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Post-Election Reflections on Sinophobia in U.S. Politics

The bulk of our progressive forces are focused on policy at the local or national level, paying much less attention to global dimensions. But the need for an internationalist agenda will tend to become more and more apparent as they grow in power.

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Trump speech notes
A close-up of President Trump's notes shows where "Corona" was replaced with "Chinese" Virus as he speaks at the White House on March 19, 2020 , Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The last 12 months have seen a sharp rise in anti-China sentiment and, consequently, anti-Asian racism. This is a bipartisan trend, but it is much more severe on the right. One survey found that GOP voters now identify China as the top threat to the U.S.,  which is not true of Democrats or Independents.

Anti-China conspiracy theories have become a persistent fixation of rightwing media and the hardcore Trumpist base. This now includes conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China, and QAnon-style claims that Hunter Biden has engaged in acts of child sexual abuse in China. Based on these conspiracy theories, the nationalist right is insisting that Joe Biden is under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is betraying the U.S. to Chinese interests. Expect them to persist in this message for the entirety of Biden’s term in office.

Anti-China sentiment has also increased in the Democratic Party and its voter base, though on this side of the aisle antiracist and (to a lesser extent) internationalist sentiments moderate its power. Biden’s first attack ad against Trump after emerging as the clear frontrunner in the primary focused on anti-China messaging, including blatantly xenophobic fearmongering about travel from China. Widespread pushback against this (including an open letter organized by Asian American activists  which was the most prominent public-facing response) forced the Biden campaign to significantly moderate its anti-China messaging. This shift was matched by the campaigns of most other Democratic candidates, except for some campaigns in very red states and districts (e.g. McGrath in Kentucky, Bullock in Montana) which failed.

SINOPHOBIA IN A BIDEN ADMINISTRATION

Even though anti-China politics has its home on the right, it is certain to play a significant role in a Biden administration. First, there is a bipartisan consensus that Great Power Competition with China is the key strategic challenge facing the U.S. Second, the Biden administration will aim to build bipartisanship with the GOP, and anti-China politics will play a key role in their attempt to do so. If the GOP retains control of the Senate, the pressure on Biden to invest heavily in this tactic will be immense, both from the GOP and from within the Democratic Party. For years now, political leaders and elite commentators have pointed to China as the external enemy that could unite the divided nation, and this quickly became a key theme in discussions about bipartisanship under a Biden administration.

This attempt to find GOP allies through anti-China politics will tend to pull the Biden administration ever rightward. The leading critics of China within the GOP, and the top voices on right-wing media who support them, are extremists and conspiracy theorists. They are committed to a narrative strategy that portrays Biden as a CCP asset, no matter what Biden in fact says or does about China. The Biden administration will never be extreme enough on China to satisfy them. There is potential here for a dynamic similar to that of the “Grand Bargain” negotiations under Obama after 2010, in which Democrats attempted to cut a deal with Republicans over taxes and budget cuts, even offering cuts to Social Security and Medicare, only to have this deal attacked not only by progressives but also by the Tea Party, whose small government extremism proved impossible to satisfy through any bipartisan compromise.

That said, Biden’s approach will differ from Trump’s in important ways. It will avoid open racism and moderate attacks on the diaspora. Biden will emphasize multilateralism over Trump’s “America First” unilateralism, by working through transnational bodies and building an anti-China bloc of international alliances. Biden will also attempt to build forms of international cooperation despite growing competition.

There is also likely to be  an attempt to pursue some social democratic reforms with the rationale that this will make the U.S. better equipped to compete against China. The good news is, such shifts could significantly increase the space in which we can build power for progressive alternatives. The bad news is that this approach will keep us on a long term path to growing conflict.

THREATS

This kind of political landscape presents a number of grave threats:

*Anti-China messaging and policy fights from both parties will feed and deepen anti-China sentiment and racism, especially on the right, where it will take the form of conspiracy theories.

