Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The next internment: Would Chinese in the U.S. be rounded up during a war?

Present U.S. leadership seems both to make war more likely through its bellicose rhetoric and to heighten the risk that the conflict would lead to violence against the American-Chinese population.



By Giacomo Bagarella


By Giacomo Bagarella
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As the title of one recent book on the subject has it, the United States and China could be “destined for war.” This eventuality has received ample coverage in the media, in academia, and among statesmen, and both militaries have planned for a possible Sino-American conflict.

Not so the Chinese in America. The unspoken consequences of such a war would bring suspicion, surveillance, and possibly persecution against the hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals who live in the U.S. With knowledge of some of American history’s worst excesses in mind, is there a possibility that some, or all, of the country’s foreign-born Chinese will be interned?

Estimating the size of the affected population proves difficult. A Department of Homeland Security study calculates that, on average, 240,000 Chinese nationals resided within the U.S. on any given day in fiscal year 2014. Summing this figure to the estimated 268,000 unauthorized Chinese immigrants yields a lower bound of roughly half-a-million Chinese citizens living in the U.S. The upper bound might be closer to one million, if one halves the 2.3 million foreign-born Chinese in the country in 2015 to account for naturalized citizens — who constitute 48 percent of foreign-born residents — and lawful permanent residents. (Chinese law generally prohibits its citizens from holding dual nationality.)

Such numbers are likely to feed fears of “bad Fu Manchus,” saboteurs and fifth-columnists ready to take Beijing’s fight to the U.S. This would not be the first instance of homegrown anti-Chinese prejudice: Following decades of racism, China’s “fall” to Communism during the Cold War further enflamed American paranoia on the Chinese. Iris Chang concludes her history of the Chinese diaspora, The Chinese in America, by noting ruefully that, even in the 21st century, the acceptance of Chinese-Americans “was linked to the ever-shifting relations between the United States and China rather than to their own particular behavior.”

Worryingly, present U.S. leadership seems both to make war more likely through its bellicose rhetoric and to heighten the risk that the conflict would lead to violence against the American-Chinese population. As a candidate and president-elect, Donald Trump accused China of “raping” the U.S. and spoke approvingly of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. His surrogates have repeated this reasoning, and senior advisers such as Stephen Bannon and Peter Navarro are transparent in their animosity towards Beijing.

In this toxic context, how plausible is it that Sino-American war would lead to massive retaliation? Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government used its power against the designated domestic foe, leading to the forced relocation and internment of more than 120,000 American Japanese during World War II. The recipe for this outcome, which the writer Richard Reeves describes in Infamy, entailed a mixture of racism, incompetent or power-hungry leaders in politics and the military, an enabling media and civil society, greed from those who stood to benefit economically from the response, and a widespread feeling of threat, whether real or imagined.

Tempted as they may be, the president and his sycophants would run into various obstacles. Only some of Reeves’s preconditions exists, though the media and civil society seem poised to be strong watchdogs of government excesses. The Chinese population today is also much larger, in both relative and in absolute terms, than the Japanese one in 1940. Additionally, Chapter 18 of Title 10 of the United States Code prohibits members of the armed forces from conducting searches, seizures, and arrests unless “otherwise authorized by law.” The threat of internment thus rests on the executive’s ability to mobilize citizens and key institutions into a systematic anti-Chinese policy.

However, in the shadow of great-power war, the equilibrium between restraint and reprisal leans heavily towards the latter. A threatened nation is more likely to lash out, as when the machinery of government and the public’s worst instincts responded to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by targeting Arabs, Muslims, and those mistaken as members of those groups.

History shows that racist reactions in times of war are not just a bug in the American system — they are an unavoidable feature. Trapped between two superpowers and rapacious leaders, the ethnic Chinese population in the U.S. faces significant uncertainty and travails in the looming duel between Washington and Beijing. 

Giacomo Bagarella (@PerpetualPeace) holds a degree in Government from Harvard and a joint Master of Public Policy from the London School of Economics and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He currently works as a policy advisor for digital services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. All views expressed are his own. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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