Covid racism: Hate crime attacks against east and south east Asians in UK rise by 50% in two years

ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies met engineer Yuanzhao Zhang, who is seriously considering moving out of Cambridge after a racist attack.

Words by Multimedia Producer Ann Yip and production by Senior Producer Roohi Hasan.

The true scale of hate crimes against east and south east Asians in the UK has been revealed after a study shared exclusively with ITV News found reported attacks have risen by nearly 50% in two years.

The study by End Violence and Racism Against East and Southeast Asian Communities (EVR) shows 2,212 incidents were reported in 2020 compared to 1,492 in 2018. Many attribute the rise to Chinese people being blamed for the pandemic.

More than half of UK police forces - 60% - that responded to Freedom of Information requests reported an increase in east and south east Asian hate crime last year. View the data here.

ITV News spoke to victims of hate crime who were physically attacked - one was left nearly blind and another needed facial surgery - and to an MP who has heard from hundreds of other victims and became a target of racist abuse herself.

In the latest attack in Cambridge, research engineer Yuanzhao Zhang was left needing surgery to his nose after a brutal attack in a supermarket by a gang who hurled racial slurs at him.

Yuanzhao Zhang in hospital after a race hate attack in Cambridge. Credit: Yuanzhao Zhang

The 26-year-old Chinese national was doing his shopping at his local Co-op store on 18 September, when the attack happened.

Mr Zhang was so badly beaten up he had to have reconstructive surgery to his nose as he had difficulty breathing with his injuries.

He recalled the moment he was approached by a gang inside the store, with some of them shouting racial slurs at him.

"They were saying something like, the word started with C, something like, 'Ch***, go back to your country', something like that. So it's really obvious that it was a racially motivated attack."

Yuanzhao Zhang said he was 'really shocked' by the attack and described thugs using a racial slur

He said he shouted back and tried to push forward to get out of the situation, but he was pushed to the ground and punched on the head as he tried to defend himself against a group of about 10 boys.

The attack left him with a broken nose and injuries to his lower jaw and temple.

Mr Zhang said the gang ran away when they realised the severity of his injuries. He tried to chase them in an attempt to track down where they live, but they eventually got away.

Due to difficulties breathing and a fever, Mr Zhang went to hospital the next day and doctors said he had to have surgery as he had a nasal fracture and a deviated septum.

Yuanzhao Zhang talks about what happened:

The tech worker moved from London to Cambridge two years ago as he missed the city where he had studied his postgraduate degree, and where he called home.

But after the attack, he admitted he is seriously considering moving out of the city.

He said: "I was really shocked because people have always had the impression that Cambridge is a peaceful and lovely town, where a lot of students will come here and study."

Mr Zhang claims there have been other recent incidents of harassment and attacks in Cambridge against east and south east Asians, some of them were his Chinese friends.

'Asian hate has always been an issue historically but I think the pandemic has certainly been a catalyst in terms of making things worse'

He believes east and south east Asian hate has been an issue but the pandemic has made things worse.

He said: "The fact that, Covid hit China and Asia first doesn't mean we should be discriminated, because next time it could happen in Europe. Are we supposed to discriminate European side? It is just categorically wrong.

The attack has shaken the east and south east Asian community in Cambridge and across the country, with the Chinese Embassy in the UK even issuing a warning to Chinese citizens.

Yuanzhao Zhang, from Cambridge, was attacked while shopping at his local Co-op. Credit: UGC

However, Mr Zhang acknowledged the incident has also united people and said the support he received from the local community has reassured him that many British people are "really kind".

Three teenage boys have been arrested in connection with a series of racially aggravated crimes in Cambridge, which took place in August and September. The crimes include racial assault, robbery, theft and assault causing grievous bodily harm, Cambridgeshire Police said.

Daryl Law describes a hate attack that nearly left him blind as a stranger told him to go back to his country

Another man, Daryl Law, was nearly left blind in April after a stranger in Ealing, London, punched him and told he didn't belong in the country.

Mr Law was on his way home during lockdown when he walked past a couple who did not give him enough space to pass on the pavement and the man shoulder barged him into a wall.

He described what happened when he tried to confront the man: "The guy actually said, 'You don't belong here and you should go back to’ and he didn't finish his sentence. And he just sucker-punched me in the eye.

Daryl Law after he was punched in a race hate attack. Credit: UGC

"I was wearing my glasses at the time. So that impacted my face, caused injury to my eye sockets, my nose. And it was just out of the blue.

"And I knew something was wrong immediately with my eye. It's just this immense pain, but of dizziness, blurriness."

Mr Law went to an optometrist to get his eye checked out, who told him he needed emergency surgery.

He said: "What had happened was my retina had partially torn. And if left unattended, it could completely detached and that'll cause blindness."

'When someone says, 'go back to where you came from', it doesn't mean go back to your home'

Mr Law, who moved to the UK from South Africa 16 years ago, said he felt "angry", "sad" and "scared" to know that some people felt they could attack strangers based on how they look.

He said: "I truly believe that it was racially motivated. I think a lot of minorities or people of ethnic backgrounds will understand when someone says, 'go back to where you came from', it doesn't mean go back to your home.

"It's based on physical appearance, your language, your speech. It means you don't belong in this country.

"And I'm British. So this is where I belong."

