The United States’ gift to the world and most cited living scholar of our time, Noam Chomsky, is constantly asked why he focuses his criticism on the United States and not other states like China or the former Soviet Union. Chomsky responds to this critique stating, “it’s because American actions are the things that I can do something about … you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions, you’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.” Chomsky makes a responsible decision to criticize his compatriots and their leaders. He has a sense of what’s required to be a member of a particular collective. Taking a cue from this heartwarming implication of his position, we find a less apparent yet essential reason why we should be more careful when flaunting our supposed moral superiority at the world around us. In any society, especially in the American empire, consideration needs to be given to how the vilification of other nations can endanger specific members of our community.
Case in point: China-bashing and the rise of anti-Asian American violence. Numerous predictable consequences follow how the U.S. media and its political leaders portray China. First and foremost is the potential revival of a Cold War. But not least among the adverse outcomes of this same fear-mongering discourse is an innocent Asian American getting beaten to death in the streets of New York City.
Many media pundits and political elites may now post #StopAsianHate on their social media, but their efforts to demonize China as a regime have left Chinese Americans in a perilous situation. The hashtag campaign does little to offset the countless statements that have either exaggerated or fabricated the so-called threat of China.
Take some of the headlines that the mainstream press has published in just the last year: CNN (March 10, 2021): “China building offensive, aggressive military, top US Pacific commander says.” The Hill (March 27, 2021): “U.S. must prepare for cold war with China.” New York Times (March 30, 2021): “An Alliance of Autocracies? China Wants to Lead a New World Order.” The Economist (April 3, 2021): “China is betting that the West is in irreversible decline.” Washington Post (December 27, 2021): “Americans must rally against the real threat to our democracy: China.” None of this fear-mongering is from Fox News: it comes from centrist media institutions.
Moreover, the political elite has accepted these warnings from the media as legitimate. The Republican Party, for instance, has been busy conjuring a Chinese specter haunting the West. Sery Kim, a GOP Congressional candidate casually said that she didn’t want Chinese immigrants “here at all.” Rural-voter-whisperer now GOP senate candidate J.D. Vance stated in an interview: “I think that we should consider China as our nation should have considered Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. Only, we should recognize that it’s more dangerous because it’s larger and it’s more ambitious.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spearheaded legislation that would crack down on Chinese influence in higher education. As blatantly racist as DeSantis’ legislation may be, it is not as extreme as some measures that the American public seems willing to embrace: According to a Pew Research poll, 55 percent of Americans across party lines support limiting the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S.
At the government level, anti-Chinese hysteria is not limited to Republicans. On March 19, 2021, when President Biden attempted to express solidarity with Asian Americans by asking Congress to pass legislation to address the hate crimes committed against Asian-Americans, Secretary of State Blinken was busy stoking the flames of another Cold War – this time against China. That same day, Blinken held the first face-to-face talks with the Chinese diplomats in Anchorage. The Secretary of State accused his guests of threatening “the rules-based order that maintains global stability” and “grandstanding.” According to the Chinese officials, Blinken was “confrontational” and “inhospitable.”
The tense start for U.S.-China relations under Biden was not seen as a diplomatic setback so much as a fulfillment of expectations, as the U.S. media had already succeeded in massaging U.S. public opinion to support a more aggressive foreign policy towards China. According to a March 2021 Pew Research poll, both Democrat and Republican voters wanted Biden to take a tougher stance on China. Nine in ten Americans viewed China as either a competitor or an enemy rather than a partner, with 48% believing a top foreign policy priority for the U.S should be limiting China’s influence – up from 32% in 2018. We can see an even more noticeable swing in favorability ratings between 2011 and the present. In just a decade, Gallup found that the percentage of Americans who view China “very unfavorable” leaped from only 13% to 41%.
So we have to ask what is driving this ominous shift in views?
Most Americans don’t know a thing about China. Perhaps a few are familiar with the plight of the Uyghurs, and some have seen footage of protests in Hong Kong. But if human rights abuses are really behind American animosity toward China, why is this displeasure only recently coming to the fore? It is not as if China was not committing abuses ten years ago. And if outrage at the inhuman treatment of Chinese citizens were such a potent concern for the U.S. public, distress over inhumane conditions in sweatshops would have also kindled righteous indignation. The fact that many of these factories produce goods for U.S. corporations and consumers explains the lack of a strong objection, but this hypocrisy itself is illuminating. It reminds us that the American empire conditions its concerns for human rights in accordance with self-interest.
