By Juan Alberto Ruiz Casado
Just a few days ago, the US President, Mr. Biden, issued a Memorandum Condemning and Combating Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, calling out against “vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who’ve been attacked, harassed, blamed and scapegoated”. Let us analyse in more detail the core of this new discourse, emerging after the recent attacks against Asians in the US have become trending topic.
First of all, we observe how Mr. Biden, an advocator of a tough stance against China, an approach that has bipartisan support in the US (being perhaps the only one or, at least, the major one), refers only about racism against Asian-Americans in the US, as if not American-born Asians living in the US—let’s say, Chinese studying in US universities—did not suffer racism, or racism against them deserved no condemnation; and, simultaneously, not giving a damn about racist attacks against Asians who are not in the US. Despicable language such as “kung flu”, the “China plague” or the “Chinese virus”, so common during the pandemic, did not “deliberately channeled the cause of the virus towards the Asian community”, or the “Asian-Americans”, as most analysts are mentioning these last days, but simply promoted direct attacks against China and the Chinese. Sinophobia, which due to the ignorance of the racists characters that have been spurred on to hate China and Chinese people, now also affects other Asians that are conflated with them due to sheer unfamiliarity to diverse Asian traits. The root of the problem is, hence, clear: a discourse based on the construction of an enemy in the shape of China by the US hegemonic propaganda and the unconscious conflation that racist individuals make between China, the Chinese, and Asians in general. We must proclaim our rejection against racism avoiding any euphemisms or distractions that could serve as an implicit defence and justification of the current policies against China and racism against Chinese, the real root of the problem.
Secondly, it is not just pejorative language against China as a state or the CCP as a government what we have recently seen. The constant repetition of messages against a country that purportedly commits genocide (despite the absence of solid proof) and acts aggressively against its neighbours, being a threat for peace in the world (despite the US places its military bases in China’s surroundings, patrol with its vessels and airplanes just a few kilometres from China’s coasts, sell weapons to its rivals while encourage them to become enemies, and create—military—alliances with the officially stated goal of stopping China’s projection), are not directed against a state but, rather, against the citizens of those states. As Jon Solomon wisely remarks, in modern politics there is a unavoidable conflation between the state and the ethnic nation that populates such state, in such a way that a dehumanization of the former irremissibly translates in a dehumanization of the latter. Put differently, in words of Alain Brossat, when rulers say “China is authoritarian, it is a threat to freedom, they suppress Hong Kong pro-democrats, they want to invade Taiwan and are obliterating Uyghurs”, what many citizens (at least those more prone to fanaticism) hear is “the yellow peril is here again, we have to eliminate it, trash them all!” And then, suddenly, we find attacks against innocent Asians from all nationalities being committed all around the world.
I have reported elsewhere how Sinophobia is not a phenomenon exclusive of “Western” countries, but even in other Asian countries, like India, attacks against ethnic Chinese since the pandemic began became widespread and unstoppable as early as in March 2020, insofar as the institutions do not only not recognize this problem but, on the contrary, seem pleased with it and even propel its spread. The claims of Biden to stop racism against Asian-Americans are either a clear sign of hypocrisy or ignorance, because racism against this group will not recede unless the exacerbated propaganda against China (its government, its rise, its influence, its people) does not stop. As the Chinese representatives mentioned very recently in the talks taking place in Alaska, the US can criticize China for many of the things it does, but not from a condescending position of strength, as if China was the perfect evil and an ignorant brute that should be taught how to behave, whereas the US portrays itself (and its political and journalistic allies follow accordingly) as the saviour of the free world and the trustworthy world police.
The world should overcome that Manichean and oversimplistic narrative if we are to avoid an escalation of the current Second Cold War and maintain peace in Asia-Pacific, avoiding a hot war. How can you stop Sinophobia if you only try to cut the branches but not its roots? What should be stopped is the rhetoric of the enemy against China. In this vein, a recent statement by Anthony Blinken is a clear example of where the crux of the conundrum resides: China, he said, is “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system – all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to”. If “WE” want a world where China is the global enemy because it challenges our hegemony, how can we pretend a world without Sinophobia?
