How to criticize China without abetting racism

There's no perfect solution, but here are some ideas.

The other day, an Asian American friend — who politically is as centrist as they come — wrote me anxiously about the growing popularity of the lab leak theory. Asian Americans, he said, would be “collateral damage”; though he despises the CCP, he worried explicitly a backlash of far-right hate should it be discovered that the coronavirus did come from a Chinese lab. He has recently bought guns, and learned how to use them.

I take these worries extremely seriously. There is definitely a wave of racist hate against Asian Americans, much of it violent. Though I don’t think that this hate is primarily due to rising geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, I do think those tensions, and the reaction to them, have the potential to exacerbate things going forward.

On the other hand, geopolitical conflict is not going to stop on account of these worries. The U.S. has real national interests that directly conflict with the goals of China’s rulers — freedom of the seas, protecting Taiwan and India, and so on. As those interests come into conflict, there will inevitably be friction between the two countries. The folks who think they can stop a new Cold War by calling it racist are simply mistaken. For example, this kind of thing is just not going to work:

Even if U.S. leaders tried to go easy on China out of fear of stirring up racism at home, U.S. leaders are simply not in control of the situation the way they were back in the days of the Iraq War. China has power and agency here, and its spokespeople are out there beating the war drums even as its neighbors — including U.S. allies — grow more and more alarmed. If you actually think the U.S. is going to abandon its commitments, its allies, its principles, and its interests because some guy with a moustache yelled that great power competition is racist, you should probably think again.

In addition, people who identify any news story that reflects badly on the CCP as inherently anti-Asian are not helping the cause of combatting anti-Asian hate. If the lab leak theory turns out to be true, then it turns out to be true. And if that happens, the people who tried to denounce it as racist are going to look like they tried to cover up the truth. And the backlash to that will be worse than whatever harm those people think they prevented by denouncing the lab leak theory.

And as Matt Yglesias rightly argues in a recent post, criticism of countries — in addition to being inevitable — is morally legitimate. China’s government is engaged in atrocities at home and increasing aggression abroad, and we have a right, if not a duty, to call that out. Morally, we should not equate criticism of the CCP with anti-Asian racism any more than we should equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

But that’s a moral argument. In a practical sense, we should work very hard to make sure that criticism of China doesn’t rebound onto Asian Americans. Though it’s probably not possible to completely suppress the backlash — this is a big country, and it has many racist and violent people who don’t listen to anything we say — I think there are some things we can do to minimize it.

Rhetoric matters: Lessons from the War on Terror

I think we can learn a valuable lesson by looking back to the last big outbreak of international tensions — the War on Terror. Folk history holds that the days following 9/11 were dark days of violence and hatred against Muslim Americans. But in fact, the peak of Islamophobic violence in America was not in 2001, but in 2016:

There were two deadly attacks on Muslims (or South Asians mistaken for Muslims) in the five years following 9/11 — one in Arizona, one in Texas, both in late 2001. From 2014 through 2017, there were eight, plus a number of attacks that thankfully didn’t result in deaths.

At first blush, this difference makes no sense at all. 9/11 killed thousands of people and threw our nation into absolute chaos. In 2016, in contrast, not much was happening in terms of a “clash of civilizations” — we were mopping up ISIS, but it was a relatively minor and distant threat compared to al Qaeda, and our crushing of it involved very few U.S. deaths. If there was ever a time we’d expect an Islamophobic backlash, it was 2001-2002, not 2016!

The difference, it seems to me, was rhetoric. For all his bad deeds, George W. Bush got up after 9/11 and told the nation this:

[T]he American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday's attacks, and so were Muslims all across the world.

Both Americans, our Muslim friends and citizens, taxpaying citizens, and Muslims in nations were just appalled and could not believe what we saw on our TV screens. These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that.

The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran itself. ‘In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil, for that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.’

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace, they represent evil and war.

When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race, out of every race.

America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country.

The Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads, and they need to be treated with respect.

In our anger and emotion our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect. Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear covering must not be intimidated in America…

I've been told that some fear to leave; some don't want to go shopping for their families; some don't want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they're afraid they'll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.

Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America. They represent the worst of humankind. And they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.

Some conservatives were outraged at this speech, but there was nothing they could do. This was their President.

Contrast this with Trump’s rhetoric in the years in 2015 and 2016. It was a constant drumbeat of fearmongering and collective demonization, including an accusation that Muslim Americans cheered as the twin towers came down. Trump floated the idea of creating a database of all Muslims in the U.S. He cited a specious poll claiming that a quarter of Muslims living in America supported violence against Americans in the name of jihad. He characterized Muslims as “a sick people”, declared that “Islam hates us”, and said Muslim immigrants were “not assimilating”. He stated that “The children of Muslim American parents [are] responsible for a growing number…of terrorist attacks.” And one of his signature policies was a ban on travel from many Muslim countries, popularly known as the Muslim Ban.

