At a 2012 event in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the legendary Chinese American activist Grace Lee Boggs—known for her work in the black freedom and labor movements—addressed an issue that had not previously been at the center of her activism: Asian American identity. “We are an extraordinary creation in the middle of the 21st century,” said Boggs to the mostly Asian American audience. “We’ve thought of ourselves as a minority for so long. We were very invisible. We were so few. And yet we have a possibility of playing a role in the increasing, complex relationship between the East and the West.” There is now an urgent need to apply her insight, especially to the relationship between China and the United States.
This week’s Lunar New Year celebration, on January 25, comes at the beginning of a perilous decade, in which these two countries are locked in a spiraling conflict—one that is already transforming the world, for better or for worse. The Chinese diaspora in the United States is the largest outside of Asia, and those of us who are part of it may now find ourselves stuck between immense contradictory forces.
Economic and political integration between the two countries (once dubbed “Chimerica”) has been key to economic development in both countries for the past two decades. But this has now metastasized into nationalistic conflict; in the eyes of American elites, China has become an existential threat. This is playing out through the trade war (now in an uncertain truce following the recent “Phase One” agreement); a growing “tech war,” in which the United States attempts to stall advances in the Chinese tech industry; and, above all, the reorientation of US foreign policy toward “great power competition” with China. Right-wing nationalists such as Steve Bannon argue that China and the United States are so radically “incompatible” that one side has to “lose”—and they find surprising agreement among anti-China hawks in the Democratic Party, and even among progressives. Some pundits are convinced that the China threat could be useful in bringing Americans together. Even Congress’s support of the Hong Kong protesters is a cover for nationalist posturing.
If tension continues to escalate, it will destroy the possibility of the world’s top two economies’ cooperating to address the climate crisis—a setback we can’t possibly afford. It will feed nationalism and militarism in both countries, possibly leading to war. All this would destroy the progressive domestic policy agenda, much as Martin Luther King Jr. saw the promise of racial and economic justice in the Great Society program wiped out by the Vietnam War. Increasing nationalism in the United States reinforces anti-western nationalism in China—the great ideological tool with which Xi Jinping’s government builds popular support for its many human rights violations, including crackdowns on Hong Kong protesters, on Uighurs and other minorities, and on activists of all kinds in mainland China. This conflict could suck in everyone. Already, countries are being told to choose sides.
In the United States, the Chinese diaspora is caught in the middle. Already, the Trump administration has implemented new visa restrictions targeting international students and researchers from China, another front in his trade war. Chris Wray, Trump’s FBI head, has claimed that China represents “a whole-of-society threat”—meaning that the FBI now views all people of Chinese descent (including US citizens) as potential agents of the Chinese government and thus national security threats. Recent reports reveal policies encouraging racial profiling at the FBI that target the Chinese diaspora. It’s possible that as the conflict with China intensifies, so could racist policies within this country—as Japanese Americans endured in World War II, and as some Iranian Americans just experienced recently, when as many as 200 were unfairly detained at the US–Canada border following the US assassination of Qassim Suleimani.
It is one of the wonders of movement history, though, that vulnerability to oppression is so often transformed into a source of power. Disaster is not inevitable. There is another way: increased cooperation between progressives in both China and the United States, to confront shared threats like the climate crisis and global inequality.
To take this path, we must escape the trap of growing anti-China nationalism in the United States. Even those with no family connection to China must learn to recognize our shared experiences, shared suffering, and shared aspirations—so we can all see the people in that country not as threats or competitors, but as potential partners in the fight against our common problems. US hegemony over the rest of the world has become core to what it means to be an American; China’s rise threatens that supremacy, which many register as a traumatic loss. Like perceived threats to white supremacy, this is volatile fuel for reactionary politics. A key task for progressives in the United States is to develop an alternative to this vision of American identity—one that is not just multiracial, but also internationalist.
Another part of this struggle is combating anti-Chinese racism. In the United States and much of the Western world, Chinese people (and Asians in general) are dismissed as being a step removed from robots: obedient, efficient, disciplined, with an affinity for self-denial. We’re seen as lacking capacity for play, creativity, emotion, autonomy, and deep relationships with others. These racist ideas make it easy to imagine that all members of our diaspora could be potential tools of the Chinese state—obscuring the ways in which the experiences and struggles of poor and working people in the United States are shared by their counterparts in China, and making solidarity unimaginable.
Chinese Americans have a key role to play in confronting anti-Chinese racism and undermining the hardening boundary between American identity and Chinese identity. By owning, and subverting, our connections to both countries, we can help to represent and communicate the sufferings of people in China that would resonate with so many Americans, if only they knew: the oppression and exploitation of nearly 300 million rural migrant workers; the long hours of Chinese tech workers; the despair of “rust belt” cities in China, now suffering from millions of layoffs in older industries such as coal and steel; and the growth of US-style factory farms, polluting communities and displacing small farmers in rural areas. And instead of joining the often-xenophobic media hysteria over coronavirus, we can point out how it’s China’s poorest residents who will be affected the most by any outbreak.
We can also help share the work of activists and protest movements in China: the many strikes by Chinese workers (it’s estimated there are thousands every year), activism by Chinese feminists, protests against the abusive labor practices of Chinese tech companies, and demonstrations against displacement and pollution.
This knowledge of China doesn’t come to us automatically by virtue of our identity. But we can learn these things, and we can speak for the experiences and struggles of the Chinese people in ways that others cannot. On the most basic level of self-interest, Chinese Americans should be motivated to help shape this country’s understanding and treatment of China, because it could determine the United States’ treatment of us. But we should think beyond ourselves, too. We can flip the racist tendency to equate Chinese Americans with China—the assumptions made no matter what our real relationships are to that country—and use our unique position to promote solidarity instead.
Still, the Chinese diaspora can’t overcome the US-China rivalry on our own. We must be one force among many in a broader progressive bloc, including other movements—for racial and economic justice, for climate justice, for peace—that recognize how this conflict threatens their own goals. That includes the Americans who have already suffered from the conflict with China, such as manufacturing workers and farming communities.
If we want to take a more prominent role here, it will—as Boggs warned—mean overcoming the tendency to see ourselves as an apolitical “model minority.” It will mean pushing back against the pressure many Chinese Americans feel to distance ourselves from China, in attempts (always futile) to assimilate into dominant white culture. It will mean learning to be leaders, rather than auxiliaries to an agenda defined by others.
It will also mean overcoming divisions within the diaspora. We are not yet united. There are divisions between recent immigrants, and Chinese Americans whose families have lived here for generations. There are growing disputes over who counts (or wants to count) as “Chinese,” between Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, mainland Chinese, ethnic and religious minorities in China, and ethnically Chinese people with roots in other parts of the world. There are political divisions between progressives and the new Chinese-American right—a small but well-organized movement, driven by anti-black racism and other reactionary ideas. And then there are the Chinese Americans who, perhaps in reaction to American racism, identify with the Chinese state and subscribe to Chinese nationalism—a warped mirror image of American nationalism, and every bit as destructive to progressive goals and international solidarity.
These are all difficult obstacles. But the future of our communities, the country, and the world depends in part on whether we can take up these tasks, and play our world-historical role: finding powerful common ground between “East” and “West.”