this prejudice but also the urgency in addressing the intertwining of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and deep-seated racial biases in shaping public sentiment.

To shed light on this complex issue, Dr Xiao Tan and I investigated the anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia and the United States amid and after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic through statistical analysis and survey experiments. Our study utilised YouGov online panels at two key moments. The first round of surveys took place from 8 to 21 June 2021, when Australia pursued a zero-COVID strategy with few cases, and the United States was experiencing a higher spread of the virus. The second round occurred from 28 July to 12 August 2022, after the pandemic’s peak in the United States and Australia reopened its international borders.

Our surveys were designed to mirror the national demographics of each country, engaging approximately 1,000 adults from each country to track the same respondents over time. This approach yielded decent re-contact rates, resulting in 544 participants in Australia and 597 in the United States completing both surveys. Our survey respondent demographics, detailed in our paper, aligned well with respective national demographics to ensure representativeness. In our samples, a modest proportion of participants identified as having Asian heritage—3% in the United States and 14% in Australia, generally consistent with, albeit slightly lower than, the recent national demographic composition of the Asian population in both countries. This methodological approach was chosen to encompass a broad range of perspectives, recognising the rich diversity within each country and the importance of including varied racial and ethnic identities in our analysis.

Australia and the United States: Key Territories of COVID-related Anti-Chinese Sentiments in the Global North

We focused on Australia and the United States as the governments of these countries were vocally critical of China’s pandemic response. Both the United States and Australia emerged as prominent critics of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, with the Trump Administration in the U.S. engaging in a contentious blame game with China and the Morrison Government in Australia initiating an international inquiry that sparked ongoing trade retaliations and unprecedented diplomatic tensions, illustrating the geopolitical dynamics that informed our study focus (Pan and Korolev, 2021).

Both countries experienced sharp declines in public opinion towards China, highlighted by significant increases in unfavourable views during the pandemic. For example, the Pew Research Centre’s 2020 Global Survey highlighted that among the 14 countries surveyed, Australia witnessed the most significant increase in unfavourable views towards China, with 81% viewing China unfavourably—a 24-percentage point surge since 2019, while in the United States, 73% held negative views, marking a 13-percentage point increase since 2019 or a 20-percentage point rise since Trump assumed office (Silver et al., 2020).

Additionally, both countries witnessed an alarming rise in violence and discrimination against Chinese and broader Asian communities. For example, during the pandemic, both countries experienced a notable surge in direct assaults and violence against the Chinese diaspora and other members of the broader Asian population, with social surveys unveiling substantial proportions of this community facing threats or attacks, both offline and online, culminating in significant incidents such as the Atlanta shooting in March 2021, which signalled a peak in the severity of anti-Asian sentiment (Stop AAPI Hate, 2022; He et al., 2021; Tan et al., 2021).

Discrimination against People of Asian and Chinese Heritage

Our statistical analysis encompassed responses from two survey rounds, each focusing on a different aspect of the anti-Chinese sentiment but sharing some common questions to reveal the dynamics of public perceptions over time. For example, our study highlights that both Australians and Americans noticed a rise in discrimination against Asian individuals since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit with some distinctions between the two countries. Initially, in mid-2021, about 85% of Australian respondents and 90% of American respondents reported that they believed that the pandemic had escalated anti-Asian discrimination. In mid-2022, this proportion rose to 91% in Australia and 93% in the United States, indicating that more people in the two countries recognise a rise in discrimination against Asians since the pandemic began.

We also explored how people perceive the degree of changes in anti-Asian discrimination in Australia and the United States in both rounds. Findings reveal that the perceived extent of how much the pandemic had worsened anti-Asian discrimination diminished somewhat in both countries between our initial survey in June 2021 and our second survey from 28 July to 12 August 2022. In other words, over time, while more people in Australia and the United States recognise the pandemic’s negative impact on anti-Asian discrimination, they tend to believe that the extent of this influence is not as severe as initially thought.

In the second survey round, we explicitly asked our respondants whether they believe the Chinese Government is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Our statistical analysis revealed that, by mid-2022, individuals in Australia and the United States held comparable perceptions of the Chinese Government’s involvement in the COVID-19 outbreak. On average, respondents deemed the Chinese Government’s responsibility for the pandemic to be “partly” to “mostly” responsible. Regarding welcoming Chinese individuals for study, work, and residency, respondents in both countries showed moderate openness, with attitudes ranging from “neutral” to “somewhat favourable”. In addition, our findings highlighted a more positive attitude towards permanent residents or citizens with Chinese heritage.

Decoding the Cause of Anti-Chinese Sentiments

We designed and conducted sophisticated survey experiments to decode the cause of anti-Chinese sentiments in Australia and the United States. Perhaps counterintuitively, initial criticisms of the Chinese government’s handling of COVID-19 did not significantly change people’s attitudes towards Chinese individuals, whether temporary or permanent. In other words, negative views about the Chinese government’s early actions in the pandemic did not seem to directly translate to negative feelings towards Chinese people living in Australia or the United States.

