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Australia Rejects China’s COVID-19 Student Racism Claims

People wearing face masks to protect against the new coronavirus ride past the Australian Embassy in Beijing, June 6, 2020.

Kicked, punched, and told to "go back to China.” Security cameras have captured what appears to have been a racially motivated assault on two Chinese women in Melbourne in April. The government in Canberra says such attacks are rare and perpetrated by a “tiny minority of cowardly idiots.”

In Beijing, though, education authorities say discrimination against Asian people in Australia has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that it is no longer safe for Chinese students.

Vicki Thomson, who represents Australia’s leading universities, believes the warning is a politically charged overreaction.

“It is very disappointing and, frankly, unjustified,” she said. “It is not the messaging that we would want out for our students when we know that it is not true, and unfortunately I think what happens is we are yet again as a sector caught up in a broader geopolitical context that is not of our making.”

This is a further worsening of relations between Australia and its biggest trading partner. China has already advised its citizens not to come to Australia on vacation because of racism fears.

Bilateral ties were strained by Canberra’s call for a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The demand infuriated Beijing and prompted China’s ambassador to Australia to threaten a consumer boycott. There have also been previous allegations of Chinese interference in Australian politics and cyber espionage.

Chinese students make up about a third of all international enrollments at Australian universities. If many decide to go elsewhere, it will leave the multibillion-dollar higher education industry in deep trouble.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday that he would not be intimidated by Chinese “coercion.”