The Atlanta spa shootings on March 16, in which eight people including six Asian women were killed by a white assailant, have brought renewed attention to rising anti-Asian sentiment and hate crime in the United States and beyond.
Indeed, since the emergence of COVID-19, East and Southeast Asian communities in the US, Great Britain and continental Europe have faced new waves of hatred, discrimination and harassment.
Former US President Donald Trump is trying to blame the pandemic on China, not only to gain influence over a powerful rival but also to avoid criticism for its failure to respond to this global public health emergency efficiently. As he repeatedly refers to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” and “Kung-flu,” politicians and influential public figures in other countries are quick to adopt the smoldering anti-China rhetoric. This, coupled with existing anti-Asian prejudice, has resulted in Asians being the prime targets of white supremacy and racist violence in many countries. For example, in the first year of the pandemic, nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate crimes were registered in the US, and Britain’s East and Southeast Asian communities had seen a 300 percent increase in hate crimes.
As I watch the deadly virus of racism destroy Asian communities throughout the Western world, I cannot help but fear that the Asians in my country, Brazil, will soon face the same fate.
Brazil is home to a large Asian community, including the world’s largest community of Japanese descent outside of Japan, which numbers around 1.9 million people. The Asian community in Brazil is economically better on average than other racial groups, but this does not completely protect them from racism.
Anti-Asian bias has a long history in Brazil.
The first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil in 1908 to work on coffee plantations. As their numbers have slowly increased over the years, they face harassment and discrimination not only from the owners of the land on which they work, but also from the Brazilian state itself.
In 1934, the Getulio Vargas government passed the Immigration Quota Act, which limited the number of new immigrants from each country to two percent of the number of its citizens who had settled in Brazil in the previous 50 years. Although the law appears to be an attempt to limit all migration on paper, the law is actually aimed at restricting Japanese migration, in particular. Since only a small number of Japanese nationals resided in Brazil prior to the enactment of this law, a two percent quota ensures that only a handful of new Japanese migrants can enter the country each year.
According to historians, the Vargas administration’s anti-Japanese policies were rooted in its concerns about Japan’s “imperial ambitions” – Brazilian leaders feared that the Japanese community in Brazil could act as a Japanese outpost and pose a threat to Brazilian sovereignty.
This fear, and consequently, rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the country, only increased after Brazil declared war on Japan in 1942.
During the war, the Brazilian government severely restricted the movement of Japanese citizens within the country and banned Japanese language education in schools. Japanese-language newspapers were also banned and thousands of Japanese citizens were arrested or expelled from Brazil on suspicion of espionage.
After the war, the Brazilian state’s perception of Japanese migrants gradually changed. When Japanese migrants in the country achieved great economic success despite many obstacles, and when Japan emerged as a peaceful economic power in the international arena, the Brazilian state began to see Japan as a good migrant who added value to the country. Although this significant change in perception helped people of Japanese descent gain prestige and respect in Brazil, it did not save them from the racism that remains entrenched in Brazilian society.
Despite joining Brazil’s middle class and enjoying some of the privileges that come with that status, Brazilian Japanese, like other Asian migrants, are never fully accepted as equal members of Brazilian society. They continue to face racist “jokes” about their appearance and culture and racial discrimination in their daily lives.
As a teenager, I attended a predominantly white Catholic private school and witnessed first-hand the bullying of a student of Japanese descent because of his ethnicity. I was intimidated and ostracized for being black, while she faced similar harassment for being Asian. Students who bothered me to “sing and dance Samba” repeatedly asked him if he knew “martial arts”, or told him that he had to become a “mathematician”.
Over the following decades, the opinion of most Brazilians about Asians continued to be shaped by stereotypes and racial simplifications. For example, it is still common for Brazilians to refer to all Asian people, regardless of their country of origin, as “Japan”.
And things got significantly worse after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, following in Trump’s footsteps, sees the emergence of the new coronavirus as an opportunity to attack China.
According to renowned Brazilian journalist Tales Faria, Bolsonaro became convinced that COVID-19 was “part of a scheme by the Chinese government to expand its global power” in early 2020, and began presenting conspiracy theories to his staff about China.
On March 18, 2020, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, President Bolsonaro’s son, publicly blamed China’s ruling Communist party for the coronavirus crisis that is sweeping the world.
“It’s China’s fault,” he claimed on Twitter, retweeting a message that read: “The blame for the global coronavirus pandemic has a name and surname: the Chinese Communist Party.” After facing a violent backlash, he tried to retract his words and tweeted that he “never wanted to offend the Chinese people”. The damage, of course, was already done.
A month later, Bolsonaro’s then Education Minister Abraham Weintraub quipped that the coronavirus pandemic was part of China’s “world domination plan.”
“Geopolitically, who will come out stronger from this global crisis?” he wrote on Twitter. “Who in Brazil is aligned with the perfect plan for world domination?”
In native Portuguese, the tweet replaces the letter “r” with a capital “L” – “BLazil” – in the style commonly used to mock Chinese accents.
Former Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo – who resigned from his role on March 29 – meanwhile, has repeatedly attacked Chinese Communist Party leaders and called the coronavirus a “comuna-virus”.
Bolsonaro also initially rejected offers of Chinese assistance during the coronavirus pandemic and questioned the efficacy and safety of Chinese vaccines.
Attempts by Bolsonaro and his supporters to blame the pandemic on the Chinese government irreparably damaged Brazil’s relationship with China, put the country’s economic future at risk and left it unable to control the spread of the virus. Moreover, as happened in the US, the government’s anti-China rhetoric led to an increase in anti-Chinese, and consequently anti-Asian, sentiment in the country.
We have seen reports of people of Asian descent facing harassment and exclusion related to the pandemic in Brazil. Many Asian-Brazilian and Asian living in Brazil say they have been told to “return to their country” or have been accused of “spreading the virus” by aggressive foreigners on Brazilian roads. I myself have heard acquaintances casually condemn the “Chinese virus”.
Fortunately, anti-Asian hate crimes don’t appear to be as widespread in Brazil as it is in the Northern Hemisphere, at least for now. But there is a volatile and lawless side to Brazil, and as the country continues to be devastated by COVID-19, things can escalate quickly.
Currently the world is battling not only the coronavirus pandemic, but also the pandemic of racism. And if the Bolsonaro government does not immediately change course and start working to repair the damage it has caused, I fear Brazil will soon become the new epicenter of the two.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.