The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beyond the pandemic, Asian American leaders fear U.S. conflict with China will fan racist backlash

Carol Narasaki listens to speakers during a protest organized by the Asian American Pacific Islanders Organizing Coalition Against Hate and Bias in Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

President Biden has sought to blunt a reported surge in anti-Asian bias incidents by ordering the federal government not to use xenophobic language to describe the coronavirus and by calling “vicious hate crimes” during the pandemic “un-American.”

But Asian American leaders are warning that a deepening geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China is contributing to the heightened suspicion, prejudice and violence against their communities in ways that could continue to intensify even after the pandemic begins to subside.

Advocates called Biden’s rhetorical efforts a welcome corrective to President Donald Trump, who railed against the “China virus” and “kung flu.” Yet the broadening conflict among the world’s two largest economies — on trade, defense, 5G networks, cybersecurity, the environment, health security and human rights — has contributed to a growing number of Americans calling ­China the “greatest enemy” of the United States, according to a Gallup poll this week.

In the survey, 45 percent of respondents named China as the top threat, more than twice as many as a year earlier, when the country was ranked on par with Russia. Democrats and Republicans have voiced bipartisan support for a tougher U.S. policy, including economic sanctions on Beijing over cyber-intrusions, ­human rights violations and crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong.

“When America China-bashes, then Chinese get bashed, and so do those who look Chinese. American foreign policy in Asia is American domestic policy for Asians,” said Russell Jeung, a history professor at San Francisco State University who last year helped found Stop AAPI Hate (AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islanders). The advocacy group has tallied more than 3,000 incidents of bias and hate during the pandemic.

“The U.S.-China cold war — and especially the Republican strategy of scapegoating and attacking China for the virus — incited racism and hatred toward Asian Americans,” Jeung said.

Politicians reacted on March 17 to the shootings at three Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, including six Asian women. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

Anti-Asian attacks rise along with online vitriol

A number of violent assaults on Asian Americans over the past two months, including some that went viral after being caught on video, have drawn political and media attention to escalating fears over public safety. The slaying of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at three Georgia spas on Tuesday sparked demands for an urgent response from authorities. Police arrested Robert Aaron Long, a White man, in connection with the killings and cited as a potential motive Long’s interest in eliminating “sexual temptation.”

Suspect charged with killing 8 in Atlanta-area shootings that targeted Asian-run spas

Not all of the cases appear to have a link to anger over the pandemic or were necessarily motivated by racial resentment. But advocates said they have collected enough anecdotal evidence through self-reporting portals set up last year by community groups to illustrate that attacks are spiking.

And they are fearful that the intensifying competition between Washington and Beijing is contributing to scapegoating of Asian Americans in echoes of earlier periods of widespread hostility during geopolitical tumult and heightened nationalism in the United States.

They pointed to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that banned the immigration of Chinese laborers amid national economic anxiety, the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, and attacks on mosques and Muslim Americans in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

“For as long as Asians have been in America, we’ve been scapegoated, treated as outsiders and seen as untrustworthy. Too often, these prejudices are exploited for political gain,” said Christopher Lu, who served as White House Cabinet secretary and deputy labor secretary in the Obama administration. “As troubling as our current situation is, I am concerned that things are going to get much worse as U.S.-China tensions grow.”

Asian American leaders acknowledged the need for the United States to develop a tougher strategy to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s influence campaign across the globe. The question, activists said, is how the federal government and elected officials speak publicly about the challenge and how far they go to counter it.

Trump sought to blame Beijing for the outbreak of the pandemic, employing xenophobic language that was echoed by his supporters and other Republican officials and condemned by Democrats.

But in April, weeks after the onset of the pandemic, Biden also drew heat from Democratic Congress members and community groups for a campaign advertisement that accused the 45th president of having “rolled over for the Chinese” in managing the coronavirus and cast China as a looming threat.

Biden’s campaign apologized for the language and aired a revised version of the ad. But the episode illustrated the intensifying effort of both parties to appear tougher on Beijing.

“It is clearly a difficult line to walk. However, I do believe there is a way of disagreeing with China’s policies without denigrating the Chinese people themselves,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chair of the House Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Attacks on Asian Americans during pandemic renew criticism that U.S. undercounts hate crimes

Chu praised Biden for issuing an executive action in January aimed at barring federal agencies from blaming China for the pandemic and instructing the Justice Department to improve data collection on hate crimes. In a prime-time address to the nation last week about his administration’s coronavirus response, Biden decried attacks and harassment against Asian Americans who have been “forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets.”

“It must stop,” Biden said.

White House aides, including domestic policy adviser Susan Rice and senior adviser Cedric L. Richmond, met virtually with Asian American advocacy groups two weeks ago to hear their concerns. They pledged to use the power of the administration to combat violence but offered few specifics, according to activists who participated, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

Chu and others have pushed Biden to elevate more Asian Americans to high-level jobs in his administration, noting there is only one Cabinet-level official of East Asian descent, Katherine Tai, who was confirmed Wednesday as U.S. trade representative.

Attorney General Merrick Garland met with advocates on a video call Wednesday that lasted about 45 minutes, telling them he recognized that regardless of whether the Georgia killings were racially motivated, he understood the larger context in which the crime took place and the sense of alarm within the community, according to a person who participated.

Asian American leaders have raised questions about the Justice Department’s “China Initiative” — launched by the Trump administration in 2018 — to amplify ongoing U.S. government efforts to counter the Chinese government’s attempts to steal billions of dollars a year in U.S. intellectual property.

Advocates have said the program has led to unfair racial profiling of scientists and academics of Chinese descent. They pointed to the case of University of Kansas researcher Franklin Tao, a permanent U.S. resident who was indicted in 2019 and accused of failing to disclose an alleged teaching contract with a Chinese university while conducting federally funded research. His lawyers have denied the charges.

“Publicly available information suggests at least 60 cases that have been filed had a reference to the China Initiative. Only a quarter of them have actually involved charges of espionage,” said John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which has advocated on behalf of Tao, whose case is pending. Yang’s organization has asked the Biden administration to put a moratorium on the program and conduct a review of it.

“This goes to the perpetual foreigner stereotype we always talk about,” Yang said, “where in various points in history, we are targeted unfairly.”

Justice Department officials met with Asian American advocates two weeks ago, but they declined to comment on the future of that program. They have pledged to develop new grant programs for local police agencies to report on hate crime data and efforts to translate federal hate crime reporting portals into Chinese and other Asian languages.

At her confirmation hearing last week, Lisa Monaco, Biden’s nominee for deputy attorney general, offered credit to the Trump administration for focusing on cyberthreats from China and said she expects to “double down” on the strategy. “This is an area I think we have a great deal more to do,” she told senators.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced economic sanctions against two dozen Chinese and Hong Kong officials. The move came in advance of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first meeting with Chinese counterparts in Alaska later this week.

Last week, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) asked Blinken about concerns among some advocacy groups that restrictions on assignments for U.S. diplomats has disproportionately blocked Asian American Foreign Service officers from work in Asian countries.

“It sends a false message that people who look like me would be more disloyal,” Lieu told Blinken, who said he shared the concerns about inequities in the system. “As you manage the relationship with China, I want to remain vigilant that fear of a foreign country does not negatively impact the Asian American community.”