Internment camps for Chinese-Americans?

While the world condemns China for its Uighur internment camps, some wonder if WWII-era camps may soon be confining Chinese-Americans.

Over the past year, there has been a crescendo of international opprobrium condemning China’s internment camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang. Simultaneously in the US, there has been a growing chorus condemning xenophobia and racism against Mexican-Americans and Muslim Americans, with Japanese-Americans leading the choir. They have a platform. In World War II, Japanese-Americans were rounded up in shipped off to internment camps throughout the US.

US internment of Japanese-Americans

In 1942, US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that paved the way for the World War II incarcerations of Japanese-Americans, as detailed in a 2017 article titled “When Japanese Americans were caged.” Over the next five years, more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of whom were Nisei (second generation) native-born US citizens, were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods for military enclosures – described by various terms from “reception centers” and “relocation centers” to “internment camps” and “concentration camps.”

This was despite the fact that during the intervening years, Japanese-Americans fought bravely in the US Army’s 44th Infantry Regiment, which became one of the most decorated units in US military history and was made up entirely of Nisei soldiers. Yet in 1942, the US War Department classified Japanese-Americans as 4-C: enemy alien.

Now, there is growing concern in the US that history may be repeating itself not just with Muslims and Hispanics, but also with Chinese-Americans.

Chinese-Americans at risk? 

In a June 2017 Foreign Policy article titled “The next internment: Would Chinese in the US be rounded up during a war?” Thomas Ricks warned that the US government’s current anti-Chinese vitriol is reminiscent of the toxic environment that led to internment of Japanese-Americans, and would similarly lead to violence against the Chinese-American population.

This fear is echoed by Asian-Americans, who are increasingly experiencing racism and discrimination due to the inflammatory Sinophobic language from the US leadership.

Georgetown University Professor Chi Wang has said that Chinese-Americans are now caught in the crossfire of Sino-US enmity, and witnessed his “Chineseness” being used to make him somehow less American or untrustworthy, despite being a US citizen and having lived in the country for more than 70 years.

Yun Sun, senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, has also said, “The US seems to have a policy that is at least skeptical or suspicious of all ethnic Chinese,” while Chinese-Americans have often endured the “perpetual foreigner” syndrome in the US and faced the repeated question of “where are you really from,” observed Professor Frank Wu from the

And as Sino-US relation enter a period of newfound hostility, China- and Chinese-bashing has become in vogue, with negative consequences for Asian-Americans.

Racism toward Asians

In April Magazine, an online publication for Asian women based in Seoul, a July 2018 article noted how the US government’s anti-Chinese policy is harming Asian-Americans. It cited a 2016 study conducted by the Chinese-American organization Committee of 100, which found that Asian-Americans are the most likely minority group to be falsely accused of espionage, and receive longer sentences than defendants with Western last names.

This is also impacting their everyday life. For example, the article cites 28-year-old Alexis Lee, who having lived in Los Angeles all her life was surprised when she began to hear anti-Chinese slurs for the first time walking down the street. Lee lamented that “Sinophobia feels pretty real,” and said it reminded her of Japanese internment camps and McCarthyism during darker times in US history.

It also reminds Americans of another dark time in US history—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned from America all Chinese laborers, and was the first law ever to block a specific ethnic group from entry into the United States.

Likewise in Australia, there is already increasing racism and violence against ethnic Chinese and other Asians. In 2017, two Chinese high-school students were beaten in Canberra, while four Chinese students and a tutor in a Canberra university classroom were injured by a student wielding a baseball bat.

At the University of Sydney, “Kill Chinese” and Nazi Swastika graffiti were found on campus grounds, while in another instance a man attacked seven people on a street simply because of their Asian appearance.

Sadly, this is similar to the 2015 anti-Chinese and anti-Asian attacks in Turkey, when after Western media hype on the repatriation of Uighurs from Thailand who were en route to Turkey or Syria, many Turks began to attack all Asians – whether Uighur in restaurants in Istanbul or Korean tourists – also because of their Asian features and “slanted eyes.”


Meanwhile back in the US, the “all Asians as Chinese” narrative seems to be getting worse. A Japanese-American colleague recently told this author, “I get racially harassed in New Jersey a block from my house by Trump Americans,” while on university campuses ethnic Chinese students are also increasingly harassed and treated with suspicion.

And whereas the Democratic Party is accused of being anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, the Republican party’s rising Sinophobia and anti-Chinese sentiments are pushing Asian Americans to run for political office.

Unfortunately, Asians still do not have much political representation in Western countries, whether in Australia or the US, and so long as Sinophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment continue to grow, so will violent incidents against the Asian population.

First published in Asia Times 12/03/19.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.