*This will in turn build a narrative advantage for the GOP: the more voters care about confronting China, the better the position of the GOP over the Democrats.

*This bipartisan consensus will prop up militarism, justifying defense spending at the cost of human needs, even as the COVID-19 crisis deepens. There are already signs that Biden will resist calls for cuts to the Pentagon budget, and Great Power Conflict with China is now well-established as the top rationale for increased defense spending

*Although Biden will attempt to build cooperation with China around global challenges such as the pandemic and climate change, these trends towards growing U.S.-China competition will tend to privilege conflict over cooperation, threatening our ability to address COVI-19 and environmental catastrophe,  increasing the dysfunctions of the global economy, and keeping us on a path towards military escalation. Already we have seen Zambia default on its debt, and a central obstacle to negotiations to delay payments was a conflict between Western and Chinese creditors. The great powers are utterly failing the Global South, which puts solutions to urgent global challenges entirely out of reach.

*The rest of the world will continue to get pulled into the U.S.-China conflict. Pressure will continue to build on national governments to choose sides. As the world becomes organized into competing blocs, the risks for “in between” countries will continue to grow. This includes Taiwan, several Southeast Asian countries, and a growing swathe of the Global South.

OPPORTUNITIES

We are very far from having the power necessary to reverse these trends and force an alternative. To move in that direction, we need to organize new bases of internationalists who are clear on their stake in global solidarity and committed to taking on the U.S.-China relationship in all its contradictions. We also must work  with organizations battling on “domestic” issues  to clarify their stake in building a progressive alternative to the growing U.S.-China conflict and build alignment on analysis and strategy. Right now the bulk of our progressive forces are focused on policy at the local or national level, paying much less attention to global dimensions. But the need for an internationalist agenda will tend to become more and more apparent as they grow in power.

Some key opportunities that are opening up as the terrain shifts under a Biden administration are:

Climate: Biden hopes to pursue international cooperation around shared global challenges, including with China. His approach is contradictory, but provides us with opportunities, both around public health and around climate. Biden has signaled that he wants to prioritize much more aggressive climate policy (though stopping short of endorsing the Green New Deal). There is potential for the climate movement to make significant gains, and potential for us to connect the dots between climate and the U.S.-China relationship. John Kerry’s role as incoming climate tsar is an indication of the potential here: under the Obama administration he was responsible for negotiating the U.S.–China climate agreement which made global agreement around the Paris Climate Accords possible.

Antiracism: Biden and the Democrats will be more responsive to critiques of anti-China politics from an anti-racist angle. There is increasing interest in pushing on this front, both by  Asian American advocacy groups and by progressives working in the national security space. There are a number of organizations that will not want to work with us on foreign policy towards China but will be willing to throw down on this front. It will be crucial to build deeper solidarity and alignment between this struggle and the broader racial justice movement.

Building transnational solidarity and diaspora organizing: Biden will pull back the attacks on Chinese international students and others of Chinese descent, which will create greater space for us to organize and  build transnational solidarity. There is great potential in organizing Chinese international students, who are particularly vulnerable and among those targeted most harshly by the Trump administration.

Narrative and worldview: Moderation in anti-China rhetoric from the White House will increase the space in which we can make interventions in narrative and worldview regarding China and the U.S.-China relationship. Over the summer, Justice Is Global ran a “deep canvassing” project, in which a team of volunteers called voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania to talk about what they were hearing and feeling about the pandemic and China. We mainly targeted registered Democrats and Independents, but also happened across some Trump voters. We developed and tested narrative strategies to counter belligerent anti-China sentiments, and we found that, as polling suggested, anti-China sentiment was widespread, but relatively shallow. People may have heard and absorbed anti-China messages through the media, but had not reflected on or processed them deeply. Many of them have no direct relationships with people of Chinese descent. Our success rate in moving people away from anti-China sentiment and towards support for U.S.-China cooperation was surprising and encouraging.

