A centuries-old tradition of racism and misogyny culminated in the murders of Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Yaun, Julie Park, Hyun-jeong Park Grant, Paul Andre Michels, Suncha Kim, and Yong Yue on Tuesday.
Speculation at first drove a different hypothesis — that the bullets in their bodies, mostly Asian women, were extensions of the same Yellow Peril that has come to grip the United States over the past year. But in the hours that followed Wednesday morning’s press conference, I watched as the nation joined the Atlanta Police Department in breathing a sigh of white relief, and repeated the killer’s consoling lie that his crimes were “not racially motivated.”
The impulse to minimize race is ugly, but familiar. As a white China analyst I’ve sought recourse in becoming an ostrich, jamming my head in the sand at the mention of racism surrounding the China Initiative or security clearances. I know that my work on China is important, and that it is not motivated by fear of any race or heritage, despite propaganda designed to paint it as such. But that knowledge doesn’t undercut the fact that my work exists to illuminate economic and security threats facing the United States — threats that emanate from China. And as more bigots claim to answer an imaginary and wrongheaded cry for vengeance against an enemy I am choosing to spend my career writing about, I can’t shake the feeling that I share some of the responsibility for this new Cold War’s gruesome turn inwards.
This isn’t about me or my feelings, nor should it be about yours. It’s about the basic safety of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. Although the eight people shot dead in Atlanta were not, apparently, killed by misdirected anger at the CCP or Sinophobia in particular, you must be an accomplished ostrich not to recognize that an alarming number of Americans have been. The historic surge in anti-Asian hate crimes is being driven in part by historically unfavorable views of China. And if you consider yourself a China analyst, then you’ve got to be dreadfully uninspiring or criminally self-effacing to claim no part in shaping the American window onto the Middle Kingdom.
It’s clear now that some China hands’ reflexive claim to “love the Chinese people but hate their government” is simply not good enough, because bigots discriminate indiscriminately. You and I know the distinction is crucial. And we repeat it religiously, as if to absolve ourselves of any notion that we could be part of the problem. Yet this nuance is lost on many downstream consumers of China news and analysis — including the perpetrators of anti-Asian violence — either because they do not know or care enough to distinguish between People and Party, or because the latter has worked breathlessly to conflate the two. The relentless push to label COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” has likewise blurred the line and given license to hate, even though proponents insist that was not their intention. The battle to name COVID, like the battle to define the Atlanta shooter’s motive, is one exemplar of misaligned intent and impact, and in this moment of national reckoning we are forced to gaze upon the battered and bloodied externalities.
It’s not lost on me that what I’ve described is a talking point parroted by the Chinese Communist Party. The unfortunate truth is that the Party’s propagandists are very good at weaponizing racism within the China studies community. Much of their criticism is applied in bad faith, a cynical ploy to sow whataboutism and excuse the CCP’s own crimes against humanity. Such political opportunism should be rejected out of hand. But can you really look at this Twitter thread from China Daily editor Ian Goodrum, and say that it does not harbor a kernel of truth? I at least had a hard time thinking of anything but that Clickhole headline, “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point.” The stakes are too high for white China hands to exit the national conversation about race by pivoting to instead discuss how the CCP is perverting it.
So let me impress upon you, fellow China analyst — with all the sincere conviction an anonymous Medium post can carry — that with Great Power Competition comes great responsibility. We can and must do a better job of wielding it. I am resigned to the reality that not everyone is going to read volumes about the history of Orientalism in the United States. Fewer still will trade their career to become a full-time AAPI advocate. We should expect those who continue the worthwhile pursuit of unearthing evidence of genocide in Xinjiang and shining a light on the CCP’s influence operations abroad to feed global contempt for China’s leaders, because those activities are nothing short of contemptible. But the question every China hand should be asking themselves today and for years to come is how to minimize the wider xenophobic fallout that will accompany their life’s work.
I wish I could give you a clear answer to that question. The truth is that I have no idea of the answer, and I’m scared that our collective response won’t ever be good enough to stamp out the McCarthyist tide in American politics. But there are steps we can take to afford protections to the people who need them.
First and above all is to listen, amplify, and respond to the needs of the AAPI community.
Second is to stop trafficking in bellicose rhetoric and unfounded assumptions — an imperative that extends doubly to headline writers and illustrators.
Third is to speak loudly and often about the threats facing Asian Americans at home, because violence against members of the Chinese diaspora and broader AAPI community is a U.S. national security issue.
The bottom line is that being a China analyst today demands striking a precarious balance between illuminating important threats and amplifying hysteria. So long as the United States is engaged in fierce, national competition with China, we’re all going to keep building this plane while flying it. But we would do well to approach the ascent with eyes wide open, not neck-deep in sand.