This past week the FBI warned of a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans. According to an assessment obtained by ABC News, “The FBI assesses hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease … endangering Asian American communities.”
“The FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the US public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.”
However, it is not just Asian Americans who are targeted, but anyone who looks Asian is endangered, whether they are Americans or foreign visitors from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, other countries in Asia, including nationals of European countries who happen to be of Asian heritage.
In the U.S., anti-Asian hate crimes have surged so much that during the March 27 phone call between President Trump and President Xi, Xi emphasized and hoped America would protect the health and lives of many Chinese international students in the U.S.
His worry was prompted by the recent racialization of the pandemic by President Trump and his administration as well as members of Congress calling the virus “Chinese.” The toxic rhetoric long promoted by China hawks in Washington, amplified by the virus crisis, subsequently helped cause a wave of anti-Asian violence in America.
If the situation worsens as the FBI assesses, foreign governments may need to consider ways to protect their citizens and perhaps evacuate them from the U.S. For America that prides itself as the leader of the free world, how did it get here, where an entire race of people increasingly fear for their safety?
Economic cold war helped fan the fire of racism
Unfortunately, racism has always been an endemic part of American history. It ebbs and flow throughout time, with punctuations during economic hardship and public health crisis. Whether with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 in a recession that politicians blamed on Japan, targeting Muslims Americans after 9/11, and now Chinese Americans and by extension all East Asians, because the average American cannot distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, or any other East Asians.
Against the backdrop of an economic cold war with China, and a crescendo of anti-Chinese rhetoric from U.S. politicians the past years, this has fanned the fire of racism towards ethnic Chinese specifically and Asians generally.
It is manifested in the involvement of U.S. domestic intelligence agency with economic competition in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) over fears of intellectual property theft, and foregone profits to U.S. high-tech and big pharma companies. As a result, over the past years the FBI has been targeting and prosecuting, at times persecuting, Asian American scientists, because Washington now largely classifies basic research collaboration as economic espionage.
Due to increasing monetization and commoditization of public goods such as basic research and medical science, international collaboration in science—including cancer research—is now quasi-criminalized, with FBI agents reading private emails, stopping Chinese scientist at airports, and visiting people’s homes to ask about their loyalty.
This has prompted American scientists to warn against state-sanctioned racism, because while there have been some legitimate cases of espionage and criminal activity, many cases have been bungled from lack of evidence, so much so that Congress has launched an investigation into the FBI for racial profile of ethnic Chinese researchers.
Even Beijing was concerned about U.S. government’s treatment of its citizens that in June 2019, the Chinese government issued warnings to its students and academics about the risks of studying in the U.S., and America has seen an exodus of many talented ethnic Chinese scientists due to increasing criminalization of research collaboration.
Now after years of U.S. politicians using incendiary language against China and blaming the Chinese for economic woes and the pandemic crisis, similar to blaming Japan in the 1980s, a portion of the U.S. population is targeting Asians—whether Americans or foreign nationals—for abuse and misplaced anger.
However, in midst of the feverish anti-Chinese sentiments, and seemingly in a sudden twist of irony, the White House currently finds itself in a position of relying on a Chinese-American scientist to lead America’s fight against Covid-19.
Can a Chinese-American scientist bridge the Sino-U.S. gap?
Enter Dr. David Ho, America’s top scientist for infectious disease, renowned researcher for treatment of HIV/AIDS, Times Person of the Year in 1996, and recipient of Presidential Citizens Medal from President Clinton.
Dr. Ho is racing against the clock and assembling a team consisting mainly of ethnic Chinese scientists to find a generalized approach that would not only cure Covid-19, but would lay the foundation to treat future mutations of the coronavirus.
— Bloomberg (@business) March 21, 2020
Americans should probably feel relieved that Dr. Ho and his team are still available in the U.S. when the virus outbreak occurred, and have not yet been decimated by years of purging ethnic Chinese/Chinese-American scientists from U.S. research institutions.
Ho is an ethnic Chinese from Taiwan and key members of his team are from China, with some of his former students holding top scientific positions there. Given his reputation and network of connections, he will have access to experimental compounds from Hong Kong and Shanghai for his investigation not likely available to anyone else, and his multinational and multidisciplinary team embodies the best of what international scientific collaboration—and Sino-U.S. cooperation—is all about.
However, in this current climate of increasing anti-Asian racism fanned by U.S. politicians, Dr. Ho and his team are likely at risk of being attacked just walking to the grocery store, even while they work to save American lives.
Members of Congress are also not immune to attacks. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif), who spent his life protecting Americans as a former active duty U.S. Air Force officer and is still a Colonel in the Reserves, says he fears for his safety when leaving his home to get groceries in the face of rising anti-Asian hate crimes.
This is a sobering statement for an American soldier to make, one that exposes the current deep rifts within American society.
The same risk applies to many healthcare professionals and scientists battling the coronavirus that are Asian-Americans, who disproportionately make up these groups, and who are attacked by the very people they are trying to help.
And when the victims turn out to be nationals of foreign countries in Asia and elsewhere, the diplomatic fallout between the U.S. and various countries in the international community, could be potentially disastrous.
Hopefully, both the U.S. and Chinese leadership can work together to stem this ominous tide, and the Friday phone call between President Trump and President Xi vouching to jointly battle the pandemic, with Trump reassuring that America would protect Chinese citizens and international students in the U.S., is a good first step towards healing the relationship. Because their people’s lives, and the safety of Asian individuals in the U.S., hang in the balance.
First published in Asia Times 3/29/20.