In Alaska last weekend, Chinese government leaders sought to stoke our country’s racial divisions, accusing the United States of having “slaughtered” African Americans, to deflect criticism over Beijing’s mass atrocities against its Uyghur Muslim population. Meanwhile, CCP propaganda outlets have been using the killing last week in the Atlanta area of eight innocent people (six of them Asian) to cast aspersions on those who are condemning the Chinese government’s atrocities. Beijing’s goal is to conflate and confuse two related but distinct issues: challenging the Chinese government and the need to fight racism in the United States. But their gambit amounts to presenting a false choice between doing one or the other.
“It is part of a broader strategy that the Chinese Communist Party is enacting to undermine our democracy,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) told me in an interview. “So when you see them creating that false equivalency . . . it is their way to sow discord in our society, because they understand when we are not united, we are weaker in leading the world in confronting their bad behavior.”
Murphy, a former Pentagon official who came to the United States as a child refugee from Vietnam, said that the use of racist language by former president Donald Trump and other GOP officials plays into the CCP’s hands. Yet at the same she emphasized that U.S. leaders have to be able to speak honestly and critically about the CCP’s negative behaviors, including its mishandling of the covid-19 pandemic.
The rise of racism against Asian Americans not only hurts the United States’ ability to deal with China, but also it harms efforts to make common cause with our regional allies and partners such as Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Those governments’ ability to join the United States in confronting China is hurt when members of their diaspora communities are mistreated in the United States.
“We have to be able to make a very clear distinction that our adversary and competitor is the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese people, and certainly not the Asian Americans who live here and who have contributed so much to this country,” Murphy said. “When we attack Americans of Asian descent, we attack ourselves.”
Some American commentators argue that the effort to confront the Chinese government’s behavior has fueled the staggering rise in hate and violence directed at Asians and Asian Americans in the United States. It’s certainly true that Trump’s racist rhetoric regarding the coronavirus fueled hate and conflated the two issues, tragically. And U.S. government efforts to confront CCP influence operations in our country have at times unfairly targeted people of Chinese origins.
Such targeting of Asians and Asian Americans makes us weaker at home and abroad. We must learn from, not repeat, examples from history when U.S. foreign policy negatively affected American minorities, including the mass internment of U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II and the mistreatment of Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the son of Indian immigrants, told me that the United States has to out-compete China without replicating the paradigms of the Cold War. But, he said, we must also stand up to the authoritarian and repressive model the Chinese government is putting forward without ceding our moral authority.
“That has to be the balance, enhance America’s strategic interest but clearly reject provocative rhetoric that’s intended to play to a base,” he said. “There’s a way to frame our moral position as a liberal democracy . . . without coming off as demonizing an entire civilization in a way that hurts Chinese or Chinese Americans.”
Khanna and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) have co-sponsored a bill, the Endless Frontier Act, to revamp the National Science Foundation to try to out-compete China through technological innovation. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) are cooperating on companion legislation in the Senate. These efforts will be a major test of whether bipartisan cooperation on the China challenge is possible.
It’s not the drive to confront China that is fueling hate and racism against Asians in America. Political opportunists are abusing that effort by fueling bigotry to score political points. This makes a unified strategy to confront the Chinese government only more difficult to achieve. In fact, addressing racism at home is crucial to winning the competition with China in the long run.
“We have to be aggressive in our policies and working with our allies to combat the violations the Chinese are making, but at the same time, we can hold the CCP accountable without scapegoating Asian Americans,” Murphy said. “And we have a responsibility to do that.”