On Friday President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders in Atlanta and publicly condemned the killing of eight people at local spas, including six Asian women. Their words were strong and moving. The president acknowledged “that hate and violence often hide in plain sight. And it’s often met with silence. That’s been true throughout our history, but that has to change—because our silence is complicity.”
The president had already previously denounced racist harassment and violence against Asian Americans, which had spiked during the pandemic owing in large part to his predecessor’s calling the coronavirus the “China virus” and “kung-flu.” That association blamed the first victims of the virus for their suffering and the world’s. Words matter, and I teared up as I listened to the highest elected officials in the land—one of them a woman of Asian descent—express their solidarity with our communities, our grief, and our anger; knowing, as Biden put it, the “black hole” in our chests that we’re “being sucked into.”
Perhaps, then, it is ungenerous to point out that, notwithstanding the president’s forceful criticism of racism, the new administration’s approach to China is essentially a continuation of Donald Trump’s. Biden may reject the hateful language of “China virus,” but he is extending the “tough on China” policy, which was the overall framework for so many of Trump’s racist tweets and remarks. This bodes poorly both for US-China relations and for Asian Americans, whose treatment has always been connected to Americans’ perceptions of the region.
In Chae Chan Ping v. United States, the US Supreme Court justified the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 on grounds that Chinese immigrants were “agents” of China and that their mere presence in the country was akin to war, even if no actual hostilities were taking place. The exclusion laws codified the idea that Chinese and other Asians were racially unassimilable and therefore could never be, or become, Americans. The construction of Asians as perpetual foreigners was reproduced over time with racist legislation such as anti-miscegenation laws, prohibition from owning agricultural property and professional licenses, as well as mob violence, lynchings, and the like. US wars in Asia, hot and cold, have also contributed to the idea that Asians are not American. The government interned Japanese Americans during World War II on the assumption that they were an “enemy race,” and Asian Americans of my own generation, who lived through the Korean and Vietnam wars and the protectionist movement against Japanese imports in the 1980s, know what it is like to be called a “gook.” Although all ethnic groups are connected to one degree or another to their ancestral homelands, Asian Americans are especially burdened by negative associations that define their identity, interests, and loyalty.
Since assuming office in January, Biden has done little in terms of actual policy to reduce the anti-Asian hate generated by Trump. His administration continued Trump’s tariffs, a stiff 25 percent on Chinese goods exported to the United States. It has expedited the review of the supply chains involving goods deemed to have strategic value, from semi-conductors to pharmaceuticals, potentially to disengage from those linked to China. The day before the president went to Atlanta, a team led by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Chinese diplomats, led by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in Alaska. Blinken’s opening statement scolded China for its actions “including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies,” as “threats” to “rules-based order.”
Yang Jiechi, China’s senior diplomat, shot back, criticizing the United States’ arrogance and hypocrisy, and pointedly referred to Black Lives Matter and human rights abuses in the United States. “We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image, and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” Yang said. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.” Both sides postured and blustered. Perhaps when the two sides met behind closed doors some constructive discussion took place, but tellingly there was no joint statement issued at the end, not even one pledging to work on their differences.
Biden administration officials believe that, while Trump’s China policy was inconsistent, Trump was correct to treat China as a strategic adversary. This was a major shift from the policy pursued since the 1990s through the Obama administration, which was one of economic integration and engagement. Certainly, it benefited US businesses and consumers as well as China, which lifted 600 million people out of poverty while also creating a new class of millionaires. The United States hoped that China’s market economy would lead to political liberalization. It avoided confrontation in hopes of long-term democratization. But under President Xi Jinping, China’s aggressive agenda of global economic expansion has been accompanied by domestic repression. The latter aims to manage the social tensions that come with rapid growth, income inequality, corruption, and the like. China’s brutal treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang can be partly understood as a way to secure the trade routes Beijing is building to Central Asia.
Arguably more troubling to the United States is China’s expansion in high-tech industries, especially 5G technology, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and medical sciences. The stakes are high. It’s one thing for Walmart, Apple, and General Motors to manufacture goods with cheap Chinese labor. It’s another to compete in advanced science and technology, which the West has long dominated. American experts concede that the United States now lags in some areas. It has, for example, had trouble convincing allies to shun China’s Huawei telecom network because it has no “secure” alternative to offer. For China, moving up the value chain represents a major leap in its economic development and the means by which to cement relationships with developing regions such as Latin America and Central Asia. American national security advisers also express alarm at China’s moves in cyberspace and physical space, from naval exercises in the South China Sea to infrastructural and extractive projects in Africa and the Middle East.
The Biden administration has also continued the so-called China Initiative of the Department of Justice, started by then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018. Purportedly aimed at countering technology and national security threats by China, the initiative has unfolded as a program of racial profiling, harassment, and prosecution of ethnic Chinese scientists. The FBI has investigated over a thousand cases of Chinese and Chinese American scientists. It has not successfully made a single case of intellectual property theft, let alone breaches of classified information. But it has brought criminal charges against some 50 Chinese and Chinese American scientists on other grounds, such as failure to disclose relationships on grant applications or tax evasion. It portrays such routine work as recommending students for jobs or reviewing grants as sinister and criminal.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is standing behind one of the accused, Chen Gang, a mechanical engineer and nanotechnologist, clarifying that his work with the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen was part of a departmental collaboration and university-sponsored project. MIT is paying for his legal defense; 200 of his colleagues signed a letter supporting academic freedom and declaring, “We are all Chen Gang.” But many universities are throwing their scientists under the bus, terminating their grants or worse, stripping them of their tenure and firing them. An editorial in Science in February called for an end to racial profiling and for more effective methods to “distinguish normal, constructive international collaboration from genuine acts of espionage and financial malfeasance” and for due process for all Americans, regardless of ethnicity.
The China Initiative’s racist association of China and Chinese Americans is connected to the harassment and violence committed by those who would beat elderly Asians on the streets of San Francisco and murder Asian massage workers in Atlanta. It’s part of a long history in which Chinese Americans are construed as avatars of China, the Yellow Peril. The China Initiative is especially dangerous because as a government program it gives an official imprimatur to the racial association of all Chinese with China. Attorney General Merrick Garland must immediately ditch the China Initiative. More generally, the Biden administration should pull back from treating China as an adversary and the misguided goal of transforming China in its own image. The United States is no longer the global hegemon; we live in a multipolar world that involves both competition and cooperation. These are complicated issues, not least because China is often a bad actor itself. But as long as vilifying China remains a bipartisan affair, Asian Americans will, as New York Representative Grace Meng stated during a recent congressional hearing, have a bull’s-eye on their backs.