At the same time that attacks against China and the CCP ensued last year—due to the alleged bad management of the pandemic and in spite of the fact that China is the only country in the world that has been able to stop large widespread transmission for good and in the first wave—we observed many protests defending Black Lives Matters all around the world. While the US president uttered attacks against the “China virus”, nobody lifted a finger to defend that Asian lives also matters, and that institutional racism against China was utterly wrong. Almost nothing was said to avoid denigration of China and the Chinese people. In fact, many even complained that the WHO was doing pro-China politics when asked to change the name “Wuhan virus” for that of Covid-19. In a large number of countries we find a pervasive underlying acceptance of racism against Asians, in general, that does not exist against other ethnic groups. Specifically, racism against Chinese is something perfectly accepted and naturalized in a large share of societies. While today attacks against Blacks, Jews or Hispanics meet great social rejection, hatred towards the Chinese is subconsciously considered as something “not so bad”. Only by uncovering how hatred towards China is entrenched and naturalized in the social imaginary can it be understood that an Asian-American journalists, when condemning racism these days, can proclaim things like this without anyone raising their hands to their heads: “It doesn’t matter if they’re from Wuhan or not. It never seems to matter”. Does this mean that if the persons attacked were from Wuhan it would make sense and would be more understandable? Does it mean that racists should be first certain that the person they want to kill is actually from Wuhan, because it matters? The implied connotations of these sort of unconscious statements are certainly grotesque, but dangerously widespread.
Even in Taiwan, a country that paradoxically shares the same Chinese ethnic group despite having a different passport, hatred towards China and the Chinese is thoroughly prevalent. As I wrote on another occasion, Taiwan is one of the few countries, if not the only one, whose institutions, media and government still officially call COVID-19 the “Wuhan pneumonia”, to the point of the Taiwanese Premier justifying its use as neutral, despite the government’s narrative being one of constant war against the Chinese enemy. In this vein, same as in the US the government confuses Sinophobia as racism against Asian-Americans, when the Taiwanese government changed the name of the “Republic of China” from its passport for that of “Taiwan”, with the goal of avoiding attacks of racism against Taiwanese, the state apparatus did not condemned racism against ethnic Chinese per se, but merely condemned that Taiwanese were unfairly confused as Chinese.
The absurdity reaches the point that on the same day that the largest English-language newspaper in Taiwan, the Taipei Times, condemned the attack on the massage parlours in Atlanta and published an interview with basketball player Jeremy Lin, a superstar in Taiwan, in which the player lamented being called “coronavirus” on the court, the newspaper still published an inflammatory editorial titled “Facing up to the Chinese threat”. What a paradoxical way to stop the wave of Sinophobia!
As a final analysis, I would like to attend to some of the unpalatable propaganda going on in most political analysis and most journalistic reports coming from the “West” in general and the US in particular. By way of illustration, I would like to focus on an article I recently found in Foreign Policy. It mentions: “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”. Has not the US reshaped the world to serve its interest, often at the expense of the values that purportedly Americans hold dear? Has not the US dominated the world through a system that favours its economic dominance? How is it economic fairness when the US uses its economic power to buy all kinds of wills? We could find hundreds of examples of lack of respect for democracy, human rights or the rule of law by the US government. However, when the Chinese diplomats ask these sort of questions to its US counterparts, they answer that at least they do not try to “sweep them under a rug”. As if letting the people know—or having people like Assange or Snowden showing the truth that the US wants to hide under the carpet—about this problems legitimised committing them or made crimes less serious.
The article continues: “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”. Would not the US and US citizens love to see China in disarray? Is not that statement, perhaps, a mental projection of how Washington (including Republicans and Democrats) desire to see the CCP lose power and see China dissolved into a multitude of small states (a “balkanization”, as Jon Solomon would say), with the official independence of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, etc.? How are you going to stop Sinophobia with this Manichean and hypocrite perspective?
One idea came to my mind after reading the magic solution proposed by the article: “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”. Maybe the problem is precisely this one, that after several decades of US world vision (hegemony) dominating the world, it has been shown that it has not created a more just, equal or hopeful world. It is just a vision that many people do not believe in anymore, and that is what opens the window to China as an alternative to Washington, and not simply China’s “aggressiveness” (a mantra once more time repeated in this article).
In the end, the authors do exactly the same they propose to avoid: “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” (but, again, not Asians in general). A little late to propose this! They could have started by setting an example, but the anti-China narrative and the conception of the US as the universal good and saviour of the free world is just so engrained in their imaginary that they do not even perceive it.
 Brossat, A. (2021). Personal communication.