US-China relations have continued to deteriorate this year. Issues ranging from Taiwan, to the presence of an alleged Chinese spy balloon over the United States, to TikTok’s China ties have elevated tensions between the two countries.
Tensions between the United States and China are dangerous not only because they increase the risk of international conflict but because of their consequences within the United States. Hostility toward China can potentially foster hostility toward Chinese Americans and other Americans of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage.
Seeing China as an Adversary
Recent statements from US policymakers, as well as official US government documents, make clear that many in the United States government view China as an adversary.
The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, released in 2022, identified China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.” The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy similarly named China as the United States’ chief foe, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin commenting that China “is the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, a power to do so."
Earlier this year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “There is no doubt that the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s ideas, our economic security and our national security is that posed by the Chinese communist government.” Wray described China’s government as seeking “to surpass us as a global superpower and to shape a world order more friendly to their decidedly authoritarian regime.”
Suspicious, confrontational stances toward China turn up in Congress, as well. In a 2021 op-ed, US Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) compared US-Chinese economic competition to the Cold War, writing “The United States faces a new cold war, this time with China, that will determine the future of our nation and of the world.” Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) made the ominous statement in August 2022 that “The [Chinese Communist Party] is attempting to take over the USA across all industries — pushing spies into U.S. universities and buying U.S. farmland. We must crack down on Communist China and unravel our ties.” The US House of Representatives established a select committee earlier this year to study and make policy recommendations on China’s “economic, technological, and security progress and its competition with the United States.”
Current fears about China as a global competitor follow the recent friction between the United States and China stirred up by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a pointed reference to the virus’ Chinese origins, President Trump called COVID the “China virus” or even “kung flu.” Since leaving office, he has continued to use the “China virus” phrase.
US public opinion on China may also have moved toward a generally negative attitude. Pew Research Center telephone surveys in the 2010s generally found Americans to have mixed opinions on China. As recently as 2017, survey respondents were divided between 44% who had a largely favorable opinion on China and 48% who had a largely unfavorable opinion. By 2020, the divide was 22% favorable and 73% unfavorable. More recent online Pew surveys show similarly lopsided percentages: a spring 2022 survey showed only 16% of respondents had a positive opinion on China, while 82% had an unfavorable opinion. In 2022, two-thirds of online respondents also said they considered China’s power and influence a major threat to the United States.
Prejudice at Home
Negative attitudes toward China, at both the official and popular levels, do not bode well for the future relationship between the two countries. They also do not bode well for American citizens who are of Chinese heritage or who might be perceived as being of such heritage.
In an anti-Chinese political atmosphere, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people may be blamed or scapegoated for whatever threats are seen as coming from China. Both racism and a tendency to fear an “enemy within” are sadly familiar patterns in US history that could be repeated.
Russell Jeung, a professor at San Francisco State University, warns that “this pattern of widely invoking the China threat has dangerous consequences for Americans of Asian descent, perpetuating long-standing stereotypes of Chinese and other Asian communities as foreign, dangerous and unscrupulous — an existential threat to the United States.”
Evidence suggests that the pandemic and anti-China sentiments may have already contributed to increased prejudice against Asian Americans. Anti-Asian hate crimes seem to have increased in recent years, although precise quantitative data is hard to obtain.
FBI hate crimes data provided at the end of 2021 indicated a 60% increase in anti-AAPI incidents in the United States, from 184 incidents in 2019, before the pandemic, to 294 in 2020. FBI data released for 2021 shows an even larger number of anti-AAPI incidents, 789. Such incidents can range from vandalism and intimidation to assault and killing. Because of recent changes in how the FBI collects such data, however, these 2021 numbers may not be directly comparable to earlier numbers. The available numbers at least suggest such anti-AAP incidents continue to rise, though. Official numbers may well under-report the number of such incidents.
The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate collected stories of over 10,000 “hate incidents” (most of which are not crimes) aimed at AAPI people. These incidents were reported as taking place in 2020 and 2021. In late 2021, the group subsequently conducted a nationally representative online survey of 1,000 AAPI people. The survey found that roughly one-fifth of respondents had experienced some kind of hate incident over the previous year. Most of these incidents involved verbal abuse, but some cases of physical assault were also reported.
Among survey respondents who reported hate incidents, the largest ethnic group was people of Chinese heritage, 42.7%. The majority of respondents reporting hate incidents (62%) were women.
Stories collected in the Stop AAPI Hate report include incidents such as the following:
From New York City: “My family and I went to sit near open seats on the subway, and a man sitting there started yelling, “Coronavirus” at us and screaming at us to get away from him. When I stepped away, but didn’t walk to the other side of the train, he got up to come toward me and kept yelling at me, calling me a b-----h, and yelling that we didn’t understand English.”
From Los Angeles: “I was on the subway when an unmasked person approached me and spat on me twice. When I confronted him about it, he called me a c---k and put his two fingers next to his eyelids and did the squinting gesture to mock my small eyes.”
From Stillwater, MN: “A bunch of girls from my school messaged me saying, ‘Go back to China. Your eyes are weird and ugly. You don’t belong here, c---k.’”
From Rockville, MD: “I went out on a morning walk with my friend who is also Chinese. We were speaking in Chinese to each other and stopped on the sidewalk, which is part of public property, but in front of some residential homes. A man walked out of his home and yelled, ‘Get off my property and go back to China!’”
From New York City: “I was walking down a busy street in broad daylight on a phone call, when out of nowhere a man comes up behind me, punches me on the side of my face, and sends me flying onto the pavement. As he walks away, I can hear him mutter, ‘f-----g c---k’.”
More time and data gathering will provide a better sense of the trends in hate crimes or other discrimination against AAPI people. Time will also tell what impact the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, passed in 2021 to address hate crimes against AAPI people will have. Among other measures, the Act aims to improve hate crime reporting. Policymakers do not have to wait, however, before taking positive steps to discourage hateful episodes such as those described above.
US policymakers should be careful to avoid extreme, apocalyptic anti-China rhetoric that is likely to scare people or inflame sentiments against China. They should also take care to emphasize that any US concerns about China are about Chinese government policies, not Chinese people or Americans of Chinese heritage. FBI Director Wray, for example, at least qualified his recent warnings about China by saying the “threat stems from the Chinese government, not the Chinese people themselves.”
Beyond toning down rhetoric, US policymakers would do well to reconsider whether a confrontational stance toward China makes sense. Neither the United States, China, nor the rest of the world needs a costly, dangerous rivalry between the world’s most powerful nations. A US policy towards China that focuses on relaxing tensions and avoiding conflict, even as the United States and China deal with their inevitable differences, would be wise. US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns’ recent statement that “we need better channels between the two governments and deeper channels, and we are ready to talk,” is an encouraging first step.
A better US-China relationship would benefit many people in the world, including AAPI people here in the United States.