Tenzin Dorjee is a senior researcher at Tibet Action Institute and a PhD candidate in the political science department at Columbia University.
The Atlanta-area spa shootings — in which a White gunman allegedly slaughtered eight people, including six Asian women — have propelled the subject of anti-Asian violence to the center of the national conversation. For first-generation Asian Americans such as myself, who never begrudged our collective invisibility so long as our personal security was assured, it is profoundly disorienting to see our identity thrust into prominence precisely at the moment that our sense of local safety has been shattered.
Although prejudice against Asian Americans has deep roots in the nation’s historical institutions of racial exclusion, the current explosion of hate crimes against people of Asian descent is a consequence of the pandemic’s heavy toll on American society and the presence of a fragmented and defenseless minority that is easy to scapegoat. Many have correctly pointed out that President Donald Trump’s bigoted language contributed to the surge in racial violence targeting Asians.
However, some commentators are arguing that the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s criticism of the Chinese government is to blame for the domestic problem of anti-Asian violence. This specious claim, which China’s state-run media quickly exploited, has been most prominently advanced in the mainstream Western media by distinguished novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen and political scientist Janelle Wong, who claim that “bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia” and successive administrations’ “critical takes” on China fuel anti-Asian violence. This narrative, which weaponizes Asian American vulnerability to shield Beijing from international criticism, is as dangerous as it is fraudulent.
First of all, let’s be clear that there is no bipartisan political rhetoric targeting Asia, a continent of nearly 50 nations. Conflating Asia with China is the geopolitical equivalent of assuming all Asians are Chinese, precisely the kind of racial lumping that the writers themselves sensibly caution against.
To be sure, criticism of the Chinese government by policymakers in Washington has escalated in recent years. But the overwhelming volume of the rhetoric targeting Beijing has been prompted not by abstract geopolitical competition but by tangible grievances, including China’s genocide in Xinjiang, intensifying repression in Tibet, dismantling of democracy in Hong Kong and sweeping crackdown on Chinese civil society. Some of Beijing’s harshest critics are Asian Americans. Uyghur refugees, Hong Kong democrats, Chinese dissidents and Tibetan exiles such as myself, whose communities back home reel under Beijing’s boot, are urging Congress to censure China for its crimes. Asking lawmakers of conscience to hold their tongue on Beijing’s genocide to supposedly prevent racial violence here is to set up a false trade-off between Asian American safety and Uyghur lives, both of which should be treated as nonnegotiable.
Moreover, there is no research-based evidence that American lawmakers’ legitimate criticism of Beijing has a causal effect on violence against Asians. In fact, Washington’s political rhetoric has been rising steadily over the past half decade, during which Beijing built the Uyghur internment camps, demolished Hong Kong’s democracy and chipped away at the liberal international order. Anti-Asian attacks remained rare during this whole period, soaring only when the pandemic hit. If China had contained covid-19 within its borders, or if the United States had succeeded in keeping it out, no amount of congressional criticism against Beijing would have made us afraid to ride the subway at night.
While racism is always an ingredient in hate crimes, it seems that the central cause of the current epidemic of anti-Asian violence is resentment at the pandemic’s staggering toll. Perpetrators’ combustible anger — at losing their jobs, homes and family members to the plague — is being unleashed on a scapegoat partly because China has not been held to account. To date, Beijing has not apologized for its mishandling of the outbreak that turned a local disaster into a global catastrophe. An apology from the Chinese government will bring some closure to the millions of people ruined by the pandemic and reduce their collective rage far more quickly than a muzzling of U.S. foreign policy discourse.
But while we wait for that apology — which might never come — we all have to speak up. Last week, when a Tibetan friend of mine was riding the subway to Manhattan, he was verbally attacked and physically threatened by a young man. An older woman sitting nearby intervened and admonished the would-be assailant, who promptly backed down. In another part of the city the same week, an Asian man was brutalized in a fairly crowded subway car where no one came to his aid. Sometimes all it takes is for one bystander to intervene.
Instead of allowing one tragedy to silence another, we should pledge never to be silent bystanders, neither to hate crimes in this country nor to crimes against humanity abroad. If we are serious about ending this epidemic of racial violence, we should invest in a culture of intervention rather than a conspiracy of silence.