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The danger of anti-China rhetoric

Congress is currently considering several bills aimed at strengthening U.S. technology and science resources to counter investment by the Chinese government in both areas.

These bills would spend billions in research and development in the years to come, while pushing for greater accountability for human rights violations in China. They haven't passed both chambers yet, but they are expected in the coming months – and they suggest that Congress is once again focusing on confronting the Chinese government more directly.

Combating the Chinese government's economic, scientific and technological advances has long been the focus of both political parties. But the way lawmakers have phrased the importance of reviewing the Chinese government – From proposing sweeping laws to prevent Chinese students from studying STEM subjects in the United States, to comments describing the country as an "existential threat" to America – has raised concerns among activists and foreign policy-makers who fear that the rhetoric and tone of such efforts will further fuel the already high anti-Asian sentiment.

While there is overwhelming consensus that a greater focus on American scientific and technological development is needed to ensure a strong economic future for the US – and that holding the Chinese government accountable, especially in Human rights issues such as the mass internment of the Uyghur minority – lawmakers must be extremely careful when talking about competition with China so that they do not stir up xenophobia.

Such xenophobia, fueled in part by former President Donald Trump's anti-China rhetoric and GOP lawmakers at the start of the pandemic, has already done a lot of damage. For example, Trump's repeated decisions to use terms like the "China virus" over the past year have been linked to increasing anti-Asian sentiment.

Since spring 2020, the Stop AAPI Hate organization has received more than 6,600 reports of anti-Asian incidents, ranging from verbal abuse to physical attacks, according to its website. The rise once again highlights how tensions between the US government and Asian countries can lead to hostility towards the Asian-American population. This trend was also evident in previous conflicts, including when Chinatowns were attacked during the Korean War in the 1950s and Japanese Americans were interned in internment camps based solely on ethnicity during World War II.

"Anti-China rhetoric increases Asians' fear of yellow dangers and leads to exclusion and racial attacks," said Russell Jeung, professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University. "Orientalist perspective, the East is alien, difficult, dangerous – that shapes our foreign policy as well as our internal dealings."

April 2021, protesters gather in New York City to call for an end to anti-Asian violence.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In the circumstances, it is important for lawmakers to call on the Chinese government and strengthen US resources while being sensitive to concerns about fueling racist sentiments. US attempts to spur growth shouldn't hurt Asian Americans in the process.

"It is a good balance to hold China and its policies accountable, not to vilify the people, and also to take care of US-China relations and domestic racial relations," said Jeung.

Democrats and Republicans both focus on "competition with China"

Tackling competition with the Chinese government is one of the few areas where bipartisan consensus has been reached in recent months.

Last spring, the Innovation and Competition Act – one of the top priorities of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – was passed by an overwhelming majority in the Senate and praised by President Joe Biden, who extolled “generational investment”.

The move focuses on how the US can gain a competitive advantage in general, with particular emphasis on the importance of counteracting the technological advancement and rise of China. It includes more than $ 200 billion in funding, including research and development funds in areas such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors, and robotics.

While the focus on research and development in and of itself is not worrying, the repeated formulation of innovation-friendly measures like this one as "anti-China" laws has raised concerns – including among some Asian-American lawmakers – that these rhetoric taps into the same xenophobia that did Sentences like the "China virus" before.

"(Legislator) calling it the China law is troubling to me," said Judy Chu (D-CA), head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC). "For me this is the rhetoric of the Cold War … and it portrays China as the only and most important enemy."

The sweeping statements made by both parties about the legislation risk reinforcing existing anti-Asian sentiments.

“If (Biden) decides to move up – he and his government – and go really hard on China, I look forward to working with him to make sure we outperform innovation, outperform the competition and outperform and starve the Chinese too Capital they need to continue building their slave-owning state and their blue water marine, ”said Senator Todd Young (R-IN) earlier. "I have watched over the years how China exploits us legally and illegally," said Schumer (D-NY) in an interview with the Washington Post about the Innovation and Competition Act.

Such statements reflect a longstanding trend of how lawmakers have spoken about China in the past. Often the threat to the US is described as "China" or "the Chinese" in the broadest sense, thus merging the Chinese government with the Chinese people. Such rhetoric makes it seem that all Chinese – and sometimes even members of the diaspora – should be seen as a threat to Americans, not the Chinese government.

As detailed in a report by Justice is Global, a People’s Action advocacy project, some of the narratives used to criticize the Chinese government can be quickly translated into anti-Asian sentiments at home. For example, inflammatory remarks about China as an economic threat can fuel anti-Asian sentiments that blame Asian Americans for the job loss.

Congressional bills are just the latest in action to prompt a review.

“When you see China, these are combative people when it comes to negotiating. They want to rip your throat out, they want to cut you apart, ”Trump said earlier on Good Morning America in 2015. Biden has also been criticized in the past for calling Trump someone who“ rolled over for the Chinese ”. in a campaign ad. Activists have also flagged earlier comments by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said the challenges China posed are a "whole society" issue, a statement that seemed to imply that the Chinese as a whole are generally open to national security threats be responsible.

Wow @JoeBiden. They are already trying to outdo Trump. This type of scare tactics causes violent attacks on Asian Americans. If you're trying to reform your previous history of racist policymaking, like your 1994 Crime Act, you'd better do some homework. That's not it.

– Cecillia Wang (@WangCecilia) April 19, 2020

"If we constantly conjure up 'China' instead of specific parties, issues or actions, then we are creating a monolithic enemy," said Aryani Ong, co-founder of the Asian American Federal Employees for Nondiscrimination. “What worries me is the harm done to Asian Americans who are swept away by a negative public reaction to anything related to China. We have seen this play out during Covid with the rise in hatred and violence against Asian Americans. "

In government and in the press, the policies of leaders are sometimes referred to by the country they represent. But in the case of China, there is a history of violence and disenfranchisement against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, and the familiar pattern of associating the US-Asia conflict with Asian Americans. Due to the ubiquitous “forever alien” stereotype – the notion that all Asians have a different loyalty to the US – anti-Chinese sentiment can quickly fuel xenophobia domestically.

