Could Taiwan Tensions Lead to Backlash Against Asian Americans?

As a proud American citizen from an Asian American background and being closely interested in current events and politics, I have noticed that in the past couple of years, my front pages are often filled with a variety of news covering the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes in the US. In recent years, certain politicians have openly spurred resentment against Asian American citizens for a handful of votes, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” and seemingly laying blame on all Chinese people for the Coronavirus. As tensions with China flare up over Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the War in Ukraine leading to an increase in militaristic and dangerous rhetoric from authoritarian states, such as Russia and China, I wonder if we will see a surge in hatred and hostility towards Asian Americans. While I hope for a peaceful and positive resolution to the growing tensions between America and China, it is unrealistic to believe that relations will improve between the two powers. As such, I am worried that the Chinese-American community may face a new spike in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination if tensions between Western democracies and China’s autocratic regime converge to a breaking point. 

The recent spike in hate crimes, discrimination, and racism towards Asians in the US has been linked to the COVID-19 crisis, which caused an outpouring of rage against the Chinese government from the public, world governments, and global institutions for its botched attempts to contain the virus. Early Chinese government censorship of courageous medical staff and residents in Wuhan trying to bring awareness to the COVID-19 outbreak, emerging at the time, would later create an outpouring of condemnation and anger towards China. Many also blamed China for being the origin of a virus that has wreaked devastation, death, and sorrow across the world. A portion of these people have extended their anger against the Chinese government to Chinese people and Asian immigrants. The shooting of several Asian spas in Atlanta in 2020 and attacks on people of Asian descent across the US during the COVID-19 pandemic have rekindled public awareness of anti-Asian hate in the US. However, the recent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans only represents a small chapter in the long history of discrimination towards Asian Americans, which can trace its roots back to the early 1850s when thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in the newly established gold mines of the Sacramento Valley to find their fortune in gold, and to escape the famines and poverty plaguing China at the time.

Early discriminatory acts passed by Congress against Asian and Chinese people included the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, which put tough restrictions on Chinese immigration to the US. The Chinese Exclusion Act, and its following acts, including the Geary Act, which extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for ten more years, were used to stem the flow of Chinese workers coming over for a better life in the gold mines of the West. In 1904, Congress would further extend the Chinese Exclusion Act indefinitely, until it was repealed in 1943, in favor of a quota system that only permitted 105 immigrants from China to enter the US each year. Under these acts, a ban was placed on all Chinese immigration to the US, and any Chinese people who had already immigrated to the US were not permitted to obtain US citizenship. Furthermore, in the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants were barred from purchasing land in many states, including Washington and California, under the so-called “Alien Land Laws.” Discriminatory laws against Chinese immigrants were passed to quell the fears of the White majority, who were worried that new arrivals from China could challenge their political and economic hegemony, and cause employment and salaries to decrease. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, racially provoked attacks and mob violence against Chinese people presented a significant issue, especially in Western states, where race riots were not an uncommon occurrence. 

I have watched with increasing alarm as Russians, even those who do not side with Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, are persecuted for their nationality. Recently, an article in the New York Times reported how a filmmaker from Russia named Anastasia Palchikova had her deal with a major US broadcasting company halted after the invasion of Ukraine because, according to her Agent, “giant corporations… can’t be seen… funneling money to Russians.” Furthermore, many film festivals such as the Glasgow Film Festival have banned Russian filmmakers who receive Russian government funding to produce their films. However, according to Russian filmmakers, almost all Russian films rely on funding from the Russian government to make the distribution and publication of their films easier in Russia. Even films criticizing the Russian government have been eligible for Russian government funding, and some filmmakers who have received state funding have also spoken out against the War in Ukraine. Moreover, many dissident Russians who have suffered at the hands of Putin’s regime have also faced backlash and persecution in Western countries. In Latvia, Russian-speaking Latvians have voiced concerns about anti-Russian sentiment spreading across Latvia. In one case, a 19-year-old resident of Latvia was arrested for waving a Russian flag on a holiday dedicated to the Soviet Victory against Nazi Germany. He was taken to jail for waving the Russian flag and charged with glorifying genocide and war crimes. The family of the arrested man disagreed with the charges and explained that they had relatives who had fought in the Second World War with the Soviet Army. The family further told the BBC that they “are forced to be ashamed, to be afraid that we are Russians, but this is also wrong.” His family also reported receiving death threats online. 

Public outrage has created an environment that has led to unabashed anger towards Russians without any distinction between the people of Russia and the decision-makers conducting a brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. Overall, there has been a shocking lack of distinction being made between everyday Russians and Russians who are directing and supporting the invasion of Ukraine. Many Russians who oppose the invasion and have little connection to the rulers of Russia face discrimination and hostility in Western countries. A Russian student in the UK reported that a London university rejected her from a master’s program because of the situation in Ukraine. It seems that Russians are, in many cases, being equated with their government and not as free-thinking individuals who may not necessarily agree with their government. The treatment of Russians may be a warning to Asian Americans of what the future may hold if America and China are drawn into a conflict of words or bullets. It would not be a surprise, in the event that China invaded Taiwan, for Chinese immigrants in Western nations to face a degree of public backlash and a rise in racial discrimination. An increase in racism and hate crimes against Asian Americans related to the COVID-19 pandemic has indicated that everyday Chinese people may face anger directed at the Chinese government, no matter their personal involvement in the governance of China. Similarly, hostility towards Russian people for the Invasion of Ukraine has further proven that many people are not afraid to dole out judgment without considering the position of the people that they are hurting. Furthermore, it may be more challenging to express and celebrate Chinese heritage, given that Russians have been restricted in the ability to display their cultural symbols and heritage.

I wonder if many Japanese Americans felt isolated by the hostility and resentment from America when they were put in internment camps, and suffered discrimination during World War Two. Many Japanese Americans faced high levels of discrimination during World War Two, even though they were not responsible for or necessarily supported Japan’s aggressive foreign expansion. However, it is worth pointing out that there are also many differences in the treatment of Russians in the present time and Japanese Americans in World War Two. Russians are not being sent to internment camps, and the persecution of the Japanese was largely spearheaded by people in positions of authority, which has not occurred in the present situation, at least in the US. 

Current and historical precedents lead me to be worried about the consequences for Asian communities, and especially Chinese communities if tensions continue to rise around Taiwan. Asian American discrimination in the US is not a new concept, and given an excuse, such as the Coronavirus, it has shown that it can always rear its ugly head again, more than a century since Chinese immigrants first arrived on the shores of California in search of a better life in America.


Cover Image: Daniel Yo-Ling for New Bloom Magazine, (Reprinted with Permission)

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