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How Covid-19 led to an increase in hate crimes towards Chinese people in London

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 16 September 2020

Chelsea Gray and Kirstine Hansen.

New research shows that the well-publicised case of a student who was attacked in London’s Oxford Street in February was not an isolated incident. Our study shows that in the months after Covid-19 first emerged the probability of being a victim of hate crime increased fourfold for Chinese people across the whole of the London Metropolitan area, even after controlling for other factors that might affect hate crimes over that period.

The findings showed that the probability of being a victim of hate crime for a Chinese person in London rose from around 3-4 percent prior to Covid-19, to 10 percent in February 2020 and to around 16 percent in March 2020.

Our research identified no increase in hate crimes after Covid-19 for any other ethnic group nor for other (non-hate) crimes against Chinese people, nor in any other time period we considered. To get our results we used data from the Metropolitan Police for the whole of the Metropolitan area of London.

Covid-19 came as an unexpected shock that dramatically altered the situation for Chinese people living in London. Because Covid-19 is believed to have originated in China, they suddenly became the target of increased fear and anger which resulted in a rise in hate crimes against them. However, Covid-19 only changed the environment for  Chinese people and had no effect on the environment for other ethnic groups.

This provides us with a difference-in-differences methodological approach where those of Chinese ethnicity become a ‘treatment’ group, those we expect to be affected by Covid-19 and other ethnicities the ‘control’ group, whose victimisation rates we expect to remain unaffected by Covid-19. This methodology lets us better attribute any changes in hate crimes to the causal impact of Covid-19.

In other words we were able to look at hate crimes against Chinese people before and after Covid-19 and compare this to hate crimes against other ethnic groups. Our ability to measure what happened to hate crimes against  Chinese people relative to other groups, other crimes and other time periods is a real strength of the paper and allows us confidently to conclude that Covid-19 had a causal impact on hate crimes against  Chinese people in London during the first three months of 2020.


These findings are in line with other research that suggests world events have the power to change the way particular groups are seen (Sheridan and Gillett, 2005). And empirical work that shows that after a major event (9/11 for instance) whole groups of nations, races or religions become subject to hate.

In times of fear, people often fall back on stereotypes of other groups, which may have played a role in the transmission of prejudice that resulted in the increase in hate crimes we have seen. This kind of thing has recurred throughout history: from blaming Jewish people for the Black Death, to attributing the rise of HIV to LGBTQ communities, or blaming people of west African descent for Ebola.

In order for things to change, more people need to speak out. During Covid-19, politicians and media have, at times, played a role in exacerbating xenophobia, none more so than Donald Trump, who insists on calling Covid-19 the ‘China virus’. As Melanie Coates writes in the British Medical Journal “those with the loudest voices… have a duty to educate the public, protect the vulnerable, and hold people accountable for prejudice and discrimination”.

Unfortunately, the rise in hate crime against Chinese people after Covid-19 that we identify in our paper adds to a growing list of ways in which people of BAME backgrounds disproportionately suffered, and continue to do, so during Covid-19.

In addition to the rise in hate crime our research examines, Public Health England  found that ethnic minority groups were over four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than British white people and Liberty Investigates and The Guardian found they were  54% more likely to be fined for breaking lockdown rules than white people.

In the light of such stark disparities some commentators ask if the Covid pandemic has given a greater impetus to the #BlackLivesMatter protests. Criminology professor Tim Newburn of LSE argues that while protests often peter out eventually, “The continuing presence and terrible consequences of the pandemic might just make the difference this time.”

Chelsea Gray is with the Metropolitan Police and is an MSc student in the Social Research Institute at UCL. Kirstine Hansen is Associate Professor in the Social Research Institute.



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