Abandoning Criticism of China’s Government Isn’t the Right Way to End Anti-Asian Racism in the U.S.

The recent surge of anti-Asian violence across the U.S., culminating in the tragedy of the Atlanta shooting, reminds us that the mainstream (mis)representation of Asian Americans as a model minority never spares us from racist hatred and the perception of Asians as a “yellow peril.”

What complicates the matter is that the Chinese government, having dug its heels into an intensifying rivalry with the U.S., is not missing any chance to bring up racism to delegitimize America’s democracy and highlight its hypocrisy. During the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer, China’s state media pumped out reports and social media posts about the racism directed at African Americans. In the recent fiery meeting between Chinese and U.S. top diplomats in Anchorage, the Chinese Communist Party foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi broke diplomatic protocol to deliver a lengthy lecture about America’s deep-seated human rights problems, citing the persecution and “slaughter” of Black Americans in the U.S.

In the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting, meanwhile, The Global Times published an article asserting that Western media and journalists, including The New York Times and a prominent Asian American journalist, “invited attacks and even bloodshed to the Asian group in the U.S. as a whole.”

Clearly implied was the argument that any criticism of the Chinese government bore responsibility for promoting anti-Asian hatred. In a White House Press Briefing on March 18, a reporter asked National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne whether the Biden administration’s tough stance toward China was fanning discrimination against Asian Americans. Many Asian American leaders and progressive commentators in the U.S. also make the connection between U.S.-China policy and anti-Asian racism in different ways.

For quite some time, the Chinese government and Chinese nationalists have been using the language of inclusion and diversity to protest U.S. institutions that violate China’s interest as defined by the Chinese government. In 2017, when the University of California, San Diego invited the Dalai Lama to give a commencement speech, the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association worked with the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles to pressure the university to rescind the invitation. They argued the speech would manifest cultural disrespect toward Chinese students and scholars and violate the university’s founding principle of what they described as “respect, accommodation, equality, and earnestness.” It is laudable that the university did not back down. But it is ironic enough that inviting the spiritual leader of a persecuted minority people should have been characterized as an anti-Chinese discriminatory offense and an attack on inclusion and diversity.

In the wake of the Atlanta shooting, many Asian American rights leaders and progressive commentators rightfully expressed the worry that escalating U.S.-China conflicts would fan more discrimination and violence against Asians and advocated caution in the rhetoric and framing used to articulate U.S.-China policy. Some went as far as to suggest that for the sake of stopping anti-Asian racism, the U.S. should abandon the “tough on China” bent in its foreign policy.

We can surely disagree on the best approach to U.S.-China relations. But such debate should be based on our consideration of U.S. national interest, world peace and security, the well-being of the working people in both countries, and so on. Entangling the fight against anti-Asian racism with the debate about China policy won’t improve America’s position on either question. It is indisputably important that politicians advocating a “tough on China” approach should be very careful in their use of language in articulating their position to avoid fanning anti-Chinese/Asian hatred. But it’s dangerous to suggest that the U.S. should forfeit its critical stance on actions by China’s government on national security and human rights issues because we fear a backlash against Asian-Americans. Such suggestions reinforce the conflation of the Chinese state and people of Chinese descent—not to mention other people of Asian descent. This reproduces two dangerous interrelated falsehoods: one, Beijing’s own position that criticism of the current regime is tantamount to attacks on “the Chinese people,” and two, the notion China’s leaders and racists and xenophobes outside of China promote that all people of Chinese descent owe our loyalty first and foremost to China, regardless of our citizenship or where we were born. This conflation also unfairly holds Asian Americans responsible for the abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government and its supporters.

It’s unfortunate that many Americans seem unable to distinguish between the Chinese government, the Chinese people, Americans with Chinese heritages, and other Asian groups, just as many people still confuse Thailand with Taiwan. One foundation of anti-Asian racism is the homogenizing stereotype that lumps everything Asian, including different Asian peoples and the Chinese authoritarian regime, into one big undifferentiated mass. To fight this racism, we have to dismantle this homogenizing stereotype, not reinforce it.

Formulating an effective way to criticize and push back on specific actions and policies of the Chinese government without inflaming hostility toward Chinese and other Asian peoples is a necessary and daunting task. Trump and his allies’ juxtaposition of their criticism of the Chinese government with hateful and disparaging rhetoric about Asians, such as their dubbing COVID-19 “Kung flu,” is deplorable. The Biden administration’s ban on using racist terminology to refer to COVID-19, while pulling no punches in questioning the Chinese government’s responsibility, is a good start. There is more that the Biden administration needs to do. For example, it needs to make sure that any allegations of infiltration by the Chinese government into U.S. institutions are based on solid evidence instead of on the ethnic background of suspected individuals. Racial profiling is counterproductive in shoring up our national security. Proven cases of Chinese espionage in the U.S. and elsewhere show that the reach of the Chinese state is by no means confined to the Asian community. And the Asian community in the U.S. is filled with painful memories of being singled out for investigation just because of their Asian heritage.

Our vigilance against antisemitism should not stop us from criticizing and protesting certain policies and actions of the Israeli government. Our disgust of the harassment of Japanese Americans during World War II should not lead to the conclusion that the U.S. should have made peace with the Empire of Japan and accommodated its aggression in China and Asia. Likewise, our fight against anti-Asian racism should not prevent us from speaking up against Beijing’s persecution of Uighur people, crackdown on Hong Kong, threats to democratic Taiwan, increased aggression in the South China Sea, and use of economic power to suppress freedom of speech worldwide.

Nor should we stop questioning the responsibility of the Chinese government’s early cover-up in letting COVID-19 develop into a global pandemic. Chinese people and other Asians are victims of this cover-up, too. While we should not avoid the investigation into the origins and cover-up of the pandemic, we also need to recognize that many Asian societies have done an enviable job in containing the virus through rigorous face-masking, hand-washing, social distancing, and community mobilization. Holding the Chinese government accountable for the origins of the pandemic does not contradict our emulation of Asian peoples’ extraordinary performance in keeping the virus in check, in contrast with the failure in many Western societies.

The Asian American community in the U.S. is as diverse as the peoples and states in Asia. One key to the success of our fight against anti-Asian racism is to resist the convenient stereotype of a homogenous Asia. We should keep educating the wider public about Asia’s and Asians’ complexity and diversity.