Before a series of shootings in the Atlanta area this week that disproportionately targeted people of Asian descent, members of the Asian American community spent months expressing alarm that high-profile figures — including then-President Donald Trump — were inciting violence by telling Americans to blame China for the coronavirus pandemic.
Their warnings largely went unheeded. And despite Trump’s departure from office and evidence of rising violence against Asian Americans, influential voices from politicians to foreign policy experts are still speaking of an existential competition with Beijing in ways that could spur violence towards people perceived as being linked to China.
“Our community has been facing a [relentless] increase in attacks and harassment over the past year,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, tweeted on Wednesday. “As we wait for more details to emerge, I ask everyone to remember that hurtful words and rhetoric have real life consequences.”
After Tuesday’s attack, law enforcement said it was “too early” to determine whether the suspect, Robert Aaron Long, was motivated by race.
Members of the Asian-American community saw a clear link to a nationwide surge in violent discrimination that shows little sign of abating.
Between last March and Feb. 28, the watchdog group Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks incidents of attacks against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander individuals, received 3,795 reports of harassment, including assaults that resulted in deaths. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino said 2020 saw a 150% increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans in the U.S.’s largest cities.
Trump, who went from demonizing China on the campaign trail to blaming it for the COVID-19 pandemic during his last year as president, spent years perpetuating anti-Asian sentiments. President Joe Biden condemned anti-Asian racism in his first speech and signed an executive order directing federal agencies to combat it, to applause from civil rights groups.
But his administration continues to mostly describe China as a threat ― language that could be dangerous for Asian-Americans.
The Trump administration and political allies like Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) began calling the virus the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus” a little over a year ago, and last summer the president began to use the racist term “kung flu.” In the days after Gosar and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the coronavirus the “China virus,” there was an 800% uptick in such rhetoric among conservative news outlets, according to research from the journal Health Education & Behavior.
The GOP’s strategy built on a wide array of Trump administration policies targeting China, from new limits on visas for Chinese students to a largely self-defeating trade war guided by Republicans’ view that China “has been ripping us off.”
At the time, Chu said Trump was simply seeking “to deflect anger about coronavirus away from himself and to have himself be thought as the war president with the enemy being very identified.”
Under Biden, the anti-Asian rhetoric from the White House has dissipated. Still, experts believe persistent bipartisan hawkishness toward China could do further damage.
In January, progressive activist Tobita Chow and researcher Jake Werner published an essay recommending a reset of U.S.-China relations along progressive lines ― spurred in part by their concern that newly empowered Democrats would be too adversarial.
“The Biden team broadly agrees with the aims of Trump’s confrontation with China and is primarily concerned that the administration’s tactics have been ineffective,” they wrote. “The danger is that the Biden administration will, indeed, be more successful at mobilizing American society and U.S. allies against China ... [which] could lead to a far more destructive confrontation.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is currently working on new legislation to limit China’s influence ― an effort that would complement Biden’s courting of American allies in Asia and plans to aggressively compete with China economically.
Chow and Werner argued that it’s foolish to say focusing on competition with China will not take a toll on Asian Americans and other minority communities, whether under a Democrat or a Republican. “As demonstrated by every prior case of foreign conflict in U.S. history, this is a fantasy. Escalating conflict with China will inevitably feed escalating racism within the U.S.,” they wrote.
In 1982, as top officials and media outlets spread the idea that Japan was outpacing the U.S. because of its success in industries like automobile production, two auto workers in Detroit targeted and beat an Asian-American man named Vincent Chin; Chin eventually died of his injuries.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S.’s launch of a “global war on terror” focused on the Muslim-majority world, Muslims and people perceived as Muslim across the country faced threats, boycotts, conspiracy theories and discriminatory government policies ― a toxic combination that had lasting effects, as demonstrated by a study showing worse birth outcomes for Arabic-named women in the six months after 9/11.
“If the months following the  attacks are to teach us anything, it is that anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia will increase with time if we do not confront it head on now,” Sahar Aziz, a Rutgers University Law School professor, wrote last year.
Biden’s team has shown some flexibility on the issue. After they were accused of fear-mongering over China with an election ad, they issued a more restrained follow-up message avoiding generalizations about Chinese people and focusing on the authoritarian Chinese leadership.
Skeptics of an overly aggressive policy say Washington can critique China’s crackdowns on domestic dissent and its millions-strong Uyghur minority without promoting the idea of a face-off with the U.S., by describing those problems as part of broader global repression and noting that Beijing may be less likely to address them if it feels victimized.
And they note that without a nuanced approach, American policymakers could be undermining themselves. Jessica Lee of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has said that anti-Asian rhetoric “risks driving away those Americans the U.S. national security apparatus needs the most right now,” and a coalition of foreign policy analysts argued last year that tolerating anti-Asian discrimination gives the Chinese government an opportunity to highlight and exploit American failures.
“Attacks against Asian individuals and members of the AAPI community, including immigrants, are unjust and at odds with our core values,” the group of dozens of experts wrote in USA Today. “Intolerance and stigmatization risk dividing our society and hurting the most vulnerable precisely when we must unite to confront the pandemic.”