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Recap: What is Fueling Anti-Asian Hate? 5.11.21

Recap: What is Fueling Anti-Asian Hate? 5.11.21

On May 11, China Institute hosted an important conversation on history, the rise of China, and bias in America.

Speaker Bios:

Erika Lee (EL) is one of the nation’s leading immigration and Asian American historians. Lee teaches American history at the University of Minnesota, where she is a Regents Professor, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center. Lee is the author of four award-winning books in U.S. immigration and Asian American history including her most recent, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (Basic Books, 2019).

Catherine X. Pan-Giordano (CP) is a Partner and Corporate Group Head at Dorsey & Whitney LLP and leads the firm’s globally recognized U.S.-China transactional practice. As one of the most prominent Chinese-speaking business lawyers in New York, Pan-Giordano handles strategic corporate transactions, and complex legal problems for clients.

John Pomfret (JP) is an award-winning journalist who worked with the Washington Post for several decades. He currently is a contributing writer to the Post’s Global Opinions section. Pomfret spent seven years covering China—one in the late 1980s during the Tiananmen Square protests and then from 1997 until the end of 2003 as the bureau chief for the Washington Post in Beijing. His latest book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present (2016) was awarded the 2017 Arthur Ross Award by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Laura Silver (LS) is a senior researcher at Pew Research Center. She is an expert in international survey research and writes about international public opinion on a variety of topics, including media usage and partisanship in Europe, Chinese public opinion, and global attitudes toward China.

Moderator’s Bio:

Dinda Elliott (DE) is Senior Vice President of Programs at China Institute.

Full Video of ‘What is Fueling Anti-Asian Hate?’:

Selected Program Quotes:

LS: The key finding is that views of China have turned increasingly negative. In 2021, 40% give China a rating below 25. Around a quarter gave China a 0 on this scale!

Older people have more negative images of China. One third of Americans consider China an enemy. Only 9 percent consider China a partner.

What do people mean when they have ‘cold feelings’ towards China? Survey recipients could write whatever they wanted. Then we looked at overall frequency of issues. People talked about: Human Rights, the Political System, and the Economy. Very few people mentioned anything to do with Chinese people themselves, everything else focused more on descriptors of China and the country.

More Americans say it is more important to get tougher on trade in China (55%) rather than build a strong relationship.

One of the few issues on which there is no [political divergence] is human rights. This is something where Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats agree.

A majority of Americans (55%) also support limiting Chinese students in America.

DE: Your last slide suggests that at least Asian Americans attribute Trump the rise in anti-Asian crime to Trump. Is there evidence that broader government rhetoric plays a role?

LS: There are only a handful of ways to have experiences with foreign countries. You can visit, you can learn from books and education, so most of it is mediated, so, what is in the media and what is coming from the trusted elite. We have seen that negative views of China spike around election cycles- almost no one campaigns on a pro-China platform. [Biden] is still trying to leverage the relationship in different ways- when rhetoric is heated and united from both parties, we are likely to see [public sentiment] shift in that direction.

Panel Discussion:

DE: Walk us through the changes in Chinese engagement and anti-Chinese sentiment.

JP: I will try to pack 250 years into five minutes or less! So much of what we see today has its roots in the past. Americans have looked at China with a mix of fascination, fear, and repulsion.

The search for goods for the Chinese market, in fact the idea for the transcontinental railroad was a scheme of an American to bring the U.S. closer to the China market. The belief was that the China market would be the savior of the United States, after independence from Britain. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington referred to the Chinese with respect. And then during the Gold Rush of 1848, California needed workers, and the Chinese were welcomed. In 1868, China and the U.S. concluded its first treaty, The Free Labor Treaty. And then there was rhetoric around the ‘coming of the barbarians.’

Two years later, regarding the 1870 naturalization law, [there were prominent calls] for Asians to be included in the American family. But no such luck. They were portrayed as being dirty, diseased, syphilitic. Then, you had [a ton of propaganda] and a floodgate of attacks against Chinese. Following these swings between awe and repulsion, you then had the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And amidst this repulsion, a large number of Christian missionaries go to China, thinking American will educate and lift up the Chinese to be little Christians, then Capitalists, then Democrats.

We see this manifest today. When China turns Communist in 1950 and there was this fear around ‘brainwashing.’ Just look at the Manchurian Candidate to get a sense of how scared Americans were about this Chinese thought control thing. And then we also see the reaction and potential profits when China opens in the 1970s. In 1981 Bloomingdales turned its entire store over to Chinese goods! And you see that now with the pandemic, Chinese once again—the ‘Kung Flu,’ etc.—are fingered as the repositories of sickness and disease So, sometimes it seems like we are trapped in this Buddhist cycle of reincarnation in our views of China, with each spin of the wheel repurposing a fantasy, of either paternalistic love or xenophobic hate.

DE: What were touchpoints since 1949?

