Ellen Min doesn’t go to the grocery store anymore. She avoids bars and going out to eat with her friends; festivals and community events are out, too. This year, she opted not to take her kids to the local St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Min isn’t a shut-in. She’s just a Korean American from central Pennsylvania.
Ever since the US government shot down a Chinese spy balloon last month, Min has withdrawn from her normal routine out of a concern she or her family may become targeted in one of the hundreds of anti-Asian hate crimes the FBI now says are occurring every year. The wave of anti-Asian hate that surged with the pandemic may only get worse, Min worries, as both political parties have amplified fears about China and the threat it poses to US economic and national security.
“You can’t avoid paying attention to the rhetoric, because it has a direct impact on our lives,” Min said.
That rhetoric surged again this week as a hostile House committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew for more than five hours on Thursday about the app’s ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance. After lawmakers repeatedly accused Chew, who is Singaporean, of working for the Chinese government and tried to associate him with the Chinese Communist Party, Vanessa Pappas, a top TikTok executive, condemned the hearing as “rooted in xenophobia.”
Chew had taken pains to distance TikTok from China, going so far as to anglicize his name for American audiences and to play up his academic credentials — he holds degrees from University College London and Harvard Business School. But it was not enough to prevent lawmakers from blasting TikTok as “a weapon of the Chinese Communist Party” and as “the spy in Americans’ pockets,” all while mangling pronunciations of Chew’s name and the names of other officials at its parent company, ByteDance. After Chew’s testimony, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton said the CEO should be “deported immediately” and banned from the United States, saying his defense of TikTok was “beneath contempt.”
There are good reasons to be mistrustful of ByteDance given that it is subject to China’s extremely broad surveillance laws. (TikTok has failed to assuage concerns the Chinese government could pressure ByteDance to improperly access the data, despite a plan by TikTok to “firewall” the information.) And the Chinese government’s authoritarian approach to numerous other issues clashes with important American values, said many Asian Americans interviewed for this article.
But they also warned that policymakers’ choice to use inflammatory speech — in some cases, language tinged with 1950s-era, Red Scare-style McCarthyism — endangers countless innocent Americans by association. Moreover, politicians’ increasingly strident tone is creating conditions for new discriminatory policies at home and the potential for even more anti-Asian violence, civil rights leaders said.
“We are afraid that, more and more, the actions and the language of the government is premised on the assumption that just because we are Chinese or have cultural ties to China that we could be disloyal, or be spies, or be under the influence of a foreign government,” said Zhengyu Huang, president of the Committee of 100, an organization co-founded by the late architect IM Pei, the musician Yo-Yo Ma and other prominent Chinese Americans. “We want to deliver the message: Not only are we not a national security liability — we are a national security asset.”
But as the country wrestles with China’s influence as a competitive global power, caught in the middle are tens of millions of Americans like Min who, thanks to their appearance, may now face greater suspicion or hostility than they experienced even during the pandemic, according to Asian American lawmakers, civil society groups and ordinary citizens.
From ‘Kung-flu’ to national security
The heated rhetoric surrounding China has undergone a shift from the pandemic’s early days, when xenophobia linked to Covid-19 was unambiguous.
At the time, Asian Americans feared an uptick in violence inspired by derogatory phrases such as “Kung-flu” and “China virus.” That language had emerged amid then-President Donald Trump’s wider criticisms of China, which had led to a damaging trade war with the country. It was against that backdrop that Trump first threatened to ban TikTok, a move some critics said was an attempt to stoke xenophobia.
In recent years, criticism of China has significantly expanded to encompass even more aspects of the US-China relationship. Concerns about China have gone mainstream as US national security officials and lawmakers have publicly grappled with state-backed ransomware attacks and other hacking attempts. The Biden administration has sought to confront China on how the internet should be governed, and like the Trump administration, it’s now taking aim at TikTok, again.
As that shift has occurred, criticism of China has stylistically evolved from blatant name-calling to the more clinical vocabulary of national security, allowing an undercurrent of xenophobia to lurk beneath the respectable veneer of geopolitics, civil rights leaders said.
In January, House lawmakers stood up a new select committee specifically focused on the “strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.” At its first hearing, the panel’s chairman, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, said: “This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century — and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.”
A week later, US intelligence officials warned that the Chinese Communist Party represents the “most consequential threat” to US global leadership. An unclassified intelligence community report released the same day said China views competition with the United States as an “epochal geopolitical shift.” (Even so, the report maintained that the “most lethal threat to US persons and interests” continues to be racially motivated extremism and violence, particularly by White supremacy groups.)
While some policymakers have added that their issue is with the Chinese government, not the Chinese people or Asians in general, leaders of Asian descent say the caveat has too often been a footnote in debates about China and not emphasized nearly enough. Leaving it unsaid or merely implied creates room for listeners to draw bigoted conclusions, critics said.
