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One in five Chinese Australians say they have been physically threatened or attacked in the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and tensions in Australia’s relationship with China, a survey by the Lowy Institute think tank reported.

The findings prompted a call from the Chinese Australian Forum, a community group, for national leadership to tackle racism as Australia deals with a more assertive China, and also recognition that the Chinese community in Australia is diverse in its political views and origins.

Around 5% of Australia’s population of 25 million claim Chinese ancestry, the national census shows. Half of the Lowy survey respondents were born outside mainland China, in places including Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan.

“Chinese Australians were always going to be sandwiched in geopolitical tensions with (China),” said president of the Chinese Australian Forum, Jason Li.

“How we manage the rising distrust towards 1.4 million of our fellow Australians will be a significant test of our multiculturalism and our values as an open, liberal society.”

Three-quarters of respondents said Australia was a good or very good place to live.

The survey came as the Chinese Embassy published a speech by deputy head of mission Wang Xining, who attacked “scumbags” in Australia who criticized the Chinese government.

“Those scumbags who deliberately slander China, undermine Sino-Australian friendship and harm the well-being of the two peoples out of self-interest will be cast aside by the world, and their descendants will be ashamed to mention their negative role in history,” Wang told the Australia China Business Council dinner.

The embassy has previously listed its grievances against Australia as including Canberra’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, the bar on Chinese telecommunications company Huawei participating in the 5G network, and restricting foreign investment on national security grounds.

Australia introduced a foreign interference law in 2018 that has increased scrutiny of political donations by Chinese Australians and led to a police raid on Chinese media outlets.

Half of respondents to the Lowy survey said they were concerned about China’s influence on Australian political processes, and half said the media and politicians paid the “right amount” or “too little” attention to the issue.

Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, launched a Chinese-language YouTube video channel this week offering Australian news, after concerns from government and some community groups about Chinese government influence on Chinese language media outlets in Australia.

Li said the survey’s finding that seven out of 10 Chinese Australians feel a sense of belonging to Australia “vindicates the strength of Australia’s multiculturalism.”

A similar number, 68%, of Chinese Australians said they felt a sense of belonging to the Chinese people.

The survey also found strong support, at 65%, for Australia working to find other markets to reduce its economic dependence on China.

It is the first time the Lowy Institute has conducted the Being Chinese in Australia survey of around 1,000 people, mostly recruited on social media, which included Australian citizens, permanent residents and a large number of long-term visa holders. It was funded by the Australian government.

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