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Amid U.S.-China tensions, Democratic lawmakers warn colleagues over ‘xenophobic rhetoric’

People hold signs during the "We Are Not Silent" rally against anti-Asian hate in the Chinatown-International District of Seattle on March 13. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaders of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus are asking colleagues to speak responsibly about U.S.-China relations amid concern that the escalating geopolitical rivalry is contributing to anti-Asian sentiment and a spike in hate incidents in the United States.

In a four-page letter sent to all House members Friday, caucus chair Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and six fellow Democrats say that as lawmakers attempt to confront the Chinese government on U.S. security and economic interests, they should refrain from “xenophobic rhetoric that exacerbates bigotry and racism facing Asian Americans.”

In an interview, Chu cited reports of increased hostility toward Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, which President Donald Trump repeatedly blamed on China, the country where the virus was first reported.

Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based coalition, has recorded more than 7,000 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents since the start of the pandemic. That figure is based on self-reporting from the community, and most of the claims have not been thoroughly vetted. Nearly two-thirds of the incidents involved verbal harassment, while physical assaults made up about 13 percent, according to the organization.

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“It is incumbent on all of us to be careful about the rhetoric that is being used,” Chu said. “This is what we want our colleagues to be aware of — that in their zeal to show they are doing something about China, they also don’t stoke the flames of xenophobia.”

Democratic Reps. Grace Meng (N.Y.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Mark Takano (Calif.), Ted Lieu (Calif.), Andy Kim (N.J.) and Marilyn Strickland (Wash.) also signed the letter, which cautions lawmakers to speak specifically about the ruling Chinese Communist Party rather than painting China and the Chinese people with a broad and critical brush.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have warned of the growing threat from China, which boasts the world’s second-largest economy. Analysts say China’s theft of trade secrets costs the U.S. economy about $30 billion annually.

The memo offers examples of how lawmakers should speak about the coronavirus and other matters, including human rights abuses and the Chinese military’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea. Instead of saying “China is immoral,” the guidance suggests, lawmakers could say that the Chinese Communist Party “is guilty of human rights abuses against its own people.”

The lawmakers emphasized that their colleagues should avoid referring to the “Chinese virus,” as Trump and some of his GOP allies have done, and instead say “COVID-19 virus; coronavirus; or SARS-CoV2.” Chu and other caucus members issued similar guidance over how to speak about the coronavirus early in the pandemic — but Trump and some GOP allies still referred to the “Wuhan virus” and the “Kung flu.”

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President Biden issued an executive memo his first week in office barring the federal government from using geographic descriptors when referring to the virus. And a bipartisan majority in Congress passed legislation in May to bolster federal efforts to track and prosecute hate crimes, especially those targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The guidance from Chu and her colleagues comes after a contentious debate at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing late last month during which Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) proposed an amendment to a funding bill that would ban the Chinese government and its subsidiaries from buying U.S. farmland.

Newhouse cited federal data that the Chinese government, through 81 investors, had bought 192,000 acres in the United States through 2019. He said that food chain disruptions during the pandemic heightened vulnerabilities in U.S. food security and called the Chinese government’s actions “an immediate threat to national security.”

Meng called the amendment “a dangerous and slippery slope that would perpetuate already rising anti-Asian hate.” She questioned why Newhouse did not include other countries whose governments are hostile to U.S. interests, such as Iran and Russia.

Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus said they became alarmed about Newhouse’s amendment because an earlier draft included a ban on owning farmland for all Chinese nationals, which they feared could include some U.S. immigrants who are not yet American citizens.

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“That sounded like alien land laws,” Chu said, referring to laws passed by some Western states in the early 1900s to prevent immigrant farmers of Asian descent from owning land.

Several Republicans, including Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), spoke out during the hearing in support of Newhouse’s proposal. The subcommittee approved the amendment after New­house and Meng agreed to continue discussing the matter privately.

A Newhouse aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the two have since talked and the amendment will remain in the bill as written. The aide pointed to Department of Agriculture data that showed Chinese investors holding far more acres in 2019 than other U.S. adversaries, including Russia (834) and Iran (2,463). (Canadians held the most acres at 7.5 million.)

“They had a positive conversation,” the aide said. “Both understand and agree that China is an adversary, and we all know that. This amendment was never about calling out one group. . . . It is about making sure we are protected.”