Our north star is a progressive transformation of the global economy. A path beyond the conflict must be grounded in an analysis of how “our global system has pitted these two countries against each other.” At the most fundamental level it is the growing dysfunctions of the neoliberal global economy that are feeding the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism around the world, including in China and the U.S., and thus feeding the U.S.-China conflict. This same dynamic undermines our efforts to confront the great global challenges of the 21st century, including climate change and global poverty. So we must overcome neoliberalism and its dysfunctions at the global level. This will not be achieved under a Biden administration, but we can use Biden’s presidency to start on a path to this goal.

CRITICAL REFLECTIONS ON MY MARCH ANALYSIS

I conclude with some critical reflections on the assessments and projections that I made early in the COVID-19 crisis, which guided my work as director of Justice Is Global for most of the year. In a March 18 post on Organizing Upgrade, I predicted that as the death toll and economic fallout from the pandemic increased in the U.S. we would see a severe escalation of anti-China nationalism (including a risk of military escalation) and the attendant anti-Asian racism from Trump and the GOP. To an extent this played out, but to an extent it did not.

We did see an escalation in anti-China scapegoating. The day after I wrote that post, Trump began to use the term “Chinese virus” publicly. In April the Trump campaign and the national GOP established a messaging strategy that would focus on anti-China narratives to deflect blame from Trump and go on offense against Democrats for supposedly being “soft on China”.

However, the anti-China escalation was significantly moderated by a few factors.

First was the new wave of Black Lives Matter protests, which forced the right onto the narrative terrain of racial justice, where they were extremely vulnerable, especially given the very high popular support for the protests early on, including among white voters. This severely disrupted their anti-China messaging strategy for months. Conspiracy theories linking the CCP to Black Lives Matter also did circulate on the right from the very beginning, but these remained relatively marginal to right-wing messaging about the protests, which focused on “law and order” narratives that functioned as racist dog whistles.

Second, a key premise of my argument in March, which I still consider plausible, is that the right has two strategies available to them in the face of the pandemic: one is denial that we are experiencing any true crisis, and the other is anti-China scapegoating. I assumed that as the death toll and other impacts of the pandemic piled up, especially in the economy, the GOP would be forced off of denialism and would turn all its energies towards scapegoating. This turned out to be erroneous. Aided by the fanning of distrust toward scientists and public health experts as well as a general assault on fact-based policy-making,  the right turned out to be quite capable of tolerating a growing six-figure death toll while maintaining denialism.

Meanwhile the political class and the major media across the political spectrum still do not foreground the reality that the country is in a deep economic as well as public health crisis. Although millions are suffering from unemployment, evictions, and hunger, this misery is concentrated among invisibilized sections of the working class, while the stock market, rising housing prices, and the ability of many workplaces to switch to working from home maintain an illusion of normalcy for capitalists, professionals, and the property-owning middle class. Denialism has thus remained the main right-wing response not just to the pandemic, but to the utter disregard for the well-being – even the survival – of millions by the current administration.

But this suggests that we could also see moments of escalation in Sinophobia in the near future, led by the far right, when one or another form of denialism is shattered. Two potential triggers for this could be when Trump’s base finally recognizes that his attempts to contest the election result have failed, or when the depth of the economic crisis finally comes into view (perhaps through a market crash, although who knows). The right will feel these as traumas and will react with renewed conspiracy theories, in which Sinophobia will play a key role. We should prepare for these moments. Preparing for a full-blown economic crisis will be particularly important, as it will suddenly open up significant new opportunities both for the increasingly fascistic right, and for our own boldest ideas and proposals.

Tobita Chow is the founder and director of Justice Is Global. He has been organizing campaigns for corporate accountability and racial and economic justice in Chicago since 2009. He was a key leader in bringing Moral Mondays to Illinois, served as Chair of the Board of Directors of The People's Lobby, and has led trainings on the global economy and globalization on 3 continents. He holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from the University of Chicago and a Master’s Degree in Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.