Speaking about the impact the attack had on him, he said: "I just wanted to crawl and hide away, but you know, the very next day, I literally walked the exact same path, the exact same time of day.

"I needed to sort of prove to myself that I'm not going to let someone intimidate me.

"I have a family, you know, we have to walk around too on the pavements. And, I didn't want to be a victim all my life. I needed to know that I could, I needed to face that fear."

'I don't want my son to know his dad got attacked,' Mr Law said as he explained his five-year-old son has no concept yet of what racism is

The father said he was somewhat relieved that his five-year-old son had not been there to witness the attack.

He explained: "I don't want him to know that his dad got attacked and there will be questions as to why, what happened? And for me to tell him it was because the way that we look.

"He's going to grow up thinking, you know, what is wrong with him? Why? He never chose to look this way? We never chose to look this way.

"At this age he doesn't see colour, he doesn't even see gender. He just has schoolmates. They have a name."

Mr Law continued: "And I think that's how the rest of the world should be treating other people because we all are the same. We just might look different or speak differently, but we're still people."

How has east and south east Asian hate crime risen in recent years?

Data compiled by End Violence and Racism Against East and Southeast Asian Communities (EVR) reveals hate crime against east and south east Asians have been rising year on year since 2018.

The biggest increase was between 2019 and 2020, amid the start of the pandemic. There was a 27% increase as crimes rose from 1,742 to 2,212.

Between 2018 to 2019, the rise was 17%.

More than half - 60% - of police forces that responded to Freedom of Information requests reported an increase in east and south east Asian hate crime last year.

Of 46 police forces in the UK, 30 responded to FOI requests.

Types of hate crimes reported include assault, robbery, stalking and harassment, sexual assault, and threats to kill.

There are many more hate incidents that have not been recorded due to people not reporting crimes to police, the different ways in which forces categorise hate crimes by race and police forces failing to provide information on east and south east Asian hate crimes.

The police force area with the highest numbers of reported hate crimes was London. Incidents rose 80% from 323 to 581 between 2019 and 2020. London accounted for a quarter of all UK hate crimes in 2020.

In South Yorkshire, hate crimes more than doubled from in the same time period from 36 to 84.

And Police Scotland reported a 72% increase from 72 to 124 crimes.

A spokesperson for EVR said about the rise in hate crimes between 2019 and 2020: "This will not surprise anyone who has been paying attention."

But they warned the data is "incomplete and almost certainly understate" the levels of hate crimes against east and south east Asians.

Calling on the government and police to address hate crimes against east and south east Asians, they said there needs to be better data recording to understand the problem, more support for communities and better education of east and south east Asian histories.

Sarah Owen MP shows ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies some of the emails she has received from people about east and south east Asian racism. Some of the complainants do not even live in her constituency

Sarah Owen, MP for Luton North, said the figures show the "bare minimum" of what is actually happening.

As an MP with Chinese heritage and who spoke out on the issue of east and south east Asian racism in Parliament, she has been flooded with hundreds of emails from people writing about the racism that they faced, regardless of whether they lived in her constituency.

She said: "When I raised it in Parliament, I wasn't prepared for the reaction afterwards, if I'm perfectly honest, the huge number of people that got in touch to say how much it meant to them."

She continued: "And there were people that cried speaking to me about how much that debate meant to them because they had experienced racism throughout their life, particularly when they were children as well, and how much it meant to be able to have representation in Parliament on this issue."

People have told Ms Owen the fear of being attacked was worse than their depression.

One woman spoke about having to wrap a scarf over her head so people could not see she is Chinese.

Another spoke about suffering from agoraphobia since the beginning of the pandemic.

And one white man spoke about being called "Mr Corona" while out walking with his Filipino wife.

'This woman just pointed at me and shouted: Watch out, Corona's about,' Ms Owen recalls an incident where she received racist abuse on the street

Even the MP herself has been the target racism during the pandemic.

While Ms Owen receives abusive online messages on a day-to-day basis, she said one incident that has stuck with her happened when she was walking out of Westminster.

She said: "This woman just pointed at me and shouted, 'Watch out, Corona's about,' and at first, I thought, is that aimed at me?

"And then I could see her actually pointing at me and just like laughing and it hurt.

"It brought back every emotion you felt when you were a kid being, being laughed at for what you look like and who you are.

"And since then, people have asked why I didn't report it, and I just thought, because it's not going to go anywhere. I wasn't convinced that it would be taken seriously and that it would be marked down as actually a racist attack."

The MP said part of reason for "huge levels of under-reporting" is due to a lack of trust with authorities and a tendency in older generations to keep quiet and avoid conflict. She called on the government to take the issue seriously.

A Home Office spokesperson said the government is "committed to tackling hate crime" and its Hate Crime Action plan has had a positive impact.

They said the Crime Survey for England and Wales showed a long-term decline in hate crime and that "increases in police-recorded hate crime is driven by improvements in crime recording and a better indication of what constitutes a hate crime".

Mr Zhang has set up a petition calling on authorities to properly investigate anti-Asian hate crimes in Cambridge and is also appealing for people to share their experiences.

If you have been impacted by anti-Asian hate crime and need support, contact End Violence and Racism against East and Southeast Asian Communities by emailing info@evresea.com with 'Request for support' in the subject line.

If you want to share your experience of anti-Asian hate crime, contact ITV News at yourstory@itv.com.