However, the scenario significantly changed when individuals were exposed to information suggesting the Chinese Government’s efforts to strengthen its influence through the Chinese diaspora. This information was presented as part of our survey experiments, where a random half of the participants were given a statement indicating potential foreign interference by the Chinese government with its overseas communities. (Interested readers can check out the vignette statement in our paper.) Our survey measured each respondent’s trust level shifts towards people with Chinese heritage by comparing their responses before and after exposure to the vignette statement. We then analysed the differences between the treatment group, which received the designated statement, and the control group, which was given a placebo statement. This approach allowed us to assess the immediate impact of perceived foreign interference on public sentiment. Respondents in Australia and the United States who were exposed to the treatment statement exhibited a notable decline in trust towards Chinese individuals, with Australians showing a more pronounced reaction than their American counterparts. This response highlights growing concerns over the Chinese Government’s potential influence on its diaspora and underscores the impact such perceptions can have on the trustworthiness of people of Chinese heritage.

Several reasons, we believe, can explain why perceived foreign interference might impact anti-Chinese sentiments more strongly than reactions to the Chinese Government’s pandemic response. Firstly, there is a recognised distinction in public perception between a government’s specific actions and the cultural or ethnic groups associated with it. Research suggests that while individuals may criticise government policies, they do not necessarily hold entire communities accountable for these actions, understanding that the handling of COVID-19 by the Chinese government did not represent the values of the Chinese people (Reny and Barreto, 2022). In contrast, fears of foreign interference invoke broader existential threats concerning sovereignty, security, and the democratic fabric of society, potentially casting Chinese individuals as unwilling participants in their government’s agendas, thus deepening mistrust and negative perceptions (Chubb, 2023). Additionally, initiatives like the Stop AAPI Hate campaign, which has been instrumental in reframing public discourse and challenging biases, have actively contested the scapegoating of Chinese individuals for the pandemic, effectively mitigating its impact by mid-2021. The role of media is also significant in shaping and perpetuating these perceptions. As the immediacy of the pandemic diminished, media coverage has pivoted towards more sensationalised stories of foreign interference, often lacking nuanced representation and feeding into national security anxieties (Sun, 2021). This persistent focus may not only keep such concerns in the public eye but also fortify existing stereotypes and suspicions towards people of Chinese heritage, suggesting a potential for continued influence on public sentiment and policy.

Differences between Australia and the United States

Our study reveals significant differences between Australia and the United States in how people perceived Chinese individuals during the pandemic and the discrimination faced by Asians since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Australians were slightly more welcoming towards Chinese people, possibly due to China’s critical role in Australia’s trade, while Americans more readily acknowledged increased discrimination against Asians. Notably, Americans held warmer feelings towards Chinese permanent residents or citizens, contrasting with Australians’ more significant concern over the Chinese Government’s influence on their Chinese community.

These disparities could stem from the distinct approaches to multiculturalism and integration in each country. Australia has officially embraced multiculturalism as a government policy, promoting diversity and wrestling with challenges of integration and cultural acceptance (Stratton & Ang, 1994). In contrast, the United States has seen multiculturalism primarily driven by grassroots initiatives, with its integration policies heavily influenced by civic movements and community advocacy (Tran et al., 2020). This difference in approach could partly explain the more explicit recognition and active discussion of racism, particularly anti-Asian racism, within the U.S., where social movements like the Stop AAPI Hate initiative have played a pivotal role in bringing these issues to the forefront of public discourse.

Additionally, Australians’ heightened sensitivity to Chinese government influence might be linked to several factors. Post-COVID-19, there has been a significant shift in Australia’s geopolitical stance, seeking greater security assurances in a region where China’s influence is rapidly expanding (Pan & Korolev, 2021). This concern is further compounded by Australia’s substantial economic ties with China, which, while beneficial, have also led to fears of over-dependence and potential political leverage (Brophy, 2021). Media coverage in Australia frequently highlights issues of Chinese influence, often sensationalised, contributing to public anxiety and shaping perceptions of Chinese immigrants’ loyalty (Sun, 2021). These factors underscore a complex interplay of policy, economic interests, and media influence, heightening Australian sensitivity to Chinese actions and intentions in the region.

Other factors such as population size, the proportion of the Chinese diaspora, and geographical proximity to China may also contribute to the variations between Australia and the United States regarding anti-Chinese sentiments. For example, Australians may view China’s actions as a more direct threat due to their country’s smaller population and closer proximity to China. Meanwhile, Australia’s relatively limited military strength, compared to that of the United States, might heighten worries about the possible effects of China on the country’s sovereignty and security.

About the author

Dr Yu Tao is an Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia and the recipient of a 2021 Freilich Project Early Career Research Small Grant. 

To explore the topic in greater depth or to access more specific findings and analyses, please consult the following article Tan, X., & Tao, Y. (2024). COVID-19, Perceived Foreign Interference, and Anti-Chinese Sentiment: Evidence from Concurrent Survey Experiments in Australia and the United States. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 1-19.


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