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Labor candidate Sally Sitou fears ‘undertones of racism’ spreading in Australia after Twitter abuse

·4-min read

Vow to stand up for migrants if elected after messages question loyalties amid China tensions

A Labor candidate contesting a marginal western Sydney seat says she fears “undertones of racism” are spreading in Australia, after calling out messages that said she shouldn’t run for parliament because of her Chinese heritage.

Sally Sitou, Labor’s candidate in the federal seat of Reid, who was born in Australia, says she received “disappointing” messages on Twitter questioning her loyalties amid worsening tensions between the Australian and Chinese governments.

Sitou tweeted about the messages, saying that the assumptions her Chinese heritage connects her with Xi Jinping’s government were “demonstrably incorrect”.

Related: Biden adviser says Australia won’t lose sovereignty under Aukus, warns China wants to ‘break’ country

She said questioning her loyalty “speaks to the undertones of racism I fear are spreading”.

Her decision to call out the racist messages on Twitter comes after the defence minister, Peter Dutton, ramped up his pre-election warnings about the threat posed by China.

In a speech on Friday, Dutton said “dark clouds” were forming in the region and that in these uncertain times, Australians could be certain the Morrison government “will act to keep them safe”.

Labor has previously accused the government of embarking on “the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history” by talking up the prospect of Australia joining a war over Taiwan.

Sitou said she wanted to address questions about her candidacy “head on”.

“I wanted to talk about this early, because I wanted to address it right at the start so that there were no lingering issues. And that there wouldn’t be any … more messages down the track.”

She said she was pleased that the overwhelming response to her tweets was “there’s a place for me in our parliament”.

“I think my heritage and my background are really important part of who I am.

“The reason I am standing is because I saw the migrant experience, I lived it, I saw how my parents could thrive here. And it’s something that I want to make sure that we have for future generations.”

Related: Taiwan thanks Australian PM and defence minister for grim warning over China

The Scanlon Foundation’s annual mapping social cohesion report found a 20% increase in the number of Australians who see racism as a problem.

The report also noted a “longstanding hierarchy of ethnic and racial preference,” with Australians hosting more negative attitudes towards people from Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern or African backgrounds.

Liberal MP Gladys Liu, who was elected in 2019, was also accused of having divided loyalties. She told Guardian Australia there was no place for the types of messages Sitou was receiving.

“Chinese Australians, like all Australians, just want what is best for this country. We should not have to say it as often as we do, but we are loyal and we are proud to be Australian.”

A recent report from the Lowy Institute found the debates around foreign interference had fuelled suspicion of Chinese-Australians, leading to many feeling alienated.

Erin Wen Ai Chew, founder and national convener for the Asian Australian Alliance, said the messages Sitou had been receiving were “disgusting” but not surprising.

“They just highlight the extent of anti-Asian racism that exists in Australia. For someone like myself or Sally, we still have to prove our loyalties because of our cultural backgrounds.

“And that goes back to the idea that we are constantly being othered and being treated as perpetual foreigners.”

Chew said a rise in anti-Asian racism was being driven by the debates on foreign interference, and reporting on the origins of Covid.

“One factor is the kind of racist rhetoric that has come out of the Covid pandemic and that’s obviously not just in Australia, but across the world as well.

“The second factor is the tense relationship between Australia and China.

“Some of the tabloid media, as well as those who call themselves China experts and other influential personalities, have come out and used really lazy language in how they talk about that fragile relationship that Australia has with China.”

Chew said she believed the issue wouldn’t dissipate, especially with the looming federal election.

“Unfortunately, if you are a culturally diverse candidate, you’re always going to be subject to racial sledging.

“And we are definitely disappointed that this is the reality that we have to live with.”

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