“That can’t be a footnote; it can’t be an afterthought,” said Charles Jung, a California employment attorney and the national coordinator for Always With Us, a nationwide memorial event to remember the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings that killed six Asian women. “I’m speaking specifically, directly to both GOP and Democratic politicians: Be mindful of the words that you use. Because the words you use can have real world impacts on the bodies of Asian American people on the streets.”
Rising tensions between US and China
The current climate has led to at least one US lawmaker directly questioning the loyalty of a fellow member of Congress.
California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu, who was born in Los Angeles and is the first Chinese American elected to Congress, last month confronted baseless claims of her disloyalty from Texas Republican Rep. Lance Gooden. Gooden’s remarks were swiftly condemned by his congressional colleagues. But to Chu, the incident was an example of the way politics surrounding China, technology and national security have fueled anti-Asian sentiment.
“Rising tensions with China have clearly led to an increase in anti-Asian xenophobia that has real consequences for our communities,” Chu told CNN.
Concerns about xenophobia are bipartisan. Rep. Young Kim, a California Republican, told CNN there is “no question” that anti-Asian hate crimes have risen since the pandemic.
“This is unacceptable,” said Kim. “Asian American issues are American issues, and all Americans deserve to be treated with respect. We can treat all Americans with respect and still be wary of threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”
But even in discussing the Chinese government’s real, demonstrated risks to US security, the way that some Americans describe those dangers is counterproductive, needlessly provocative and historically inaccurate, said Rep. Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat and a member of the House select committee. Even the name “Chinese Communist Party” can itself prime listeners to adopt a Cold War mentality — a framework whose analytical value is dubious, Kim argued.
“A lot of my colleagues, especially on the select committee, use rhetoric like, ‘This is a new Cold War,’” said Kim. “First of all, it’s not true: The Soviet Union was a very different competitor than China. And it’s framed in a very zero-sum way … It’s very much being talked about as if their entire way of life is incompatible with ours and cannot coexist with ours, and that heightens the tension.”
In a November op-ed, Gallagher and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio directly linked that rhetoric to TikTok, calling for the app to be banned due to the United States being “locked in a new Cold War with the Chinese Communist Party, one that senior military advisers warn could turn hot over Taiwan at any time.”
Confrontational posture leads to bad policy
Just because China may view its dynamic with the United States as an epic struggle does not mean Americans must be goaded into doing the same, Kim argued. Beyond the violence it could trigger domestically, a stark confrontational framing could cause the United States to blunder into poor policy choices.
For example, he said, the right mindset could mean the difference between legally fraught “whack-a-mole” attempts to ban Chinese-affiliated social media companies versus passing a historic national privacy law that safeguards Americans’ data from all prying eyes, no matter what tech company may be collecting it.
Security researchers who have examined TikTok’s app say that the company’s invasive collection of user data is more of an indictment of lax government policies on privacy, rather than a reflection of any TikTok-specific wrongdoing or national security risk.
“TikTok is only a product of the entire surveillance capitalism economy,” said Pellaeon Lin, a Taiwan-based researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. “Governments should try to better protect user information, instead of focusing on one particular app without good evidence.”
Asked how he would advise policymakers to look at TikTok, Lin said: “What I would call for is more evidence-based policy.” Instead, some policymakers appear to have run in the opposite direction.
Anti-China sentiment has already led to policies that risk violating Asian-Americans’ constitutional rights, several civil society groups said.
John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, pointed to the Justice Department’s now-shuttered “China Initiative,” a Trump-era program intended to hunt down Chinese spies but that produced a string of discrimination complaints and case dismissals involving innocent Americans swept up in the dragnet. The Biden administration shut down the program last year.
More recently, Yang said, proposed laws in Texas and Virginia aimed at keeping US land out of the hands of those with foreign ties would create impossible-to-satisfy tests for Asian-Americans, showing how anti-China fervor threatens to infringe on the rights of many US citizens.
“National security has often been used as a pretext specifically against Asian-Americans,” Yang said, referring to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the racial profiling of Muslim-Americans following Sept. 11. “We should remember that many Chinese-Americans came to this country to escape the authoritarian regime of China.”
Though he fears the situation for Asian-Americans will get worse before it gets better, Yang and other advocates called for US policymakers to stress from the outset that their quarrel lies with the Chinese government and not with people of Chinese descent.
“We know from experience in the United States that once you demonize Chinese people, all Asian people living in this country face the brunt of that rhetoric,” said Jung. “And you see it not just in spy balloons and the reactions surrounding it and TikTok and Huawei, but also in modern-day racist alien land laws.”
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Min was no stranger to racially motivated violence: Her home was regularly vandalized with eggs, tomatoes and epithet-laden graffiti (“Go home, gooks”); her father once discovered a crude homemade explosive stuffed in his car.
But fears of racism stoked by modern US political rhetoric has forced Min to change how her family lives in ways they never had to during her childhood.
Last year, amid another spate of assaults targeting elderly Asian-Americans, Min said her mother sold the family dry-cleaning business and moved to Korea, following Min’s father who had moved the year before.
“It was a sad reality to say that as much as we want our family close to us and their grandchildren, they will be safer in Korea,” Min said.