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Australia, China Clash Over COVID-19 Racism Claims

A Chinese paramilitary policeman wearing a face mask to protect against the new coronavirus stands guard outside the Australian Embassy in Beijing, June 6, 2020.

Australia is disputing Chinese government advice given to Chinese citizens urging them not to travel to Australia because of what Beijing calls a surge in racism during the coronavirus pandemic. The Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued the warning, insisting there was a “significant increase” in racist attacks on "Chinese and Asian people” in Australia.

China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, but there is friction in the relationship. Australia’s recent call for an international investigation into COVID-19, which is widely thought to have originated in Wuhan, China, infuriated Beijing. Despite denials on both sides, bans and tariffs imposed on Australian agricultural products were seen by analysts as retaliation by China. There was also criticism of Australia’s early February decision to ban travelers from mainland China because of concerns over the spread of the virus. Australia has since closed its borders to all foreign nationals.

In a further worsening of bilateral ties, authorities in Beijing are urging Chinese tourists not to travel to Australia because of fears of racism over the coronavirus, citing "an alarming increase" in violence against Asian people.

This is strongly denied by officials in Canberra.

“It is a rather moot point because there [is] no traveling happening between China and Australia, but let me say this: Australia is a very welcoming country, and we are certainly mindful of the fact that we have [a] 149.7 billion [Australian] dollar [$104 billion] trade with China,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said. “We are very mindful that we need to exercise respect. Anybody from China who is in Australia is most welcome to be here.”

However, anecdotal evidence has suggested that Chinese-Australians and other Asian migrants have suffered racism because of the pandemic. Some have said they have faced increased hostility both online and in shops since the outbreak began. Cellphone videos appear to support some of the allegations. A young Asian boy was reportedly bullied at school in Australia by other students who demanded he be tested for the virus. A Chinese family in Melbourne says their home was targeted by racists three times in a week.

Canberra’s relationship with China was already tense even before COVID-19 because of allegations of Chinese interference in Australia’s domestic affairs and cyber espionage.

Australia will not want to see the situation get any worse.

Australia's income from tourism and education has relied heavily on demand from China. Official advice urging Chinese citizens to avoid travel to Australia could inflict more damage on two sectors already damaged by the pandemic.