JP: Well then you have the McCarthy attacks of the ‘reds under the beds.’ The Nationalists actually worked with the FBI to uncover suspected Communists in Chinatown. And people were arrested and hounded out of the country. Then in the 1960’s you had the student movement who were very interested in the writings of Chairman Mao. So, you have the fear factor and the obsession factor. Then the Great Opening in the late 1970s touched off a huge interest in China and this belief that we have rediscovered China. Now China is back in our hug and we can work with them again. And then you have 1989 where we wonder how they can treat their students like that…then you have under the Obama administration and the thinking that they aren’t modernizing as far as we thought they would, and then you have Trump, and [the pandemic].

DE: Our relationship with China seems to be so emotional, with this idea that somehow they will become like us. And then we are broken-hearted when it doesn’t happen.

JP: You have two massive continental powers, and we are both almost the same size geographically. We Americans relate to the Chinese more than we do the Japanese. So we have deeply emotionalized the relationship with China, no other country besides Great Britain stimulates our emotions more than China.

DE: Erika, let’s talk about Asian immigration to America. These immigrants come to embody the threat that the land of their ancestry poses to the U.S. Is that unique to Asian Americans?

EL: I need to emphasize the importance of global migration trends and racism in the United States. Even before we had large numbers of Chinese in the U.S. there are pre-existing opinions and conceptions about Chinese. China in the U.S. had always been seen as the polar opposite of Europe and the U.S., it was seen as a place to be exploited and a place to convert the heathens to Christianity and take their riches to enrich Europe. The first Chinese woman in 1834 was brought to New York as [a sideshow act] where people could pay money to see her. My great great grandfather came to California in 1854 as part of the Gold Rush. My grandmothers remained in China and were educated by Christian missionaries in Canton. So we see how all these influences impact families…

Even before mass migration from Asia, the United States was already built on a foundation of white supremacy. It is important to remember that the rights of Asians and Asian Americans have always been a apart of larger debates about race and who counts as an American? The anti-Chinese movement in the 1840’s and 50’s was led by the white working class, but the 1870 Naturalization Act was a result of the elites of both parties buying into [a harmful narrative]. So Asians in America had no political power until the 1950’s.

We excluded laborers but we wanted to allow students, diplomats and merchants and travelers. So, one of my grandfathers came as the son of a merchant, and the other grandfather came as a fake son of a fake merchant. These are pathways formed during the exclusion era.

We don’t see the roots of contemporary Chinese America until 1965. That abolished the exclusion quotas, and by the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s we had 1.5 million immigrants coming in. Now there are 5.4 million Chinese in the U.S.- the single largest ethnic group.

I am sixth-generation, I am more American than my husband of Irish-German descent! The problem is seeing all Asian immigrants as Asian and not American.

In the United States, we have this really tortuous relationship with immigrants. We only want you to come and settle permanently and you have to give up loyalty to another country, especially if we have tense relations.

DE: Catherine, tell us about your experiences as a lawyer representing a number of Chinese firms here in the U.S.

CP: My study at law school here in the U.S. was based on a scholarship from the American people. I never met these people. I can tell you that Americans are a very generous and decent people. I feel so privileged to be here. I came here to pursue an American dream, and I am drawn to the U.S. rule of law and our Constitution- that is why I became a lawyer in the first place.

But I am concerned about some of the developments over the last few years. There was an Executive Order banning American investments in Chinese companies that are military companies. I understand this order, however the law was made in a very broad stroke so if you look at the list of companies there are ones like Xiaomi that are consumer electronics companies that are just here to do business. But we seems to have the concept of when you are Chinese you are foreign and when you are foreign you are a spy. We won an injunction and this Chinese consumer company can continue to trade on the NASDAQ. Some of these orders are arbitrary and capricious. OA lot of my cases [around The China Initiative from the DOJ] involve scientists and professors at universities, or doctors at hospitals, that were alleged to be spying on the U.S.

The China Initiative started in November 2018 as an enforcement initiative. …the reality is that if you look at the data disclosed by agencies like NIH and DOJ, the vast majority of these cases are disclosure cases. The subjects are not really spies…all they did was to forgot, or they failed to disclose, certain foreign ties when applying to federal grants. The breach of disclosure rules could be a violation…but a lot of these mistakes are paperwork mistakes.

JP: You have the Justice Department and the intelligence community confronting significant espionage, and in order to deal with that, they have gone after the fly with a hammer. And they have destroyed numerous lives in this country over what could be a clerical error as they sought to try to stem a significant flow of intelligence from this country to China. The problem of espionage is real. but…it is difficult for the Biden administration to pull back from [Trump’s action’s] because [as Laura outlined] anti-China sentiment sells.

[Ed:] See a previous program on the persecution of Chinese scientists in the U.S.

EL: The challenge here is that we are talking at China Institute about the connection between U.S. and China policy and Chinese immigrants, and yes there are connections, but at the same time how do we move forward with U.S. policies that protect U.S. interests, without…putting a bullseye on the backs of Asian Americans? How is it that when the United States is getting tough with China, it is Asian Americans that pay the price? When we are tough with Russia, we don’t see a 2600 percent increase in incidents of hate [against Russians].

For More:

You can visit www.immigrantstories.umn.edu, it is a digital storytelling website to write, record, and upload images and create a digital story for free. It is available in seven languages, including Chinese.

Explore upcoming online programs of interest at China Institute