Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Anti-Asian Attacks Are Blighting the United States

Policymakers and analysts have a duty to speak out for a vulnerable community.

Protesters hold the image of a victim of racist attacks.
Protesters rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence, holding an image of 84-year-old murder victim Vicha Ratanapakdee, near Chinatown in Los Angeles, on Feb. 20. Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images

In recent weeks, a spate of high-profile violent crimes has caused widespread fear in the Asian American community. An 84-year-old man died in San Francisco after being pushed to the ground by a teenager for no apparent reason. Across the bay in Oakland, California, three people, including a 91-year-old man, suffered injuries after similar attacks. A shop owner in Washington, D.C. was pepper sprayed after being verbally abused with racist language.

These are just the latest examples of a worrisome trend—since the pandemic began, there have been more than 3,000 hate crimes reported against Americans of Asian descent.

These hate crimes violate the dignity and rights of Asian Americans. They also threaten the global reputation of the United States and its national security. During the Trump presidency, the world watched with horror as a U.S. leader utilized dog whistle language, such as the phrases “kung flu” and the “China plague,” to fan the flames of white nationalism and direct racism against Asian Americans.

In recent weeks, a spate of high-profile violent crimes has caused widespread fear in the Asian American community. An 84-year-old man died in San Francisco after being pushed to the ground by a teenager for no apparent reason. Across the bay in Oakland, California, three people, including a 91-year-old man, suffered injuries after similar attacks. A shop owner in Washington, D.C. was pepper sprayed after being verbally abused with racist language.

These are just the latest examples of a worrisome trend—since the pandemic began, there have been more than 3,000 hate crimes reported against Americans of Asian descent.

These hate crimes violate the dignity and rights of Asian Americans. They also threaten the global reputation of the United States and its national security. During the Trump presidency, the world watched with horror as a U.S. leader utilized dog whistle language, such as the phrases “kung flu” and the “China plague,” to fan the flames of white nationalism and direct racism against Asian Americans.

Congressional leaders and prominent legislators, such as Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Tom Cotton, as well as senior executive branch officials, most notably the United States’ former top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, also used phrases like “China virus” even after the World Health Organization warned that these labels stigmatized individuals of Chinese descent. Such behaviors offered easy—and uncomfortably accurate—propaganda fodder for China, just as violence against Black Americans did for the Soviet Union during the civil rights era. But while Moscow attempted to pose as a leader for oppressed people worldwide, Beijing is instead attempting to portray itself as the head of the global Chinese diaspora.

Meanwhile, China is intent on reshaping the world to serve its interests, often at the expense of the values that Americans hold dear: respect for economic fairness, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Beijing would love nothing more than to see a United States in disarray—unable to maintain democratic cohesion and protect the rights of its own people.

China’s state-run media, in fact, have already taken advantage of the rising number of hate crimes against Asian Americans in the United States as a commentary on a fractious society with dwindling influence abroad. The Global Times, a nationalist newspaper that circulates in both Chinese and English, ran a lengthy feature on the topic last summer—which was filled with soundbites for the Chinese Community Party propaganda machine.

Consider, for example, the analysis offered by one Chinese foreign affairs expert, Li Haidong, who noted that “the spread of racism in the U.S. has led to instability and confrontation, which will not only reduce the sense of national identity of its own people but also damage its international influence and soft power.” And, of course, the Chinese Communist Party is only too glad to have its geopolitical narratives affirmed by the headlines that are even now flashing across global media sites, such as stories of elderly Asian Americans seeking support and the formation of safety patrol groups in their communities. These stories—to borrow from former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s passionate call in 2008 for Republican leaders to do more to fight Islamophobia—are “killing us around the world.”

For at least the next decade or more, confronting Beijing’s growing aggressiveness effectively will be one of the most urgent foreign and domestic policy priorities for the United States. The Chinese Communist Party continues to perpetrate human rights abuses against its Uyghur population and in Hong Kong, politically isolates Taiwan, engages in unfair commercial practices, and flouts international law in the South and East China Seas. It is actively promoting its approach to regional and global leadership as superior to the United States. U.S. leaders must formulate a coordinated, tough, and comprehensive strategy toward China that also demonstrates that it is Washington—not Beijing—that offers a more just, equal, and hopeful vision for the world.

But such a plan will not be effective unless both Democratic and Republican leaders take swift and decisive action to reject violence and hatred against Asian Americans. They must differentiate between real concerns with the Chinese government and racially motivated hatred against Americans of Asian descent. During World War II, racist rhetoric and nods to white supremacy inflamed attacks against U.S. citizens, with devastating consequences for the country—especially the Asian American community. Today, the United States’ adversaries in Beijing use these violations of civil rights to mock U.S. claims of being a democratic leader.

So far, U.S. political leaders’ track records have not been inspiring. Although Congress attempted to take up this issue in September 2020 with a resolution condemning all forms of racism toward Asian Americans, the lack of Republican support—just 14 GOP members voted yes—was problematic. The sharp partisan divide indicates a troubling failure to take this issue seriously, and it is exactly the sort of omission that leads down the slippery slope to repeating mistakes that should belong in the past.

It’s worth addressing how analysts and pundits contribute to this conversation as well. Domestic policy consequences may feel somewhat outside the scope of a China foreign-policy expert. In this case, however, there are direct and urgent consequences to failing to get this right, and the United States can see evidence of this in the tragedies that are now increasingly occurring every day. It is incumbent on not just government officials but also foreign-policy analysts to decry the racism that is occurring, avoid language like “Chinese virus,” and think carefully about how they talk about Washington’s China policy and how their actions impact Asian Americans.

The eyes of the world are on the United States, and retaining its global leadership role requires more than just economic prowess and military might.

The eyes of the world are on the United States, and retaining its global leadership role requires more than just economic prowess and military might. If the United States is to win its 21st century competition with China, it must uphold the values that China is seeking to undermine. As the eventual successes of the civil rights movement caught the imagination of people around the world during the Cold War, a 21st-century story can inspire people and help them in the fight for hearts and minds. The United States must show it continues to stand up for equality and democracy and that Washington protects the rights of its people. A diverse and great nation, bound not by blood but by shared values, should face challenges by coming together around those values instead of falling apart.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once famously called the United States a “shining city on the hill,” but this bulwark for democracy is likely to continue to be tested in the coming year and the years ahead. There is no doubt that the United States possesses the right ideals and ingenuity to build back its democracy stronger than ever. U.S. President Joe Biden took an important step in the right direction early this year by issuing a “Memorandum Condemning and Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States” and by mentioning the violence in his speech last night. But it is imperative that federal and state political leaders take concrete steps to end racist attacks and discrimination against Asian Americans, even as they grapple with the United States foreign-policy challenges concerning China.

Caroline Chang is a business advisor on regulatory developments around the world. She has experience researching Chinese sanction behavior and previously held positions at the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs and U.S. Consulate General in Shenyang, China at the U.S. State Department.

Anka Lee is a security fellow and former co-lead of the Asia Expert Group at the Truman National Security Project. He has advised members of Congress, U.S. military commands, former U.S. cabinet secretaries, and business executives on East Asia and China policy. He has also covered democratic movements in Asia as a journalist and served as international relations director at the California State Assembly.

Johna Ohtagaki is a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project. She advised two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, on Asia-Pacific policy, including China, as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and served as a senior advisor to the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, focusing on the South China Sea.

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