It’s easier to plot the rise of negative sentiment toward China not against actual instances of human rights violations but shifts in U.S. policies. China’s unfavorability ratings among Americans started to rise after 2011 – the same year the Obama administration introduced the “Pivot to East Asia” foreign policy doctrine to contain and curb China’s influence in the Pacific. Examples of this policy include Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement which was designed, among other things, to block China. Other measures include lifting the arms embargo against Vietnam – a rising rival of the Chinese regime. In other words, the increase in concerns for China’s human rights violations and the rise in its unfavorability ratings conveniently coincided with America’s first serious efforts to halt China’s economic advancements.
Although dipping slightly after 2016, China’s unfavorability ratings increased in 2019 and spiked further following the pandemic. President Trump branded COVID the “China virus.” In the presidential election, both candidates vied with one another on who could be tougher against China. In one of their debates, neither Trump nor Biden could resist bringing up China (for a combined total of 13 times) even though the moderators didn’t prepare to discuss foreign policy. Biden ran ads accusing Trump of having “rolled over for the Chinese,” Trump accused Biden of seeking China’s help to get elected.
The fact that hatred toward China seems to be one of the only bipartisan issues left is rather frightening. The prevailing partisan gridlock combined with Biden’s determination to “get things done” could create a perfect storm in which shared animosity toward China is exploited in the name of bipartisan unity. Such an outcome would only worsen an already bad situation.
The collective effect of anti-China discourse has led to attacks on Chinese Americans and other Asians. It may not be the intention of the media to provoke vigilante violence against Asian Americans when they overplay China’s rise. But it is, as Chomsky might say, a “predictable consequence” of our actions.
Whether the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II or hate crimes against Muslim Americans during the War on Terror, the historical reality is that Americans often connect immigrants to the regime controlling the state those particular immigrants may have come from. So long as the U.S. political class and media continue to stoke fears of China, the public will interpret these concerns as a reason to hate the Chinese. The irony is that while the media and American political leaders may attempt to vilify China for its state-sponsored violence against Uyghurs or Hong Kong residents, its rhetoric leaves us with state-inspired violence against Chinese Americans.
Mark Twain famously wrote that “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Although every ethnic group has its own unique story, there are similarities between the Jewish history of the 20th century and the recent Chinese American experience. Chinese Americans are now subjected to the kind of characterization that Jews faced in 1930’s Europe: “They are communists.” “They are conspiring to take over the world.” “They are not loyal to our country.” Just as the Nazis perceived Jews as proponents of “Cultural Bolshevism,” Asians, particularly Chinese Americans, are now seen as agents of the Chinese Communist Party (hence the panic created by Chinese students at U.S. universities). And just as the Soviet Union industrialized and became more formidable than Czarist Russia, while declining European powers looked at its neighbor jealously, the People’s Republic of China has economically advanced against the backdrop of an American empire that’s losing its power and prestige.
Thus, if you want to stop hate crimes against Asian Americans and post #StopAsianHate on your social media, then you should also pay attention to who the real villains are. The people of China are not your enemy. It’s your government that’s failing. The U.S. empire is driving us towards a second Cold War. It is the Western Media that’s stoking fears of “the other.” They want you to cry fake tears for the incarceration of Uyghurs or Hong Kong demonstrators while ignoring the fact that 25 percent of the world’s prisoners are within your own borders.
Of course, there are legitimate reasons to critique the government of China, just as it was fair to criticize some policies of the Soviet Union while not labeling every European Jew a secret Bolshevik. But let’s not kid ourselves. In our recent world history, it is the U.S., not China, that has been fighting wars in over seven countries. It is the U.S. that has over 800 overseas bases while China has one as of 2019. It should be evident to any political science graduate think-tank brain to realize that the U.S. is the most destabilizing force to world order. Even polls show that most people overseas view the United States as the most dangerous country in the world today. The media and our political class have completely overplayed China’s so-called threat while refusing to look themselves in the mirror. They refuse to deal with the “predictable consequences” of enabling an empire that spends more money on “defense” than the next 11 countries combined.In the same way that Anti-Semitism during interwar Europe was largely motivated by hatred of the Soviet Union, anti-Asian sentiments in the U.S. are being stoked by the hatred of China. We cannot separate the recent attacks against Asian Americans from the way the media and our political elites have fanned the flames of another Cold War against China. I do not believe we will witness an exact repeat of the situation that led us into World War II and the Holocaust. But we are on a path that history has shown to be dangerous, one that puts Chinese Americans in a corner and exposes them to irrational violence. It may vastly differ in degree from the genocide of the Jews, but the state-inspired, racially motivated violence directed toward Chinese and Asian Americans is similar enough to insult the memory and lessons of “never again.”
James Taichi Collins is a “Zainichi” Korean-American, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2012 to attend college at the University of Delaware, where he received his degree in Political Science and became a community organizer. He has since worked in various electoral races from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 primary, to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign in Iowa. James identifies as a socialist and currently resides in Astoria, Queens.