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Murphy ’23: ‘An existential threat’: how anti-Chinese discourse in foreign policy lends itself to anti-Asian hate

On March 16, 2021, after a year in which the United States saw anti-Asian hate crimes rise nearly 150 percent, a white gunman murdered six Asian women in three Asian-owned spas after allegedly saying that he would “kill all Asians.” Just two days later, the United States and China entered dangerous new territory in an intense set of talks in Anchorage which saw the two superpowers accuse each other of “grandstanding” and “threatening” the international order, indicating that the U.S.-China relationship might be more fraught than ever. 

Anti-Chinese sentiment and brash language was an easy trend to identify in the last presidency, as Trump for years spouted aggressive Sinophobic language as he intensified the U.S.-China trade war and stigmatized COVID-19 as the “kung-flu” and “China virus.” However, as evidenced by the tone of the Anchorage meeting and the more established, bipartisan vitriol expatiated regularly against PRC as a single entity — not just the Chinese Communist Party — the trend of anti-Asian bias is not unique to the Trump administration. Rather, it is rooted deeply in how the U.S. foreign policy sphere talks about China. In order to both prevent violent incidents like the March 16 attack and ensure a more cooperative future with new generations of Chinese politicians, activists and scholars, American policymakers on both sides of the aisle need to reconsider their framing of the “China threat.”

Despite problems that legitimately and realistically endanger the continued existence of the United States, such as climate change, which poses irreversible impacts to the wellbeing of all American citizens and brings the risk of more common and more dangerous pandemics, politicians and policymakers regularly single out the existence of the Chinese state and its growth as the most existential threat facing the United States. Such rhetoric is often used in the most prominent and public spaces in the U.S. by partisan actors. Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, who helped issue a major GOP report on China this fall, called the nation “a threat to the future of our children.” Four Democratic candidates for president in 2020 each labelled China as the “greatest geopolitical threat to the U.S.” on the national debate stage. But even key members of the national security and foreign policy establishments who serve in apolitical roles have voiced these same sentiments. Donald Trump’s director of national intelligence, defense chief and secretary of state and Joe Biden’s secretary of state and national security advisor all have said that China threatens the U.S. more than any other state or security phenomenon. 

The biggest issue with this discourse is not that China as a political entity is not worthy of criticism. There is much to critique in the current policies and practices of the Chinese Communist Party that should be regularly dissected on the world stage. Aptly put by Secretary Antony Blinken, this includes actions in “Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States (and) economic coercion of our allies.” However, such overarching discourse has the tendency to overblow fears of China, and it clumps China and the Chinese people all into one nebulous but menacing enemy. From a national security standpoint, overblowing the China threat risks giving the CCP far more credit than it deserves, reinforcing the CCP propagandist mindset that sees America’s decline and China’s rise as inevitable, while ignoring American dominance in international economics and our stability in political legitimacy. From a more humanitarian point of view, this discourse categorizes all of China and its citizens as necessarily subscribing to the same ideology and positions as Xi Jinping himself, and as such categorizes Chinese-Americans as a threat in the eyes of many. Ultimately, these descriptions of “China” and “Chinese” politics, ideologies and cultural positions fail to make a nuanced distinction between the state and its people, perpetuating highly racialized fears of a “Chinese takeover.” As a result, U.S. foreign policy depictions of China can translate into violence against Chinese-Americans and even — in characteristically racist fashion — all Asian Americans. 

As Director of the Watson Institute Edward Steinfeld outlined last week in his talk to Brown community members titled “U.S.-China Relations and Anti-Asian Racism in America,” the racialization of tensions with China is neither a unique nor a new development. Rather, Americans have regularly racialized and demonized aggressors of non-white origins, most notably in the “Yellow Peril” against Japan during the Second World War and during Japan’s economic rise in the 1970s and 1980s. Back when the United States was suffering from stagflation and feared the Japanese takeover of world markets, Steinfeld explained, both Japanese people and the Japanese state were stereotyped as predatory, cunning and tactical. Similar to the trends of the modern day, the discourse at the highest level of governance in the 1970s and 1980s referred to the entire entity of Japan as a threat: Senators called the Japanese “leeches,” and the chair of the Federal Reserve warned that the U.S. was “hostage” to investors in Japan. Such discourse trickled down to racist perceptions of Asian and Asian American people, so much so that Philadelphia and Boston in 1990 reported alarmingly high rates of hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.

Today, the similar othering of and violence against Chinese and other East Asian individuals is born out of the far too broad threat assessment of the foreign policy establishment. Legitimate national security strategy is often corrupted with non-specific language against China (see: Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy, where China is described as “antithetical” to U.S. values, or Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance which writes China off as undermining international morals), helping to form the mentality that all of China on all fronts is seeking to attack the United States. This has become especially evident in areas of cross-national scholarly ventures, an arena that should undoubtedly be a-politicized but has become a new battleground for China hawks. Chinese students in the U.S. have become scapegoats for those wishing to push back against policies made by the Chinese government. For example, in May 2020 the Trump administration announced a plan to cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students who had previously studied at universities affiliated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The 2019 Tom Cotton-sponsored Secure Campus Act attempted to go even farther, suggesting a ban on any Chinese national who wanted to come to the U.S. for graduate or postgraduate studies in STEM. These policies are clearly discriminatory and Sinophobic but draw directly from what is deemed as an “acceptable” and security-based foreign policy categorizing the entirety of China as a threat.

Combatting the CCP’s genocide of Uigher Muslims, its squashing of democracy in Hong Kong and its neo-imperialistic policies in Tibet and the South China Sea absolutely needs to remain a key part of foreign policy; the Biden team is right to spar with Chinese officials over these issues. However, painting China with too broad of a brush and lending our discourse to a modern Yellow Peril does nothing but worsen the already-sour relationship between China and the U.S. It also encourages violence against Asians at home. Anti-Asian rhetoric is horrendous for the physical and psychological toll it takes on Asian Americans. Politicians ought to realize, too, that such crimes also harm the American foreign policy position itself: Chinese politicians regularly use America’s racism problem as a weapon of criticism on the international stage, and the CCP has exploited the rise in violence against Asian Americans for its own policy agenda in bringing down American power. 

The Biden Administration released a statement condemning the Atlanta shootings and promising to “combat racism, xenophobia and intolerance” against the AAPI community. But without a reformatting of the American discourse on China and working to undo the aggressive Sinophobia from presidents past, it is unlikely that racial tensions will meaningfully change.

Meghan Murphy ’23 can be reached at meghan_murphy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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