South China Morning Post: Time to stop the Asian racial scapegoating that’s rife in US politics

June 29, 2021

by: Leslie Tisdale Reagan and Cameron Waltz

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As the immediate threat of Covid-19 has diminished in the United States, we have the opportunity to reflect on the colossal loss of both life and reason that gripped our country for a year, including the resurgence of Asian racial scapegoating in American politics.

This phenomenon is not new. Rather, it is a prominent thread stitched into our nation’s history, from the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps to the “red scare” and McCarthyism.

Today, the echoes of these racist policies are heard in the halls of Congress, where campaign fundraisers fuel anti-Asian sentiment and the congressional record is populated with bad faith bills targeting China.

Within the layered legacy of American xenophobia, white fear of the “yellow peril” is of particular contemporary significance. Since before World War II, Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam have each become the subject of American military and economic anxieties.

As a consequence of hawkish foreign policy and racial animosity towards Asians, Asian-Americans were, and still are, targeted for their perceived connection to the countries that some in Washington perceive as our enemies.

“Yellow peril” is further compounded by the complexity of racialisation. East and Southeast Asian Americans are not only targeted for their specific national or ethnic heritage, but also as members of a broader race of Asians. 

No matter which country was the subject of American anxiety, all East and Southeast Asian Americans suffered, regardless of their ethnicity. 

The unavoidable fact is that when politicians fearmonger about economic or security threats from Asian countries, they inevitably tap into the racial undercurrent of the American collective conscience and indirectly incite suspicion of and violence against Asian-Americans. 

History shows that such bad faith attacks shore up a politician’s nationalistic credibility at the expense of the social, mental and physical well-being of Asian-Americans who suffer under scrutiny and discrimination.

Today, hate crimes against all Asian-Americans have soared due to vitriol incited against China by destructive political rhetoric and the plague of racialisation in the American conscience. When we look at Congress, we can see why. 

There have been more than 180 bills and resolutions that mention China filed in the short five months of the 117th Congress. 

Representative Scott Perry and Representative Matt Gaetz’s World Health Act (H.R. 1168) seeks to terminate China’s access to the World Health Organization and replace it with Taiwan (neither of which the US has authority over) and would withhold all funds, during a global pandemic, until these changes are made.

It is akin to the hostage-holding language of a toddler, failing to consider the diplomatic and global health consequences of such actions. 

Senator Tom Cotton’s Visa Security Act (S. 417) would prohibit giving non-immigrant temporary B1 and B2 visas to Chinese citizens for more than a year unless the Chinese government meets impossible-to-prove standards such as ceasing all “economic and industrial espionage” in the US. 

This is a drastic piece of legislation that echoes the economic anxiety of the Chinese Exclusion Act itself. 

Many of the pieces of legislation are irresponsible and not meant to succeed; indeed, they are often less than a page long with vague language and little foresight into any potential consequences.

Rather, they are ill-intended political chips used to double-down with voters who are wary of China and who have bought into the false narrative that China is an enemy to the US or intentionally infected us with Covid-19.

The campaign trail is even worse. Here in Texas, our home state, a recent Texas Republican Party candidate for Congress criticised Chinese immigrants over the coronavirus, saying, “I don’t want them here at all.” 

Texas Senator John Cornyn, a powerful member of the Senate leadership, sent out a fundraising email on then president Donald Trump’s behalf last year asking for money so he could tell Texans that China, not Trump, was to blame for the mishandling of Covid-19 in the US. 

Another Texas congressional candidate, Kathaleen Wall, who ran to represent the district with the highest Asian population in Texas, ran ads claiming, “China poisoned our people” and that “China is a criminal enterprise masquerading as a sovereign nation”.

These are small modern examples of the racist scapegoating that has stoked the ire and violence against Asian-Americans. 

Public policy is an important tool the United States has to hold the Chinese Communist Party to task and assert our nation’s values. Recently adopted legislation, including the contents of the Endless Frontier Act, which seeks to bolster US research and development funding in emerging technology to better compete with China, are well balanced and necessary.

But the ill-intended legislation that will never make a committee hearing, and the malign efforts to raise campaign dollars from fear and hatred of China are in bad faith, and lawmakers must stop.

Our nation’s history weighs heavy with the horrific outcomes of racial scapegoating and “yellow peril”. We, along with our leaders, have the power to ensure it does not happen again.

Leslie Tisdale Reagan is the director of communications at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. Cameron Waltz is a research intern at the foundation and associate editor for the Intercollegiate US-China Journal