Why is New Zealand so Sinophobic?

The spread of a new Coronavirus, originating in Wuhan, China, has resulted in the deaths of many Chinese citizens. Understandably this has caused anxiety throughout the world as the virus and associated deaths have spread beyond China’s borders. The response to this outbreak amplified by the media has not only been fear of a new epidemic, but also a re-emergence of existing sinophobic (Anti-Chinese) hatred writes Brandon Johnstone. A Chinese translation is available here and in the International Red Newsletter.

Death toll headlines accompanied with images of Chinese faces in masks have arrived hand-in-hand with calls to close our borders, to deport all Chinese citizens, conspiracy theories that the virus is a weapon of the Chinese state and accusations that Chinese food and people are unhygienic and are to blame. While the average racist would argue their views are based on some empirical difference in cultures, the truth is that sinophobic elements have existed in New Zealand since the late 1800s. These elements were forged in the Chinese economic position upon arrival in the country and exacerbated by both New Zealand and Australia’s governments historical treatment of Chinese immigrants.

The Otago Gold Rush in 1861 was New Zealand’s largest gold strike. It brought labourers from around the world, particularly the USA and Europe, looking to make a fortune. The Otago region and its economy flourished, shantytowns and Chinese-majority villages grew, though the boon was short-lived as competition harshened. By the mid-1860s the goldfields declined, requiring labourers in the region to work longer for more scarce gold. In response the New Zealand government invited immigrants from Mainland China to work for what remained, in hopes of continuing the economic boon. By 1869 over 2000 Chinese labourers had immigrated to New Zealand. This competition led to a split along the most obvious of lines: the labourers of European and American descent began to view the Chinese labourers as the source of their declining prospects.

A contradiction emerged between the quickly growing anti-Chinese sentiment and the general view of Chinese labourers as harder working and more law-abiding than white immigrants. Pressure was put on the New Zealand government to stem the tide of the perceived Chinese economic threat, and so the state took a cue from their neighbours in Australia by establishing the Chinese Immigration Act 1881. This piece of legislation was the first in New Zealand to restrict entry to a targeted demographic and was the beginning of a five-decade slate of racist immigration law that came to be known as the White New Zealand Policy. It implemented a poll tax of ten pounds per Chinese immigrant, and restricted entry to one person per ten tons of the vessel’s weight. Over the next fifteen years this tax worsened, eventually becoming equivalent to ten years’ work for the average Chinese worker. While other legislation was introduced in this period targeting Indian, Samoan, Jewish and other immigrants, no group of people was so specifically targeted as the Chinese.

The media and the state propagated hateful stereotypes of the Chinese immigrant as immoral, a cheat, an opium addict and a bringer of smallpox. Politicians would argue that the Chinese worker was a docile and industrious but undesirable immigrant raised in an oppressive environment without free government (China was ruled by the Qing dynasty at the time), and so was unfit to participate in New Zealand’s free government. They were also perceived as mere cheap labourers. While this was partially because of the manual labour performed while gold panning, it was also informed by their low position in Australia as the replacement of convict labour.

The white New Zealand workers were encouraged to see the competition of the Chinese worker as a threat to their wages and employment, but over time this evolved into seeing the Chinese also as a threat of competition in the market. That is to say, the growing anti-Chinese sentiment grew alongside the burgeoning Chinese petite-bourgeoisie class, as white petite-bourgeoisie had identified the Chinese immigrant as a threat to their market share and profitability. Of course, this competition was no less true for any other non-Chinese immigrant. However, the threat of competition in commerce synchronised with the momentum of anti-Chinese law and propaganda led them to place blame foremost on the Chinese.

From around the turn of the century through to the 1950s, a handful of strong white supremacist leagues formed, among them the Anti-Asiatic League, the Anti-Chinese League, the White New Zealand League and the White Race League. These organisations were dedicated to the expansion of existing anti-Asian legislation and were largely successful in appealing to a ruling class that mostly shared their view of the Chinese individual as lesser than whites. This general feeling of white superiority throughout New Zealand bolstered these racist groups and thrived on the general desire that New Zealand be a ‘Britain of the South’. Even as some of the larger racist players in the vein of the White New Zealand League faded into obscurity, the RSA and nationalist organisations throughout New Zealand kept the white supremacist dream alive. This included backing petite-bourgeoisie farmers’ demands to seize all Asian-owned land for the benefit of white New Zealand farmers. Fears were intentionally stoked in this period that have never truly dissipated – particularly the hysteria that New Zealand’s status as a true bastion of European culture would be lost through immigration and interbreeding. These ideas of white supremacy were not tied to any particular class or economic function. Rather, any broad social recognition that their economic anxieties stemmed from capitalist exploitation of the workers’ labour was heavily obscured by a more immediate but irrational condemnation of ‘existing while Chinese’. It certainly benefited the ruling capitalist class and their established white supremacy that the Chinese would be a lightning rod for worker and even petite-bourgeoisie violence and organisation. The Chinese worker was a convenient scapegoat to distract from the exploitation that capitalists used to make profit.