In guidance issued by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to lawmakers on rhetoric about competition bills, the group specifically addresses this issue. "While it is common to refer to the actions of a government by the name of the country, in the context of increasing anti-Asian hatred, this can fuel xenophobia and hatred," they write. "This can be interpreted to mean that the Chinese people and Chinese Americans are enemies of the United States who are trying to harm us." To avoid this, CAPAC recommends specificity: for example the use of terms such as “Chinese government” or “Beijing” instead of “China”.

Michael Swaine, the director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute think tank, says this is a topic that experts in the field have been debating. He adds that he is concerned about how often lawmakers use terms such as "existential threat" as a general description of China, which can build an "us against them" mentality.

"Quite a few China specialists are concerned," he told Vox. "You see the incidents of anti-Asian attacks and the like in the US as stimulated or triggered by certain statements by US officials."

Aside from being potentially dangerous, this broad rhetoric just seems unnecessary. As previously reported by Vox's Jerusalem Demsas, such framing is not necessary to gain public support for policies such as the Innovation and Competition Act. As Demsas noted, portraying the legislation as investments to compete with China did little to change how much the public ultimately endorsed it in a survey by Data for Progress earlier this year.

Conflicts or competition with Asian countries have fueled xenophobia in the past

Historically, there have been numerous cases of conflict or competition with Asian countries that fueled xenophobia or anti-Asian sentiments in the United States.

In 1982, as production competition with Japan increased, two Detroit auto workers beat and killed 27-year-old cartoonist Vincent Chin, a Sino-American man, and accused him of quitting their jobs. During the Korean War, when China allied with North Korea, vandals stalked businesses near Chinatowns in the United States. During World War II, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were put in internment camps by the US government. And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, South Asian Americans were targeted for their looks.

Recently, during the pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in reported anti-Asian incidents tied to rhetoric by President Trump and other Republicans using phrases like "China virus" and "Kung flu" that the Asian people use Americans effectively scapegoated the spread of the coronavirus.

"When officials raise concerns about China or other Asian countries, Americans immediately turn to an outdated racial script that questions the loyalty, loyalty and belonging of 20 million Asian Americans," argued Janelle Wong, a professor of political science at the university of Maryland and writer Viet Thanh Nguyen in a Washington Post comment. "Most Americans are unable to distinguish between people of different Asian origins or ancestors, and the result is that whenever China is attacked, Asian Americans as a whole do so."

This amalgamation is a direct result of the belief that Asian Americans are eternal aliens and feeds on tropes that treat all Asian people as homogeneous.

"We become collateral damage every time there is a conflict between the US and Asia," Ong said.

Concerns about such profiling have emerged following allegations Chinese-American scholars have faced over the past few decades as STEM competition increased between the two countries. In 1999, Sino-American scientist Wen Ho Lee was arrested and released by the US government after pleading guilty of data abuse and realizing that there was insufficient evidence to support other allegations. In 2014, hydrologist Sherry Chen was arrested for similar reasons and the charges were dropped. It's a reminder that it's not just individual citizens, but the U.S. government itself that still makes negative assumptions about many people of Asian descent.

"Our country … has a long and dirty history of discriminating against Chinese Americans and targeting Chinese Americans, and this dates back to the late 19th century when there were multiple massacres of Chinese Americans and multiple discriminatory anti-immigration laws were passed on them Chinese community, ”Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said recently at a round table examining the pattern of anti-Asian discrimination. "The legacy of that story is still alive today, and unfortunately the newest chapter is in the alleged alignment and testing of Sino-American scholars."

Lawmakers – and many other Americans – should redefine how they talk about China

As both recent and distant history have shown, the way lawmakers talk about China has a tremendous impact. Labeling China broadly an enemy can lead to unnecessary marginalization, violence, and even death.

“I think the biggest advice is not to have anything that was sweeping. We ask people to pay attention to their tone, tenor and nuances in their approach to China, ”said former chief of staff of the NextGen foreign policy initiative, Caroline Chang. Staying away from common terminology and talking about the government or specific leaders like President Xi Jinping is a start.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) speaks with the Congressional Asian and Pacific American Caucus on May 18 with reporters about the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act.

Samuel Corum / Bloomberg via Getty Images

CAPAC promotes this idea of ​​precision in its guidelines.

CAPAC has published guidelines for other lawmakers on rhetoric.

Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus

A source familiar with Schumer's office said staff were careful with the rhetoric surrounding this bill and focused on reporting anything that was of concern in draft press releases and speeches. The office has also worked to encourage reporters and the media not to refer to the legislation as “China Law”.

Some activists and progressive lawmakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), have also found that shaping American relations more broadly as part of a zero-sum competition with China creates a blatant and troubling dichotomy that doesn't reflect the collaboration that is currently needed, to address climate change and other pressing global issues.

“If the US government doesn't change course quickly, this dangerous bipartisan push for a new Cold War with China risks strengthening hardliners in both countries, inciting more violence against Asian-American and Pacific islanders, and the genuinely existential common threats "We are facing this century," wrote a group of activists in a letter last spring.

Whether lawmakers will adopt CAPAC's recommendations – and change their approach to describing competition with the Chinese government – remains to be seen, but it will be extremely important to address this issue as these bills go through Congress to ensure that the US leadership no longer feeds xenophobia.

"I'm still nervous because it will continue to be a challenge for the US and we as a country need to find a way to talk about China," said Chang.

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