A student found all the pins on their MCR's world map – meant for students to mark their hometowns – which were usually scattered around mainland China, had been moved around WuhanAnonymous

East Asian Cambridge students have been the target of at least six alleged racist incidents following the coronavirus outbreak which originated in Wuhan, China.

The incidents, which all occured in the last two weeks, saw one student’s hair physically pulled on the street and ketchup thrown at her, another told to “go back to [their] country”, and another asked if he was “carrying viruses” by a stranger.

Cambridge-based summer schools with large intakes from China are also considering their options for this year’s programmes, with one already cancelling its 2020 courses.

The novel coronavirus, now known as Covid-19, originated in a fish market in Wuhan and has infected more than 60,000 people worldwide, and caused over 1000 deaths since the outbreak began in January.

As of Wednesday, the Chief Medical Officer for England confirmed that nine people had tested positive in the UK for the virus, which was described by Health Secretary Matt Hancock as a “serious” and “imminent threat” to the UK.

Haotian Guo is a PhD student at Emmanuel and a Chinese national. On 3rd February, while attempting to sit down to eat lunch at Downing hall with Chinese friends, he said he was told by two white students the seating space was reserved for their friend, but no one arrived as lunchtime ended.

“I cannot believe such an incident would happen to me in the university”

While seated in a different place, Guo claims he overheard these students mention “too many Chinese people” in their conversation. After Guo reported the incident to the college, Downing Master Alan Bookbinder sent out an email the following day, branding such behaviour as “unacceptable”.

Four days later, while he was collecting his bicycle on Mill Lane at around 2pm, Guo said a middle-aged man approached him on the street. He asked, “Are you from China? Are you carrying viruses?”.

“I was appalled,” Guo told Varsity, “for the Downing one… I cannot believe such an incident would happen to me in the university. I thought Cambridge students believed in equality.”

While Guo says this is not his first experience with racism at the university, he now feels “unsafe” following the incident on Mill Lane, and is adamant the coronavirus outbreak has “inflamed, and to some extent justified” racism in Cambridge.

Yue Zhou, another Chinese national who is taking a PhD in Education at Downing, was walking down Regent Street last Tuesday evening when she says she felt someone pull her hair from behind.

Turning around and feeling a sticky substance on her head, she said she saw two teenage girls who had apparently thrown ketchup at her.

“At that moment I didn’t really know what to do,” said Zhou. While she asked the girls to apologise immediately – which they did – she said they did so while laughing at her, which she made her feel “they didn’t take it very seriously.”

Unsure at first whether to draw a connection with coronavirus fears, she later discovered friends, also from East Asia, had recently had similar experiences with the two girls.

“It [makes it] seem like we deserve this kind of treatment,” Zhou said.

Three further East Asian students who asked not to be named have also felt racism has increased since the outbreak.

One student was walking back to their college last week claims a stranger shouted “go back to your country” to them on the street unprompted. Another student, wearing a facemask at the time, said they had sweets thrown in their face whilst walking in Market Square.

The third student last week walked into their college’s MCR and found all the pins on a world map – intended for students mark their hometowns – which were ordinarily scattered around mainland China, had all been moved around Wuhan.

Speaking to Varsity, the student stressed “the map was intended to celebrate the diversity of the college and the international backgrounds of our members.”

But the incident left the student “utterly shocked”, and they strongly agreed with a statement made later by the MCR that this was a “clear reference to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, which is causing irreparable pain to many families in China and across the world”.

In response to rising racist incidents in Cambridge, police told Varsity, “Cambridgeshire Constabulary does not tolerate hate crime” and urged those affected “to report all incidents” to them.


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“We have a diverse community in Cambridgeshire and we recognise that everyone should be allowed to live their lives free from harassment and the fear of hate crime.”

In a statement published on the University website on Tuesday, Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope urged students and staff “to remain respectful and supportive of those members of our community who, at what is already a time of heightened anxiety, may feel subjected to unfounded scrutiny”.

Cambridge Programmes, a summer school hosted in Churchill and Fitzwilliam colleges, which takes children aged 11-17 from around the world, has cancelled this year’s programme following the WHO’s announcement of a global health emergency.

“Ensuring safety is on the forefront of our minds”, Cambridge Programme’s Director and Founder Rebecca Clarke told Varsity. “We’re not just a commercial organisation... it’s not right to carry on [given the rapid spread of the virus].”

Clarke stressed how the decision to cancel was best “for everybody”, and emailed the decision last week to around 100 applicants who had applied to take part in the course, as well as to 30-40 Cambridge students who usually act as mentors for the two-week programmes.

“We need to be worried,” Clarke emphasised, urging it was “nonsense not to take a decision”. Though the course has a large Chinese intake, it also hosts children from countries such as Australia, and Clarke noted she refuses to consider restricting applications just from East Asian countries alone.

Other summer schools such as the smaller Granta Academy, are yet to make a decision on cancellation and are waiting to hear from their Chinese agency partners.

Programme Director Martin Browne told Varsity the summer school may lose up to half its intake this year, from China, as the Chinese government looks to push forward summer holidays by a month, meaning children could no longer attend the programme.

In the meantime, his colleague and former Programme Director Adam Schumacher claimed the Academy is taking “every single precaution” in dealing with the issue.

The University and colleges this week issued renewed guidance on the coronavirus, urging all students and staff recently returning from the Chinese Hubei province, the virus’s epicentre, to self-isolate and call 111 whether or not they display symptoms.

Those who arrived in the UK in the past two weeks from mainland China, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, or Macau are advised to do the same if they display symptoms.