US tensions with China risk fueling anti-Asian harassment at home

President Joe Biden
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President Biden is taking steps to reinforce his support for the Asian American community grappling with a shocking trend of hate crimes and violence that has increased with the COVID-19 pandemic since it was first detected in China.   

But Asian American advocates are raising alarm that the growing conflict with China is continuing to fan the flames of anti-Asian sentiments in the U.S. and could lead to more hate incidents against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

Democrats have heaped praise on Biden for rejecting xenophobic and derogatory terms for COVID-19 like the “China virus” and “kung flu” that former President Trump and his GOP allies used to blame the Asian nation for the global pandemic.

But there are fears that fresh clashes between Washington and Beijing — coupled with Republicans stepping up their attacks on Biden as weak on China ahead of the 2022 midterms — could reinforce negative attitudes that Americans have toward Asians, community leaders said.

A Gallup poll this month showed that 45 percent of Americans now view China as the nation’s greatest enemy, up from 22 percent just a year ago. Just 26 percent said Russia is America’s greatest enemy.

“Unfortunately, we know from history that geopolitical tensions with foreign countries often result in a backlash against our community back home. And this is particularly true for the Asian American community,” said John C. Yang, president of the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“So, on one hand, our geopolitical tensions with the Chinese government are real, and they should be,” he added. “But we need to be very careful not to let those tensions have this effect on our community back here.”

The targeting of Asian Americans — particularly during times of economic uncertainty, political turmoil and war — is nothing new, Yang said. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act barring Chinese immigrants from entering or obtaining citizenship in the U.S. amid fears that Asian laborers would create too much competition for jobs and cut wages. 

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 120,000 Japanese American men, women and children — many of them born in the U.S. — were rounded up, forced to sell their property and imprisoned in remote incarceration camps because of their ethnic heritage and the fact that they looked like the enemy. They were afforded no due process.

And in the early 1980s, during the rise of Japanese carmakers, two white autoworkers in Detroit bludgeoned to death a Chinese American named Vincent Chin days before his wedding. Neither of the assailants, who blamed Chin for taking their jobs, served any jail time.

“Anti-Asian sentiment has been part of the really terrible racist history” of America, said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), whose Japanese American parents and grandparents were incarcerated during World War II. “It’s no wonder so many Asian Americans often feel that they are not fully American, that they are outsiders, that people perpetually think of them as foreigners, because it was made so in the law.”  

Hate crimes against the AAPI community surged between 2019 and 2020, a spike researchers and advocates say was fueled by Trump’s scapegoating of China for the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Politics and the statements of political leaders, particularly the president, do have an impact, as well as catalytic or ongoing events,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Levin said remarks from the bully pulpit can either enflame or mitigate tensions related to a particular ethnic group, pointing to former President George W. Bush speaking tolerantly about Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as contributing to a decrease in violence.

“Hate crimes dropped the very next day,” he said, citing FBI data. Hate crimes also fell sharply during the next year, from 481 in 2001 to 155 in 2002. 

Biden has gotten into hot water before over his rhetoric on China. Nearly a year ago, leaders of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) took the Biden campaign to task for running a digital ad that portrayed Trump as soft on China, declaring that Trump “rolled over for the Chinese” and “let in 40,000 travelers from China” at the start of the pandemic.

“I can tell you that the Biden administration was very, very responsive,” said CAPAC Chair Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who is Chinese American. “They listened to our concerns and acknowledged that there has to be a way of distinguishing the policies of the Chinese Communist Party versus painting, even the people of China, but certainly Asian Americans here in this country, with a broad stroke.”

In his first week in office, Biden responded to concerns from the AAPI community over Trump’s rhetoric, signing an executive order on Jan. 26 condemning racism, xenophobia and intolerance, and directed federal agencies to take more efforts in addressing anti-Asian bias. 

But the March 16 shooting rampage in Atlanta — where six of the eight victims killed were women of Asian descent — and other high-profile attacks on Asians, particularly women and the elderly, have sparked a national and global outcry to confront harassment and violence. 

Biden is pushing Congress to take up the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, legislation aimed at providing more resources for law enforcement and the Justice Department to address the rise in hate crimes and violence directed at the AAPI community. 

He also condemned violence against the AAPI community in a meeting with community leaders in Atlanta after the shooting. 

“Too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying … They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed. They’ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed,” Biden said while meeting with AAPI leaders in Atlanta. 

“Hate can have no safe harbor in America. It must stop. And it’s on all of us — all of us, together — to make it stop.”

But anti-Asian violence and discrimination is likely to be ongoing as relations between Washington and Beijing are at their most fraught point in decades. 

“Our contentions with the Chinese Communist Party are going to continue, and it will last beyond COVID-19,” Yang said. “So we can’t think that this racism that we are seeing is going to magically go away.” 

The Biden administration has continued a sanctions regime against Beijing for democratic rollbacks in Hong Kong and rallied allies to blacklist Chinese officials and entities for human rights abuses in Xinjiang — which the State Department has determined amounts to genocide.

Beijing has dismissed these criticisms as interference in China’s domestic affairs and imposed retaliatory sanctions.

The fraught tensions were most recently on display in Alaska last week, during the first face to face meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts — a diplomatic summit that spiraled into a verbal confrontation over the future of the international order. 

Both Democrats and Republicans support a tough stance against Beijing, but some GOP lawmakers have ignored warnings from AAPI leaders that stigmatizing rhetoric is putting a target on the backs of Asian Americans. At a recent hearing on violence against the AAPI community, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) repeatedly disparaged the Chinese Communist Party as the “Chi-Coms” and the “bad guys.”

He then added that all the “bad guys” who commit crimes should be brought to justice and lynched.

Yang, who testified at that House hearing, said he was confused by Roy’s reference to “Chi-Coms,” a term he had never heard before but one that has a “dehumanizing effect” that could be construed as a “dog whistle.” 

Bryce Barros, China affairs analyst at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, praised the Biden administration for its early steps in drawing a distinction in its rhetoric between confronting China and condemning discrimination against the AAPI community.

“America has a history of anti-communist sentiment and I do worry if you say some of those things it could be interpreted as othering ethnic Chinese. But I don’t want to downplay the importance of the Chinese Communist Party, I think the way that the Biden team is going about this is actually quite smart and is very thoughtful and I really commend them for that.” 

Freshman Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.), who is one of the first three Korean American women ever elected to Congress, said AAPI leaders and political others need to do a better job of educating the public about the history of immigration, injustices and contributions in the Asian American community.

“Words matter. How we frame things matter. And for too many people when we talk about the Chinese government, they sometimes think it refers to every single person of Asian descent in this country,” Strickland said. “But America needs a civics lesson and American needs a history lesson and we have an opportunity to share the histories of our nations with the public.”

Tags Antony Blinken Asian American violence China Chip Roy Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Judy Chu Mark Takano
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