Public propaganda from the state, media and racist organisations surely had a large impact on the window of acceptable political ideas and rhetoric that could be weaponised against the Chinese. On occasion people of Asian descent were portrayed as outright monsters, though usually they were caricatured as horrifically deformed, sneaky and malevolent. Western state propaganda would employ caricatures of laborious Chinese or Japanese men suggesting that Westerners take time off work, or strike. The implication here is that anything less than total dedication to productive work would result in the nation being overrun by foreign threats.

Of course throughout this period War World II raged, bringing out the most hateful anti-Asian racism largely directed at the Japanese and Koreans. This hatred was acceptable to New Zealand during the war, as the USA had requested that New Zealand hold Japanese and Korean POWs (sadly resulting in one of New Zealand’s worst massacres, the Featherston Massacre), and fueled military motivation. Like in other Allied nations, the Japanese were portrayed as bloodthirsty nationalistic barbarians who would fight to the last soldier, as a way of justifying the atrocity of the atom bomb destruction in Japan. Though China was allied with the USA throughout World War II, any goodwill was largely undone by Red Scare campaigns and McCarthyism, as the Communists grew in power throughout China. For individuals who do not challenge the racist ideas they harbour, this hatred is not a rational analysis of culture and nation of origin, but an abstract prejudice against anyone of an Asian ethnicity or with an Asian name. Hence multiple forms of anti-Asian racism synchronised and strengthened, to be joined soon by the USA’s anti-Vietnam and anti-Communist propaganda.

While it would be tempting to view these conditions and sentiments as far in the past, the contemporary increase in anti-Asian rhetoric cannot be ignored. While the New Zealand business class needs to court Asian markets, especially Chinese, for trade in order to generate profit while Chinese immigrants contribute to the local economy in order to build a life in New Zealand. However, this contradicts the rhetoric of New Zealand nationalism which is fueling the perception that something is being stolen from Kiwis by foreigners who retire or receive benefits while in New Zealand. This is a standard feature of growing capitalism. Large corporations must look to international markets to continue the growth at the core of their existence, seeking a never-ending pool of workers to exploit in order to continue generating profit for their shareholders. New Zealand’s actions in international markets are largely ignored by the broad populace of New Zealand (except for the abstract perception of wealth generated by farming and similar industries), while a spotlight is shone on any foreign purchase of capital at home. This is encapsulated in the dialogue surrounding foreign asset sales, from land purchases to water bottling. What this dialogue so often misses is that it is, of course, not the average migrant worker controlling this capital, but foreign capitalist interest. Controversy around this capital accumulation is whipped up by politicians and racist/fascist organisations in kind, further obscuring any class analysis in favour of a split along ethnic lines.

In 2012 New Zealand First, specifically Winston Peters, revived the now well-established bogeyman of the invading Chinaman, singled out elderly Chinese migrants for “cashing in” on New Zealand’s superannuation scheme. This rhetoric connected with the existing anti-China sentiments and strengthened Sinophobia’s position firmly within the Overton window. It encapsulates the underlying meaning behind the name “New Zealand First”, in that the party’s vision of New Zealand does not include Chinese New Zealanders. These parties are opportunistic, playing on the anxieties of workers looking at an uncertain future to scapegoat the foreigner as the villain instead of the realities of inequality generated by capitalism.

This opportunism is not just limited to right wing and nationalistic parties, the parliamentary left is just as guilty. In 2015 Labour Party leader Andrew Little released real estate data showing that a large proportion of houses in New Zealand were being sold to Chinese buyers. ‘Chinese’ here did not refer to nationality, but by the Chinese appearance of the names within the data. Clearly, Labour was weaponing established Sinophobia in potential voters in order to garner sympathy towards their asset sales policy. That this sort of rhetoric often leads to a rise in anti-Asian hate crime and sentiment must be known within the Labour party, who then must have decided that the risk was worth the garnering of Sinophobic votes.

In 2018 a conversation between National MPs Bridges and Ross was leaked to the public in which they ranked Chinese nationals as more valuable political candidates than Indian nationals. This ranking is clearly based on the votes that can be attracted in the candidates’ respective communities, and also how they could be utilised to more effectively tap into Chinese or Indian markets and bolster international capital ties. Again, the Chinese identity has been boiled down to its use as a political tool, rather than as a broad group of people with a wide spectrum of politics to match.

In only the last couple of days at the time of writing, a Singaporean woman in Auckland wearing a face mask was racially abused, quoted as saying “You Asians are the ones who brought this virus.” Rotorua Lakes Councillor Fisher Wang spoke about being targeted with racist abuse and received a torrent of hate in the days since his public statement. Multiple Asian bus users have reported bullying and abuse while heading to work, and taxi drivers are refusing to pick up Asian folk from airports.

New Zealand is a multicultural society. Our colonial roots are built upon the land theft and disenfranchisement of the Māori population. Our society inherits the product of two centuries of labour and politics by people of varied national and ethnic origin. Ideas of New Zealand as a white Dominion or bastion of British culture are a product of the parallel emergence of New Zealand’s identity as a national state and the nationalism that accompanied it. Sinophobia and other forms of racism only benefit the capitalist class, obscuring genuine class antagonism behind the fog of “us versus them” mentality along ethnic lines. Racism benefits only the ruling class and damages workers’ prospects to deal with the reality of such an unequal society. We must fight against these distractions and divisions that shore up this false national identity and make sure that we target our anger where it is deserved – at those that perpetuate the exploitation of the working class.