“I’m not a virus”: Another fight during the Covid-19

The Asian community in the UK has faced an increased level of racism during Covid-19. What has this meant for the 216,000 Chinese students studying in the UK this year?

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash.

Putting on an N95 face mask and a hat, wrapping a scarf around herself to cover the entire lower part of the face and finally tucking in the corners of her scarf carefully in front of the mirror to make sure no one can see she is wearing a face mask is Wenyu Zhou’s daily ritual before going out.

She recalls the Friday evening after she had arrived at Manchester University a month earlier when three drunk white men, after seeing she was wearing a face mask, had insulted her and thrown a bottle at her as she was on her way back from campus.

“My legs keep shaking, I have never encountered such a thing,” said Wenyu. She panted for a long time in Tesco, hiding behind the shelf and crying quietly. “I feel so wrong. Had it not been for me to rush to nearby Tesco, I don’t know what would have happened.

“We have been called ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘chink’ by passers-by or homeless people just because we were wearing a mask, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Wenyu. “But I’m not a virus. I just want to live safe and healthy.”

In the first three months of 2020 alone, more than 260 hate crimes occurred in the UK, which is nearly three times the rate of the previous two years. The Chinese community experienced the worst attack, with 76% admitting they had faced racial slurs in YouGov’s latest survey.

“I knew these things were definitely going to happen after the pandemic’s outbreak, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly and so close to us’, says Frank, who is 21, comes from Nanjing, Jiangsu and is majoring in Ancient and Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh.

Just two months after the autumn semester begins, Michael Nio, a 22-year-old Asian undergraduate who was studying the same major as Frank was beaten bloody right in front of their university’s main library, which most students frequent.

Nio was kicked in the head and insulted by a group of six 14–16-year-old white boys as well as being verbally abused by a white girl; meanwhile, school security arrived belatedly.

They attacked me from every angle, said Nio to the Student-Newspaper. As Student-Newspaper reports, they first snatched Nio’s dinner and air pods at the entrance of the library and then beaten him even with a metal Non-Smoking sign.

I’m going to f-cking kill you, you f-cking ch*nk, the perpetrator yelling out loud to Nio.

“How could we feel safe when we’re on the campus,” said Frank. As a student who frequented that area, he feared he would be the next to be attacked.

If the guards helped ten minutes earlier, all of this could’ve been avoided, said Nio to a reporter from The Student Newspaper.

Although the hate crime was beyond the control of the university, what made the surrounding students angrier and disappointed was the late arrival of the security personnel and the subsequent inaction of the University of Edinburgh.

“I suspect that the university deliberately concealed information to reduce the negative impact’, said Frank. The victim was from the history department just like him. However, according to Frank, only history students received one official e-mail about the attack.

“The main library is the most popular area for all teachers and students. Racists won’t only attack history students. Such a life-threatening attack happened on our campus, and they don’t widely remind students and staff simply because of they want to reduce the impact; this is not responsible,” said Frank.

The university has not published any measures that can be put in place to keep students safe, said Mukai Chigumba, a law student in their penultimate year at the University of Edinburgh. She founded the Person of Colour (PoC) Walking Group after Nio’s incident, which is a new collective that aims to ensure students can walk safely to and from the library.

“They also didn’t tell students how to seek help when they encountered discrimination,” said Frank. Afterwards, he also failed to learn about any local organizations of stop Asian hate and anti-discrimination or activities in Edinburgh through the university.

Depending on students’ themselves, four days after the attack around one hundred students spontaneously protested near the main library.

After the parade, some students also formed a corresponding anti-discrimination organization. Image from: Frank.

“To be honest, I’m extremely doubtful about whether these will work,” said Frank, who went to join the campaign with his classmates as soon as he heard the news. “But I know that if you do it, it might not get any better, but if you do nothing and keep acting like lambs to the slaughter, it definitely will only get worse.”

With the increasing incidence, how frequently discrimination occurs and uncertainty over safety have become new aspects of university life that potential Chinese students need to take into account when thinking about studying overseas.

Why should I spend tens of thousands of pounds and travel thousands of miles away from home to study in a place where I could be attacked simply because of my skin colour, or because I wear a face mask? said Tao Wang to The Gradian last year. He is a politics PhD student at the University of Manchester.

I believe that the UK is relatively friendly, said Liu, a lecturer from Suzhou University. His son is preparing to study a master’s degree at IC’s engineering school.

Liu’s family encouraged their children to study in the US because there is a wilder choice of top universities at a global level within the US in his field of expertise. However, due to the extremely unstable political situation and frequent incidents of Asian hate, they abandoned their original plan and turned to the UK.

“I know this is essential because of the economic benefits we provide,” said Liu. “But it makes us more or less willing to believe that universities and society won’t allow discrimination to harm my boy. That’s the basis that I can still let him go to the UK.”

According to Onward, a UK thinktank, during a single term in 2019, Chinese students brought in £2.1 billion to UK universities and accounted for 11% of all income from higher education fees.

Last year, the UK overtook the US as the top destination for Chinese students. Around 26,000 of them, which is double the number in previous years, have gravitated to the UK because of its friendlier policies compared to the US, including timely and active adjustments in visa policies, language test certification and university services, according to the latest survey from New Oriental Education, one of China’s largest educational firms.

If universities have prioritized their reputation above the safeguarding and welfare of students and staff suffering from racial harassment, this will have a negative effect on their ability to attract and retain ethnic minority talent and the institution’s reputation, according to the report, ‘Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education. It reports that keeping faculty members away from infection is not enough, universities should strengthen their security in terms of safety and culturally strengthen anti-discrimination campaigns.

Small steps per person can make a huge difference, said Frank. Image from: Yuge Li.

“New coming students need to be mentally prepared and adopt learn the correct way to deal with it,” said Zaixi. As a blogger who also runs a small study abroad agency, the comments she has received behind the scenes about how to deal with discrimination have increased exponentially over the past two years.

She said that people who are discriminatory should be passed by to ensure our own safety and a confrontation should not be engaged in. Nevertheless, university colleagues who discriminate against you because of your skin colour or your accent must be reported to your institution. “If necessary, you can report to the community and let them protect you,” said Zaixi.

With the spread of the pandemic and the economic crisis, similar incidents will surely happen many times, said Frank on his social media, who are applying every Chinese student stand up and against racist.

According to Frank, students need to be extremely careful when being alone, and also to speak out after incidents to maximize the impact.

“We have to treat racists the same way the Allies treated the fascists in history, there must be no compromise or concessions,” said Frank. After Nio’s incident, he appeals to people to press for improved security measures on the city council if universities and the community doing nothing.

“Discrimination will not disappear because of the improvement of the pandemic,” said Zaixi. ” If we stand up and display an uncompromising attitude, it can keep people who prey on the weak away from us.”