Apr 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Asian Americans fear anti-China rhetoric will be weaponized in midterms

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some lawmakers and advocates are concerned anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail will be weaponized against Asian Americans.

Why it matters: In manufacturing-heavy, battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, both with primaries next month, blaming China is a tried-and-true way to appeal to workers who've seen jobs shipped overseas.

  • Congressional debate over the COMPETES Act, which addresses semiconductor production and competitiveness with China, also is driving much of the conversation.

Driving the news: "It’s us-vs.-them," Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a U.S. Senate candidate, says in one ad driving concern on the Democratic side.

  • "China’s winning. Workers are losing," Ryan says in the ad, framing the fight as "capitalism versus communism. I’m not backing down. Are you?"
  • In Texas, Republican House candidate Shelley Luther tweeted that Chinese students, whom she called the "next generation of CCP leaders," should be banned from all Texas universities, per NBC News.
  • In Pennsylvania, Republican House contender Jim Bognet ran an ad saying, "We’ll make China pay for the lies they told, the jobs they stole and the lives we’ve lost."
  • In Wisconsin, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took a more tepid tack. It ran an ad accusing Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson of "rewarding companies that outsource to China."

What they're saying: The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus has issued guidance reminding politicians to "avoid xenophobic rhetoric" that exacerbates anti-Asian bigotry.

  • Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), CAPAC's vice chair, who's called for Ryan to take down his ad, told Axios that some of the rhetoric campaigns are using this year "borders on fearmongering."
  • She said it's important to acknowledge "challenges in the U.S.-China relationship" but when rhetoric puts a "target on our backs ... Asians in the United States end up paying the price: We are scapegoated simply because of our skin."

Ryan told Axios in a statement that the "recent rise in violence against Asian Americans is unacceptable."

  • He emphasized that his ad sounds "the alarm on China's Communist government, which has subsidized major industries and manipulated their currency to displace workers here in Ohio."

Between the lines: Sensitivities are being driven in part by record-high numbers of anti-Asian hate crimes and increases in anti-Asian content on social media in the pandemic era.

What we're watching: Biden administration officials also are grappling with how to separate their critiques of other governments from the individual citizens of those countries.

  • CIA Director William Burns, appearing in Georgia last Thursday, emphasized the U.S. concern is with the People's Republic of China — not the people of China. "It is a profound mistake to conflate the two," he said.
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