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china coronavirus orientalism trump policy politics

Time for the Left to Think Hard About China

Words: Harjaap Singh and Bryce Barros
Pictures: Chapman Chow

This commentary was written before the tragic death of George Floyd and subsequent national mass protests. The authors of this commentary stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and remain fully committed to deepening allyship between the Black and Asian American communities in and outside of National Security circles.

The Trump administration and elected Republican officials have waged a scorched-earth campaign calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” This label has led to a surge in harassment against Asian Americans. Trump and his allies show no remorse for Chinese Americans falling into their crosshairs as they weave all ethnic Chinese and the Chinese Community Party (CCP) together with the coronavirus into an anti-China campaign. To undo some of the harm to National Security this rhetoric has done, the left needs to formulate an alternative to the Trump administration’s erratic China policy to stop racializing US-China relations and prevent a permanent rupture between the two countries.

President Trump alters between hawkish and dovish positions on China to boost his domestic political stature. He pulls levers up and down on a variety of American policies to compel China to comply with his agenda. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic toppled the first phase of his coveted US-China trade deal. Trump has threatened to cut off ties with China, raising questions on what a US-China economic decoupling will look like in a post-pandemic world. In reality, Trump’s threat is just another lever he is pulling to grow his base and put pressure on China to capitulate to his demands. If pushed to the edge, China may respond in kind and walk away from negotiations, pushing bilateral relations to a point beyond repair.

Oversimplifying the US-China relations through the lens of race and ethnicity alone threatens to destabilize the world’s most important bilateral relationship and exposes Asian American communities to further backlash.

The right views a revanchist China as the preeminent non-caucasian great-power threat to US national security. The CCP views the world outside mainland China as cruel to all ethnic Han Chinese everywhere. These two opposing views fit together to conform with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations worldview that great-power competition is driven by culture and religion. President Trump exclaiming “Chinese virus” to “Don’t ask me. Ask China” to the press to deflect questions about his poor handling of the pandemic mirrors CCP tactics. Across China, the CCP has justified its sinicization policy repressing Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities by claiming sole authority to define Han Chinese nationalism. Concurrently, it is both applying a racial lens to its messaging to amass domestic support, suppress critics, and advance the CCP’s interests. Racial messaging on both sides is leading to a schism in US-China relations.

The left needs to move beyond condemning xenophobic comments to engaging directly with the Asian American community. Holding forums across the country where Asian Americans can openly voice their ideas and concerns on US-Asia relations will help the left craft a robust alternative to the right’s foreign policy. Tapping into Asian American communities’ strong cultural and economic ties with ancestral countries will provide practical strategies to advance trade and human rights in Asia. In fact, Speaker Pelosi is revered amongst San Francisco’s Hong Konger- and Chinese-American communities. She worked tirelessly to pass legislation that protected 40,000 Chinese nationals in the United States following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. And she built bridges with the San Franciscan Hong Konger-American community to make sure their voice was heard in Congress on issues from the 1997 Hong Kong Handover to Hong Kong’s recent protests. Following Pelosi’s example, to stymie the right’s racialization of US-China Relations, the left needs to include Asian American activists and community leaders in its policy discussions. The left also needs to support Asian American communities in educating the American public about their heritage, stories, and contributions.

Oversimplifying the US-China relations through the lens of race and ethnicity alone threatens to destabilize the world’s most important bilateral relationship and exposes Asian American communities to further backlash. Not only does it promote the CCP’s narrative that the United States is unable to accept Chinese-American and other non-Caucasian communities, but it undermines America’s greatest strength — our diversity.

Harjaap Singh is an Asia-Pacific specialist and focuses on political economy and technology.

Bryce Barros is an Indo-Pacific specialist focused on the nexus of finance and national security.

Harjaap Singh and Bryce Barros

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