The New Yellow Peril: China-Bashing for New Defense Spending Fuels Hate Against Asian Americans
Senator Feinstein surprised the civil rights organizers who threw her an informal wine-and-cheese shmoozer a couple months ago with an impromptu speech warning of the gathering speed of anti-China sentiment in Congress and the impending fallout for all Americans of Asian descent. A new yellow peril is afoot, she warned, and civil rights organizers better ready themselves.
A comprehensive poll released in April confirmed the senator's prophecy. In a Yankelovich study of attitudes toward China and Chinese Americans--the first ever of its kind--Americans revealed an abiding belief that Chinese Americans were unassimilable, traitorous foreigners, poised to sell American secrets to a dangerous China.
Two-thirds feared China as the biggest threat to U.S. security, second only to international terrorism. A third questioned Chinese Americans' loyalty to the United States, and almost half considered Chinese-American espionage on behalf of China a real problem. Finally, respondents couldn't really tell the difference between Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans: when surveyors asked the same questions about Asian Americans as they had about Chinese Americans, they received nearly identical results. The study, conducted during the first two weeks of March, involved over 1,200 phone interviews with a nationally representative sample of Americans aged 18 and over. Its findings sent chills down the spines of Asian American civil rights organizations.
"With the rise of China in particular as U.S. enemy number one," says Asian Law Caucus's Victor Huang, "we expect an increase in anti-Asian violence in the next couple of years." Asian Law Caucus is a San Francisco-based civil rights organization aimed at low-income Asian Americans. They and other organizers who track hate crimes against Asian Americans say the poll's findings show nothing new. "Those of us who work in the Asian American community are not surprised," says Aryami Ong of National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium in Washington, DC. "Especially after the campaign finance scandal which cast a net of suspicion across Asian Americans who legally participate in the political process and the indictment of [Taiwanese scientist] Wen Ho Lee, based on his race," Ong explains.
Asian American activists trace the current wave of anti-Asian sentiment to a 1999 report on Chinese espionage by a U.S. select committee led by Rep. Christopher Cox. The so-called Cox report "basically alleged that the Chinese government charged every scientist and student who came to the United States with an espionage assignment," says Ong. The anti-Chinese hysteria that followed continues today in vastly stepped up anti-Asian security measures. Last month, security guards detained two-term Representative David Wu from entering the Department of Energy building. Even after Wu showed them his congressional identification, he was asked not once but twice whether he was an American. Ironically, Wu was attempting to enter the building to deliver a speech in honor of Asian American Heritage Month. The collision between a U.S. spy plan and a Chinese fighter jet on April 1 provided a further rationale to let loose all manner of anti-Chinese blather. Some radio talk-show hosts called for the internment of Chinese Americans and for boycotts of Chinese restaurants. The satirical theater group, the Capitol Steps, dressed a white actor in thick glasses and a black wig to impersonate a Chinese official. His line: "ching, ching, chong, chong" The top newspaper editors gathered to enjoy the skit "laughed heartily," according to a Chinese American student photographer assigned to cover the skit.
Hints that the Bush administration plans to capitalize on growing anti-Chinese feeling to rationalize vastly increased military spending abound. "Discussions are under way in Washington to retarget strategic missiles, redeploy Trident submarines, remilitarize Japan, and ally with India," warns a May 28 Business Week editorial. "No one is yet using the word 'containment' but a look at the map shows that the U.S. is clearly organizing a pan-Asian effort that amounts to just that." Certain business elites are understandably alarmed--U.S. corporations have invested $25 billion in China in the last 20 years, according to the May 14 In These Times. Other businesses, such as defense contractors, stand ready for a windfall if the Pentagon's much-anticipated "strategic review" calls for outlandishly expensive new projects rationalized by a supposed threat from China.
Defense secretary Donald Rumsfield's been so busy secretly compiling his grand plan to overhaul the Pentagon, he's even passed up the perquisite round of commencement speeches this May. A prominent China hawk, Andrew Marshall, appears to be one of his most important advisors. Marshall worried, in a 1999 paper, of a growing challenge to U.S. hegemony from China, in the face of intensifying resistance to exploitative U.S. military bases in Japan and Korea. But even June 2 Economist noted the paranoid alarmism apparent in the defense department's "new thinking." "With more than $1 billion a day to spend," they wrote, "the Pentagon's budget dwarfs those of any of America's allies or protagonists." China spends about a quarter of what the U.S. does on its military, and supports twice as many ground troops. Even scholars from the conservative Brookings Institute say that the Chinese could not project their military beyond their immediate borders--even if they wanted to--for at least two decades. As East Asian scholar Bruce Cumings noted in a 1999 article, "China is a Rorschach inkblot onto which Americans project their hopes and fears. 'China' tells us much more about ourselves than it does about the real country by the same name."
If the China hawks in the Bush administration have their way, intensified demonization of China will surely follow, not only stepping up anti-Asian discrimination at home, but also drastically impoverishing the government's ability to fund education, health care, and other social services. Unfortunately, Asian American civil rights organizations sacrificed their ability to comment on U.S. policy toward China (or indeed any other Asian country) when they made proving Asian Americans' red-blooded Americanism their top priority. Any appearance of allegiance to Asia "confuses the public," says Huang. The Organization of Chinese Americans, according to Huang, routinely refuses to take positions on U.S. policy toward Asia. "We don't take positions on Chinese issues or Asian issues," explains Huang. "It is not ideal, but we need to reinforce this message" that Asian Americans are not foreigners. The May 25 release of the movie Pearl Harbor unleashed a fresh wave of flag-waving patriotism from scared Asian Americans. A Japanese-American veteran at a recent press conference, Haung says, offered proof that he was truly an American, too: he would have killed Japanese people, he repeated several times, because they were the enemy.
But "do we have to agree with U.S. foreign policy to say that we belong in this country?" asks Korean-American organizer Sun Hyung Lee. For some sectors of the Asian American community, embattled by years of immigrant bashing, the answer is clearly 'yes'. But, "no matter how assimilated Asians become in this society, says Lee, "we are never going to have equality if the countries we come from are being oppressed by U.S. economic and military policy." This old argument, newly supported by the Yankelovich survey, may become increasingly difficult for mainstream Asian American organizations to ignore.
To connect racism against Asian Americans with U.S. policy toward Asia, Lee helps coordinate an ambitious new national initiative called the Asian Left Forum. The ALF was born in 1998 at a UC Berkeley organizers' conference, where an ad hoc meeting on Asian left issues drew almost 100 participants. Two years later, their momentum hadn't abated: 80 organizers showed up for the 2000 national summit. The Bay Area local of the ALF plans a public forum on China-bashing on July 6.
Their organizing efforts have largely flown under the radar of other anti-globalization and anti-militarism activists, however. While Lee says the ALF works with other organizations founded around the same time, such as the Black Radical Caucus and the New Raza Left, many radical Asian organizers consider the anti-globalization movement, which shares many of their concerns, the "white left." But a looming military buildup and potential Cold War 2 with China may bridge some of these gaps. Clearly, it will take a multi-pronged effort to reveal the new yellow peril what it is--a fakeout to rationalize scary big guns with peculiarly ghastly repercussions for Americans of Asian descent.