Coalition Senator Eric Abetz (Image: AAP)

Nearly half of Australians have negative feelings towards people of Chinese, Sudanese and Iraqi backgrounds, a new report has found.

The Scanlon Foundation’s 2020 survey into social cohesion found 47% of respondents had a negative view of Chinese people in July last year, up from just 10% a decade ago.

The report highlights the tension at the heart of Australian multiculturalism: 84% of respondents think multiculturalism is a good thing but 60% also agree too many immigrants aren’t adopting Australian values.

And while some government MPs used the report as an opportunity to praise our support for immigration and multiculturalism, the figures again highlight the government’s failure to adequately tackle simmering racism.

‘Appalling focus on ethnicity’

For academic and editor Yun Jiang, the anti-Chinese sentiment was shocking and saddening.

“It’s very disappointing that when I’m on the street, and when I’m on TV, half the people I see have negative feelings towards me,” she said.

The report doesn’t explain why such attitudes have increased, but the past 12 months — when the global pandemic produced a groundswell of anti-Asian racism and conspiracy theories, and geopolitical tensions between China and Australia reached breaking point — offer some clues.

Throughout last year, Asian Australians reported an increase in racist incidents. University of Sydney academic and former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane says there has been “an appalling focus on ethnicity during some parts of the pandemic”.

“Some politicians in particular have cast Chinese Australians as fifth columnist operatives for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),” Soutphommasane said. “Against this background, it’s no surprise to find racism being trained on some groups.”

Jiang says the geopolitical situation has led to Chinese Australians being accused of working as spies. Her experiences are an example of how toxic the discourse around China has become. When she gave evidence at a Senate inquiry last year, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz demanded she and other Chinese Australians condemn the CCP. (He was accused of pushing a McCarthyist loyalty test.)

Beyond China

But it wasn’t just the Chinese community targeted by increased hostility. As this table from the report shows, negative sentiment towards people from non-Western countries increased substantially over the past decade.

In November 2020 more than half the respondents had a negative feeling towards people from Sudan. The Sudanese community has been a particular target of over-policing and racist commentary over the past few years.

Mabor Chadhuol, executive director of the Society of South Sudanese Professionals, says both the political class and the media had a hand in shaping these perceptions.

“The media has portrayed South Sudanese people negatively, and that really affects perceptions and leads to Australians viewing us as a failed society,” he said.

Too often, he says, commentary overlooks the structural problems facing the community — discrimination in the job market, youth unemployment, family violence and a lack of support for refugee communities — and instead pushes a narrative about criminality.

In 2018 baseless hysteria about “African gangs” swarming Melbourne was pushed by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, the Victorian opposition and tabloid media. Unsurprisingly South Sudanese youth in Melbourne reported a rise in racist abuse.

Last year Peta Credlin on Sky News falsely blamed Melbourne’s COVID-19 outbreak on the South Sudanese community’s alleged failure to assimilate. Following community backlash, led by Chadhuol’s organisation, Credlin was forced to apologise.

A glib response

Speaking after the report’s release yesterday, newly minted Immigration Minister Alex Hawke was oddly upbeat.

“Overwhelmingly there’s been an increase in support for immigration and Australian multiculturalism and I welcome that,” he told Sky News.

Hawke then came under fire for denying far-right extremism was on the rise, a statement that is inconsistent with several warnings made by security services over the past few years.

“It’s shocking that, in Canberra, there is a section of our political class who seek to downplay racism,” Soutphommasane said. “We see that in how some politicians refuse to call out right-wing extremism.”

For Jiang, the report and the response were indicative of the government’s approach to race issues.

“One thing we know about the current Australian government is it doesn’t take racism very seriously,” she said. “While there are a lot of calls for the government to tackle racism, it hasn’t really done much but to pay lip service.”

After Abetz’s demands for a loyalty test were widely condemned, most government MPs — with the exception of NSW Senator Andrew Bragg — remained silent.

And the response to the report is part of a pattern for the Coalition — evidence which challenges the narrative of a multicultural utopia is conveniently whitewashed.

When China warned its citizens about a rise in racist incidents in Australia last year, ministers Simon Birmingham and Alan Tudge disputed the claim. But the Australian Human Rights Commission had also reported a spike in racial discrimination complains from February to the middle of last year.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s anti-racism plan this week has been peak ScoMo: he’s urging government MPs to show their support for the Chinese-Australian community by attending Lunar New Year festivals.