What happened to the ‘Asian century’? COVID-19 in Australia and New Zealand

Published 22 September 2020 / By Vidya Ramachandran

Back to Articles

This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.


Australia and New Zealand are unique among 'Western' countries in their proximity to Asia. Both countries have strong political, economic and cultural ties to the region. In 2012, the Australian government released a white paper on ‘Australia in the Asian century’, mapping out a plan to teach Asian languages in schools, attracting international students to Australian universities, and building businesses’ cultural competency to encourage greater engagement with Asia. New Zealand, for its part, has often claimed membership of Asia. Both countries also host large Asian immigrant populations, which have been alternately met with warm acceptance, and vitriolic xenophobia. The onset of COVID-19 – which has had severe impacts for violence and discrimination against peoples of Asian descent, and international mobility – has brought the region’s relationship with Asia, and specifically, China, into sharper focus.

Medicalising China

The pandemic has drawn out anti-Chinese sentiment around the globe. Chinese institutions have been accused of intentionally manufacturing, or concealing the pandemic; and Chinese people condemned for the practice of ‘wet-markets’, and for eating wild animals, or any animals at all – although similar markets exist, and wild animals are also eaten, in many other parts of the world. But the pandemic has not created anti-Chinese sentiment anew – it has simply given such sentiment a perceived sense of legitimation. Heinrich highlights that the West "has historically characterised China as a place rife with sickness, and Chinese people as inherently vulnerable to disease".[1] More broadly, anti-immigrant sentiment in many parts of the world has often been justified by irrational fears of disease. These tropes have again emerged during COVID-19.

Travel bans on China

The pandemic has also seen unprecedented restrictions on our mobility. Since the beginning of the year, most countries have imposed restrictive measures of border control. In early February, China became the first country subject to incoming travel bans by Australia and New Zealand: all foreign nationals who had recently been in mainland China were barred from entry to both countries. Similar bans were imposed in other parts of the world: in the US, 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. The Oceanic context is arguably slightly different: in Australia and 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, the early bans on China have raised similar suspicions. In Sydney, a rally at the Department of Immigration in February protested the ban as a racist act. Meanwhile, Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, the president of 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”. The bans on China have thus raised concerns regarding the continued racialisation of migration and mobility practices in the region.

Racialised violence and discrimination

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 violence against peoples of East Asian descent more broadly. In January, New Zealand’s media documented several incidents of racially-motivated violence against Asian-Kiwis. 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 Whangārei school after experiencing racist abuse. In May, 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.

The situation across the Tasman Sea 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. And between April and June, an online survey by the Asian Australian Alliance and Per Capita collected 377 reports of racist abuse from members of the community. Respondents reported having experienced racial slurs, name-calling, racist jokes, verbal threats, being shunned or excluded, being barred from establishments or transportation, being spat, sneezed or coughed on, and being physically intimidated. The Australian Hate Crime Network further highlights incidents of racialised graffiti, and vandalism of Asian-Australian homes. The numbers of incidents are likely to be even higher than 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. Meanwhile, the Asian Australian Alliance notes that 90 percent of its respondents did not complain to police or a statutory body, due to lacking confidence in authorities, or not believing they would receive adequate redress.

Asian migration to Oceania

Australia and 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, when both states’ heavily racialised immigration policies were relaxed. Since this time, both countries have received significant migrations from Asia. This relationship has not always been easy: ‘Asians in Australia’ are heavily politicised,[2] and their perceived threat to the country’s social and racial cohesion has often been used to justify anti-immigration platforms.[3] In New Zealand, anti-immigration sentiment has similarly centred on racialised discourse regarding Asian migration.[4]

COVID-19 has impacted international mobilities in various ways. In Oceania, the pandemic has severely impacted the region’s relationship with Asia – particularly, the movement of Chinese international students. Australia’s and New Zealand’s education sectors are heavily reliant on Chinese nationals, who constitute a significant proportion of overseas students. International students’ mobility has been impinged by both countries’ restrictive travel bans: while Australia plans to allow some students to re-enter from September, New Zealand does not intend to open its borders until 2021. The incidence of racialised violence and discrimination may also be partly to blame. In June, Beijing warned Chinese citizens against travelling to Australia due to the risk of racialised violence. A survey conducted by Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology in June further reveals that "only 40% of students in China who previously intended to study overseas still plan to, while just under 50% of those who had studied overseas plan to return to their study after the borders reopen". For those who had studied or intend to study in Australia, both Beijing’s warnings, and a fear of violence or discrimination, were commonly cited as reasons to avoid studying overseas. These concerns existed prior to the pandemic, and have been exacerbated by the pandemic’s varied consequences.

The Asian century?

In the preceding decades, both Australia and New Zealand have taken strides towards strengthening their 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”.[5] Meanwhile, since the late 1980s, New Zealand witnessed a comprehensive “re-orientation towards Asia and away from Britain", marked by an influx of migrants from the former.[6] 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.

Vidya Ramachandran is a MSc student in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford.

[1] Heinrich, A.L (2020) ‘Before coronavirus, China was falsely blamed for spreading smallpox. Racism played a role then, too’, The Conversation 7 May, available at: <> Accessed 9 September 2020.

[2] Ang, I. (2000) ‘Asians in Australia: A Contradiction in Terms?’ in J. Docker and G. Fischer (eds) Race, Colour and Identity in Australia and New Zealand, Sydney: UNSW Press, 115-130. (‘Ang 2000’).

[3] Zang, X. (2000) ‘Ecological Succession and Asian Immigrants in Australia’, International Migration 38(1): 109-125.

[4] Bartley, A. and P. Spoonley (2008) ‘Intergenerational Transnationalism: 1.5 Generation Asian Migrants in New Zealand’, International Migration 46(4): 63-84. (‘Bartley et al. 2008’)

[5] Ang 2000: 117

[6] Bartley et al. 2008: 65

Melbourne, Australia, 17 April, 2020. COVID-19 Stage 3 restriction warning signs display all over the city during the Coronavirus Crisis in Melbourne, Australia.