Mar 23, 2021 - World

How U.S.-China tensions can fuel anti-Asian racism

Illustration of an old television screen with the Chinese and U.S. flags glitching and blurring together
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Inflammatory rhetoric about China can exacerbate the sense that Asian Americans are "racialized outsiders," Russell Jeung, co-founder of the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate, told Axios.

The big picture: The U.S.-China relationship is at its lowest point in decades. Tensions between the two countries are reflected in U.S. policies and leaders' rhetoric that at times conflate Chinese people with China's government and can fuel anti-Asian racism in the U.S., Asian American advocates say.

  • "U.S.-China relations and our foreign policy translates into Asian American racial policy in the U.S.," Jeung says.
  • "We need to hold other governments accountable, but we need to express friendship and love for the people of a country," he says.
  • Economic competition, Beijing's growing authoritarianism, the Chinese Communist Party's ongoing genocide against Uyghur Muslims, and concerns about surveillance by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei have driven the U.S. and China apart.

Driving the news: There's been a yearlong surge in hate crimes against Asian and Asian American communities in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Last week, a white man shot and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, at spas in Atlanta, Georgia. It's the most deadly recent attack, and whether it was a hate crime is still under investigation.

What's happening: Asian American advocates say the phrases "Chinese virus" and "kung flu," used by former President Trump and other officials, fueled racial targeting of Asian Americans as scapegoats for the pandemic. (The U.S. has a long history of falsely associating Chinese people as carriers of disease.)

  • 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.
  • "When you see China, these are fierce people in terms of negotiation. They want to take your throat out, they want to cut you apart," Trump said on "Good Morning America" in 2015.

What they're saying: "Asian Americans have long been excluded from American belonging and citizenship," says Jeung, who helped co-found Stop AAPI Hate early last year. The organization reported nearly 3,800 cases of anti-Asian incidents between March 2020 and February 2021.

  • "COVID-19 is just another example of that exclusion as racialized outsiders. Time and time again, we are told to 'go back home.' We are seen as outside threats, to be excluded," Jeung adds.
  • Trump’s policies reflected that outsider conceptualization of Asians, Jeung says, by reducing immigrant visas, H1-B visas, and student visas for certain graduate students from China.

Background: The first federal act to limit immigration was the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited Chinese women from entering the United States. That was soon followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese laborers as well; it wasn't repealed until 1943.

  • During World War II, the U.S. forced Japanese Americans into internment camps.
  • During the Cold War, the U.S. government surveilled Chinese students and scientists in the United States.
  • In 1982, amid rising concerns in the U.S. about economic competition with Japan, two white men beat Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, to death in Detroit, believing he was Japanese. They served no jail time.

What to watch: Democratic and Republican leaders must "take swift and decisive action to reject violence and hatred against Asian Americans," foreign affairs experts Caroline Chang, Anka Lee, and Johna Ohtagaki wrote in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine.

  • "They must differentiate between real concerns with the Chinese government and racially motivated hatred against Americans of Asian descent."
  • Asian American lawmakers also asked the public to "please stop blurring that distinction" at a press conference Monday. Asian diasporas shouldn't have to fear violence that stems from rhetoric about a foreign government, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said.

The bottom line: As tensions between the U.S. and China escalate, U.S. leaders face the challenge of how to talk about Beijing's authoritarian regime without putting Chinese and other Asian people at greater risk.

Go deeper: The long history of racist attacks against Asian Americans

Go deeper