Last February, whilst walking along Regent Street in central London, I was accosted by a gang of youths. I was not alone. I saw them attempt to enter a store with their bicycles and harass store staff and shoppers. A woman had her shopping bag kicked.
Circling me on their bicycles, I weathered a hail of verbal abuse for what they perceived to be my class – I was wearing a tweed jacket. When confronted with my mixed race, it was my Englishness that offended. Knowing they were trouble, I chose not to confront them. I kept my head down and walked on, taking pains to avoid eye contact.
The incident has weighed heavily on my mind since then. Later that same day a Singaporean student, Jonathan Mok, would be assaulted in the same location by a gang of youths matching their description.
”I don’t want your coronavirus in my country,” one is reported as having said, before punching Mok in the face. This case, and the image of Mok’s badly bruised and swollen face, would make global news. It remains the most cited example of what has been presented as a wave of hate crime motivated by the coronavirus pandemic in Britain.
I was troubled by the experience. I find myself asking two questions. Firstly, whether there was anything I might have done to prevent it? When I encountered the boys they had not yet committed a crime, as far as I could see. There were no police about and, selfishly, I had a bus to catch. This is a question that will weight on my conscience.
The second is to question whether, given my own experience, it is factually correct to understand what happened as necessarily being racially and Covid-motivated. There is no doubt that both race and Covid-19 played a role, as the reported comment attests, nor that what happened was a hate crime.
But was race and Covid-19 what motivated these youths to cause trouble? Or were they already out to cause trouble and race was simply a convenient justification, as class had been when they had accosted me?
Mok’s case is only one of many that have been reported. I find all of them troubling and all deserve condemnation. But are they representative, as has been claimed, of a 300 per cent rise in hate crime against people of East Asian heritage? This widely quoted figure is in fact a calculation put forward by End the Virus of Racism, an advocacy group. Home Office figures, which do not break down hate crime by ethnicity, record an 8 per cent increase. This smaller figure is also on trend with recent years.
According to the Home Office recent rises are driven by improvements in crime recording and a better identification of what constitutes a hate crime. The upward trend corresponds with the time these changes were introduced. If this is the case, last year was not so out of the ordinary, and may not actually represent growing racism but rather a growing sensitivity to, and willingness to report and prosecute, hate crime.
On balance, I do not doubt that there may well have been a significant rise in hate crime against people of Chinese heritage in the UK, and that Covid-19 has played a part in this. But I also consider it just as reasonable to presume that the actions of Beijing, not only in Hong Kong and Xinjiang – but in its belligerence to the UK and the West in general – are also a factor.
In the nearest town to where I live a Chinese restaurant was vandalised in what was reported and prosecuted as a hate crime. But it was a swastika that the vandals had sprayed on the shop front. The pro-Beijing politics of the shop owner are well known in the community.
I also know of Hong Kong Chinese who have been harassed and in one case assaulted in the UK. The culprits, though, were “patriotic” Chinese. Some high profile Hong Kong dissidents dare not go to Chinatowns in the West and are more concerned by Chinese faces in a crowd, unfortunately with justification.
Yet the picture that is sometimes painted of the UK recently is of a hostile environment. It is a convenient picture for some of a certain political persuasion. This is simply not the experience of my family, though I would not presume our experience of living in rural Cambridgeshire to be either representative nor helpful in anything more than an anecdotal sense.
To claim that Britain is in the throes of an anti-Chinese wave of hate crime, and that this is symptomatic of a deeply rooted and institutionalised racism is a very large and serious allegation to make. And to see this purely in light of racism and Covid-19 strikes me as far too simplistic. It seems more an attempt to make a point than to understand what is actually happening.
I know of people of East Asian heritage who do live in fear. It is right to be aware. Some of my family members are understandably worried. But sometimes I wonder if unintentionally a line may have been crossed, and that we have gone from promoting a health awareness to fostering what on balance is an unnecessary level of fear.
What I consider to be a better reflection of British values and British society is not the very small minority of racist outcasts who commit hate crimes, but the much wider community of people who do not tolerate racism of any sort.
It is the fact that as a country Britain acknowledges problems and seeks to understand and address them openly. As an open and pluralistic society it embraces self-criticism. So while there may be a problem with hate crime, it is on the response to a problem that a society should be judged. And to respond to it, we first have to understand it.