“Our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit,” President Biden declared in Atlanta last Friday. “We have to speak out. We have to act.”
While President Biden’s condemnation of the murder of eight people in Georgia, including six Asian American women, is welcome, it missed the mark in an important way. Both the speech and the statement issued by the White House failed to acknowledge that Washington’s over-the-top language about China is fueling an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, which boomerangs in the form of violence against Asian Americans. If there was any doubt that American foreign policy is domestic policy, these shootings should quell them.
To see how toxic the American discourse on China has become, one only needs to look at what transpired in Anchorage last week and the ongoing congressional debate on the annual Pentagon bill. The vitriol that was exchanged by American and Chinese officials in Alaska was unprecedented for its harsh and undiplomatic tenor, and will likely make cooperation on critical areas such as pandemics and climate change that much more difficult.
But when seen in the context of bipartisan efforts in government over the past five years to label China as a threat to America and the US-led world order, the debacle in Anchorage is not that surprising. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy mentions China 33 times, more than twice as many as the Obama administration’s version did. Similarly, the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance repeatedly singles out China as a direct threat to national security. Neither document mentions how the US government would advance legitimate national security interests without creating an environment of hatred against Asian Americans, similar to how the Muslim American community faced retributive violence after 9/11.
In Congress, members regularly use China to show that they are tough on national security without any regard for how their out-of-control language could shape American perceptions of Asians. For example, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) tweeted that “China’s goal is nothing less than the complete destruction of the United States” in response to the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus’ call to cut the Defense budget and channel resources to under-resourced areas such as global health. Such overt China bashing makes it nearly impossible to have a rational debate about areas of cooperation between the world’s two largest economies.
The truth is that what happened in Georgia is the latest manifestation of hatred borne out of racially-charged language deployed by a growing number of public officials on both sides of the aisle to cast blame on China, and indirectly, all East Asians and Asian Americans. Rep. Wittman, the top House recipient of campaign contributions from arms manufacturers and military contractors, offers perhaps one of the egregious examples of stoking fear and anxiety in order to advance a military-centered US foreign policy toward China. But he is hardly alone. Rather, Rep. Wittman is a part of an ecosystem that reinforces and normalizes such extreme views. And by not addressing this vicious cycle, government leaders are distracting the public from addressing the cause, rather than the symptoms, of violence against Americans of Asian descent.
The tragic incident in Georgia is only one of nearly 4,000 reported hate crimes against Asian Americans since terms like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” have become commonplace in Washington. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that hate crimes targeting Asians rose by nearly 150 percent in 16 of America’s largest cities in 2020, when China was routinely blamed by presidential and congressional candidates for America’s ailments. Given the barrage of anti-China language in government and media, why would anyone be surprised that Asian Americans have become collateral damage?
One person from Milpitas, California described experiencing verbal assault this way: “I was shopping when a man started making faces at me. When I asked him what was wrong, he said ‘We delisted your companies, we shipped back your international students, when do you ship out?” The message is clear: anyone who looks Chinese is suspect and should be expelled from this country.
Another person in College Park, Maryland reported the use of xenophobic language in the classroom: “One of my professors was talking about the public health response to COVID-19 during a virtual lecture and explicitly called it the “China Virus.” “We’ve got to be very careful about that country, and what they’d do to us,’” he told the class. This, despite the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s warnings against stigmatizing people of Asian descent for COVID-19. The World Health Organization has also warned against naming diseases to certain populations or nationalities as far back as 2015.
Asian American discrimination has a long history, dating back to 1871 when 17 Chinese immigrant men were lynched by a mob in Los Angeles. But the current situation is particularly explosive due to the hypersensitive domestic environment in which Americans are looking for someone to blame for the pain and suffering caused by the pandemic.
In response to the shooting in Georgia, President Biden has called on members of Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Grace Meng, as a way to expedite government response to hate crimes. This is a welcome move but falls woefully short of what is needed given the magnitude of the problem at hand. A more holistic, self-reflective strategy that connects the dots between foreign policy and domestic policy is urgently needed.
There must be more discussions among national security experts with domestic policy experts about the scope of the challenge at hand. Even if the Hirono-Meng bill passed the House and got enough Republican senators’ votes to pass in the Senate (a high bar), it would not address the underlying motivations for these hate crimes. Members of Congress who deploy zero-sum language on China to justify a bloated Pentagon budget must be called out and held responsible for the secondary order impact that their rhetoric is having on Asian Americans.
The current situation has grave national security implications for the federal government as well. The stigmatization of Asian Americans in government and exacerbating concerns of dual loyalty will only make it harder for patriotic Asian Americans to serve in government. Such discriminatory efforts could also lead to poor foreign policy policy decisions, as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Biden administration’s interim National Security Strategic Guidance recognizes that the United States confronts a wide range of challenges, from a global pandemic to a deepening climate emergency. But it also assumes the worst about China’s intention, which will make constructive engagement between two of the world’s largest economies difficult. The Quincy Institute presents an alternative approach to thinking about China and East Asia, one that emphasizes stability and regional cooperation, and diplomacy over military dominance. In other words, there are other ways to manage US-China relations without marching into war.
Thirty-nine years ago, at the height of the auto trade war with Japan, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit. The people who killed him thought he was Japanese. Rather than paying lip service to Asian Americans while perpetuating grossly oversimplified narratives about China, President Biden and the Congress should stop demonizing China. They must stop using China fear tactics to justify more military spending. As Rep. Marilyn Strickland stated on the House floor, “Words matter. Leadership matters.” It is time for American policymakers on national security and domestic civil liberties to work hand-in-hand to create policies that actually help Americans rather than pit them against one another.