Interview: There’s no place for racism in Aotearoa: Race Relations Commissioner

  • “It is important to distinguish between people debating about China and racism against Chinese people.”
  • “Anyone would feel unsafe if they are subjected to name calling, verbal abuse or physical assault. When these behaviours are racially motivated then that is further cause for concern.”


Several assaults and racial slurs towards Chinese people have been reported across New Zealand since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Human Rights Commission utterly condemns such behaviour and is committed to helping to “make New Zealand a safe and inclusive community for everyone who lives here,” Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said on Thursday.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for people in Aotearoa to be subject to this type of conduct,” Foon told New Zealand Messenger, a Christchurch-based Chinese-English newspaper.

Since January, there have been many reports of Chinese and Asian people in New Zealand experiencing racism and xenophobia because of COVID-19. These reports continued through the level 4 lockdown, according to Foon.

Up until 5 May this year, the Commission has received 311 enquiries and complaints related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some Chinese people living in New Zealand are worried that since the start of Alert Level 3, more racially-motivated attacks have emerged. They said they were afraid of going outside. Some of them were being called names in public.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission is very concerned about reported incidents of racially motivated assaults on Asian people, Foon said.

“Anyone would feel unsafe if they are subjected to name calling, verbal abuse or physical assault. When these behaviours are racially motivated then that is further cause for concern,” he said.

Sammy Zhu, a 60-year-old Chinese photographer working for New Zealand Messenger, was attacked on 28 April in the Christchurch city centre. Zhu’s left eye was seriously injured and his face was left covered in blood.

Police arrested a 34-year-old man in relation to the attack on Wednesday. The man has been charged with assault and will appear in the Christchurch District Court next Monday.

“I even greeted him when I passed by before he attacked me. It was all very sudden,” said Zhu who has lived in Christchurch for more than 20 years.

The police said on Wednesday they arrested a man in relation to the assault. The man will stand trial next week.

Zhu was not alone. On 29 April, a day after Zhu’s incident, an elderly East Asian man was also assaulted in a park in Lynfield, Auckland. Police have caught the attacker but the victim left the scene.

The aim of both attacks is unclear. However, the attacker in the Auckland incident said to the victim “it’s all because of you.”

“I am monitoring this situation closely and I am in contact with the Police. I have made my concerns about the racist undercurrent to COVID-19 known to the government. I want to know what the government is doing to ensure COVID-19 related racism does not become the norm. Bullying, harassment and assaults must be stopped and prevented,” Foon said.

“The Human Rights Commission has an important role to play supporting communities. We encourage members of the public to contact us where they feel they have been discriminated against. This includes situations that might fall within the sections of the Human Rights Act that prohibit the incitement of racial disharmony,” Foon said.

As well as receiving complaints about unlawful discrimination, one of the other roles they have is advocating more generally for harmonious relations between the different groups and people who live in New Zealand. This includes working with communities and other organisations to find out the causes of racism and intolerance and to identify ways that it can be prevented, the commissioner said.


Increased racism at school

Foon also highlighted the potential of increased racism and bullying at school because of COVID-19, and has been lobbying the government for compulsory bullying prevention programmes in every school.

“It is wrong to attach an ethnicity to the pandemic. Schools must be a safe environment for all students and I will continue to monitor this issue and advocate for safe schools for Chinese and Asian students and all other students,” he said.


Increased racial harassment on social media

The commissioner encourages anyone who experiences racial harassment online to use reporting tools in social media apps. Racial harassment cases can also be reported to Netsafe, which has recorded an increase in reports of hate speech.

Foon had a meeting with Facebook Australia/New Zealand to highlight this issue and “they are aware of it.”

“It is important to distinguish between people debating about China and racism against Chinese people. Free speech and debate are pillars of our democracy and human rights here in New Zealand but rights to freedom of speech should never be used to attack, or harm others because of their race,” he said.

“I have been active in social media to call out racism whether it be graffiti, name calling or physical assault, and in these posts I call on the community to stand up to racism and to report it to the Commission, and of course to report criminal activity to the Police,” Foon said.

Graffiti saying “Chinese not welcome,” picture taken by a member of the Chinese community in Wellington (provided by Human Rights Commission)


Regarding media racism, the commissioner said media have an important role to play in not racialising COVID-19 and not perpetuating negative stereotypes of any group.

“We are aware of general concerns about media using pictures of Chinese or Asian people when reporting on COVID-19. Media are an influential voice in shaping public attitudes and they must be responsible and should be fair and unbiased in their coverage of COVID related matters,” he said.

“Whakamutua te kaikiri ki Aotearoa – there’s no place for racism in Aotearoa,” Foon added.


Report racism online (, call 0800 496 877 or email, and report to Police where necessary.