The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The link between anti-China sentiment in Washington and anti-Asian violence

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The past year has given rise to a veritable epidemic of anti-Asian violence in the United States. Stop AAPI Hate, an Asian American advocacy organization, documented at least 3,795 incidents of anti-Asian bias between March 2020 and the end of last month — a reflection of a surge in anti-Asian attacks that saw anti-Asian hate crimes across 16 cities in the country rise by close to 150 percent. This uptick had a grim coda last week when a White gunman was charged with the killing of eight people, including six Asian women, at Atlanta-area spas.

Activists pin the spike to a broader political climate that’s emerged starting with the onset of the pandemic. Researchers have directly linked tweets by former president Donald Trump grandstanding against the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” to an increase in anti-Asian hate online. And the Trump administration’s more general antagonism toward Beijing could often shade into dangerous territory. “Pre-pandemic, Trump’s frequent inflammatory language about China sometimes cast the entire country and its 1.4 billion people as an enemy, rarely drawing distinctions between the Chinese Communist Party, China the nation, Chinese companies, or Chinese people,” noted Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Shawna Chen of Axios.

That stigma, argued some lawmakers at a House hearing last week, placed a target on the back of ordinary Asian Americans. “I was deeply shaken by the angry current in our nation,” said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who was born during World War II in a Japanese American internment camp. “The heat of discourse at the highest levels of our government cannot be viewed in isolation from the ensuing violence in our communities.”

“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,” Russell Jeung, a history professor at San Francisco State University who also helped found Stop AAPI Hate, told my colleague David Nakamura. “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.”

This is a claim that can be difficult to prove. Had the rhetoric of Trump and his allies been different, would there have been dozens of fewer alleged hate crimes and bigoted incidents with Asian Americans as victims over the past year? We do know that Trump’s nativist politics smoldered in the backdrop of other mass shootings — from a shopping center in El Paso to a synagogue in Pittsburgh. And we do know that, a year ago, Asian Americans warned of the risks inherent in Trump’s messaging.

“When Asian Americans objected to Trump and others’ use of ‘the Chinese virus,’ it was because many of us feared these words would yield a body count,” wrote historian Jeff Chang. “We were told that we were overreacting. But now a year of anti-Asian rage has come to this: children slashed in department stores, elderly set on fire or pushed to their deaths, and women, attacked at twice the rate of men, chased, beaten, spit upon, as if we are not people, but pollutants — infections, contagions, stains on whiteness.”

This “anti-Asian rage” predates Trump, of course. The United States has a long history of stigmatizing and scapegoating immigrants from Asia — from the “yellow peril” a century ago over Chinese arrivals to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the attacks on Sikhs and other South Asian and Muslim Americans that followed the events of 9/11.

Some analysts argue that the current political context in Washington — where an anti-Beijing worldview is now bipartisan consensus — adds a new level of threat. “In the 1980s, officials from both parties cast Japan as the economic enemy; now it is China, one of the few issues about which Democrats and Republicans agree,” wrote Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong for The Washington Post’s Outlook section, recalling a 1982 incident when a Chinese autoworker in Detroit was beaten to death by two White men who thought he was Japanese. “And yes, it’s true that China is an extremely bad actor when it comes to espionage and human rights. But decades of official U.S. foreign policy and rhetoric from the pundit class have had a unique effect on Asian Americans.”

The Biden administration has been vocal in its condemnation of violence against Asian Americans, while eschewing the language of the “China virus” and shelving a baseless conspiracy theory that the pandemic was a deliberate project hatched in a Chinese laboratory. But “Biden has done little in terms of actual policy to reduce the anti-Asian hate generated by Trump,” argued Columbia University historian Mae Ngai, saying that, among other things, the White House could end a Trump-era program that critics say renders Chinese-origin scientists subject to racial profiling.

More controversially, Ngai suggested that Biden “pull back from treating China as an adversary.” That’s a move that has few takers in Washington, where a host of politicians now routinely cast China as an existential threat and epochal challenge to the United States.

But should the United States not confront China for its perceived wrongdoings? On social media, commentators balked at the idea that holding China accountable for its squashing of Hong Kong’s freedoms or its hideous repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang could be somehow linked to anti-Asian bigotry within the United States — a rhetorical move made by Chinese senior diplomat Yang Jiechi during his meeting with U.S. officials last week.

Washington politicians “must differentiate between real concerns with the Chinese government and racially motivated hatred against Americans of Asian descent,” wrote foreign policy experts Caroline Chang, Anka Lee and Johna Ohtagaki, adding that the United States “must uphold the values that China is seeking to undermine,” including the powerful legacy of its civil rights.

Until then, millions of Americans are forced to reckon with a vulnerability that is no fault of their own. “The incendiary rhetoric of a racist former President combined with the desperation stoked by an unprecedented pandemic has underscored the precariousness of a minority’s provisional existence in the U.S.,” wrote the New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan. “To live through this period as an Asian-American is to feel defenseless against a virus as well as a virulent strain of scapegoating. It is to feel trapped in an American tragedy while being denied the legitimacy of being an American.”

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