Once you see the difference in presidential rhetoric, it’s easy to understand why 2016, not 2001, was the peak of anti-Islamic violence in America.

Rhetoric matters! Trump’s rhetoric about China was extremely xenophobic, while Biden is striking all the right notes. It would be nice if some Republican leaders could get up and say things similar to what Bush said after 9/11 — that Asian Americans are Americans and must be protected as such, and that racism and violence against them are utterly unacceptable. But in lieu of that, it’s basically incumbent on everyone in the country to do their part to speak up on behalf of Asian Americans and denounce hatred, violence, and discrimination against them. And the bigger your platform, the more responsibility you have.

Rhetoric of this kind can help break the link between China-U.S. conflict and anti-Asian racism.

Focus on allies and dissidents

Trump painted China as a country that’s constantly menacing America (and by implication, mostly menacing White Americans, whom Trump sees as the “real” Americans). This included his framing of COVID as a Chinese attack on the U.S., which is what made liberals react so strongly against the lab leak theory in the first place. But it’s important to understand that the vast majority of people under the greatest threat from China’s government’s newfound aggression are Asian people, not White people in America.

Uyghurs, currently being put in camps and possibly mass-sterilized by the Chinese government, are Asian. Hong Kong dissidents being thrown in prison are Asian. Taiwanese people, menaced by China’s increasing threats, are Asian. The Philippines, which is seeing its maritime territory slowly sliced away by Chinese irregular forces, is Asian. Vietnam, which rightfully fears the increasing power of a neighbor who invaded it in 1979, is Asian. And the vast number of dissidents, reporters, thinkers, labor leaders, religious people, and activists of all kinds who are regularly suppressed by the authoritarian Chinese state are pretty much all Asian.

Highlighting and talking about all these Asian people who are being oppressed or threatened by the CCP will make it clear that the new Cold War, such as it is, is not some sort of “clash of civilizations” — a race war between Asians and Whites for mastery of the planet, or any such nonsense. Instead, it’s almost entirely a story of some Asian people in Asia trying to exert dominance and power over other Asian people in Asia.

If Americans hear this over and over, I predict that their perspective will shift. Some of the people Trump taught to think “China is attacking us” will instead start to think “China is threatening our Asian allies”. The conflict will be reframed as a struggle between the free people of Asia — and those who want to be free — against the forces that would put them in bondage. It will reframe U.S.-China conflict as protection of Asian people rather than as protection against Asian people.

So when it comes time to criticize China’s government, we should always center China’s neighbors and China’s oppressed citizens.

Center Asian Americans in our national story

One other critical piece is for U.S. leaders not to ignore Asian Americans or treat them as an invisible minority, the way they have often been treated heretofore. Biden’s rhetoric about anti-Asian violence is a good start, but we can’t just talk about Asian Americans in terms of violence, or as people in need of protection. We need to make a more active effort to portray Asian folks as part of this country’s core polity, until this sinks in to the minds of all Americans.

In fact, one of the most important attempts to do this in the past came during World War 2. Our main memory of FDR’s actions toward Asian Americans during the war was the Internment. But in fact, the Roosevelt administration made vigorous attempts to raise popular awareness and create positive images of Chinese Americans, in order to solidify our alliance with China. (Interestingly, in the later years of the war, this positive official portrayal was also extended to Japanese Americans, many of whom were enlisting in the U.S. Military.)

A great resource to learn about this history is Ellen D. Wu’s book The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Here is a screenshotted excerpt from that book:

These attempts, which Wu classifies as part of an approach called “racial liberalism”, seem fairly ham-handed and old-fashioned in the light of modern sensibilities. A modern program of centering Asian Americans will not look or feel like Roosevelt’s. And unlike that program, which was mostly designed and implemented by White people, a similar effort today would need to have decisive, key input from Asian Americans themselves.

But it must be done. Netflix and Amazon shows, Hollywood movies, awards ceremonies, and every aspect of mass culture should depict Asian Americans in a positive light, as crucial members of the American polity. Asian American directors, writers, and other creators need to be given money and creative control to tell their own stories. Schools should teach lessons about the history of Asian Americans. Documentaries, newspaper features, and TV news features should bring consciousness of Asian Americans to the masses. And so on.

All this, of course, should have been done decades ago. But better late than never.

Just as by the time WW2 rolled around, the country no longer thought of German Americans as the enemy (as they had in WW1), this sort of vigorous proactive inclusion of Asian Americans in the national story can help sever the link between U.S.-China conflict and anti-Asian racism. It can help Americans understand that conflict between nations is not a race war — a clash not of civilizations or peoples, but of governments, institutions, and values.

And one of America’s core values must be that we accept and include everybody. Otherwise, what the hell are we even fighting for in the first place?