by Nathanael Cheng
English /// 中文
Photo Credit: Teddy Tsai
THERE IS A mutual lack of understanding between Asians and Asian Americans. That needs to change.
In Taiwan and China, people often do not grasp the context of the struggles that Asian Americans face. Problems close to Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, such as Asian American identity, diversity, and representation, racism, racial discrimination, and other American domestic political issues, have little personal meaning to people in Asia.
According to several Chinese and Taiwanese international students I spoke to, people back home have seen the explosion of violence against the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in the United States as shocking yet distant. Chinese-language media frequently lacks depth in reporting on Asian Americans. Coverage is often limited to either glowing reports of successful Chinese Americans or contrasting reports of rampant discrimination.
On the other hand, many Chinese Americans have a superficial grasp of society and politics in China and Taiwan. Many Chinese Americans embrace their Chinese heritage and culture to find identity and solidarity in a country where they are the minority. But they are unaware of or apathetic to many of the ordinary, everyday societal and political issues that affect the daily lives of people in China or Taiwan. Even high profile issues, such as human rights, civil society, the crackdown in Hong Kong, or Taiwan’s fear of Chinese hegemonic influence remain unfamiliar and impersonal.
Both groups’ views of the other are incomplete and fragmented, driven by geographic, political, societal, and cultural gaps. Increasingly, it is becoming impossible to talk about one side of these issues without implicating the other. Discussing the global influence efforts of the CCP in American society, for example, inevitably involve Chinese Americans and the painful history of racial profiling. Pinpointing the source of anti-Asian racism in the United States hinges on U.S. rhetoric towards China and U.S.-China relations. The urgency of hate crimes against the AAPI community on the one hand, and the rising visibility of US-China relations and Asian politics on the other, will require those involved in politics on each side to better understand the other.
In this article, I speak mostly to the specifics of Taiwan and China in interplay with Taiwanese and Chinese Americans, as that is my personal background and professional and academic field of interest. My analysis of politics and culture describes mostly Chinese Americans, with some applicability to other East Asians and East Asian Americans. However, I acknowledge there are a diverse variety of experiences and politics in other Asian American Pacific Islander groups, to which parts of this article may not apply. The need for solidarity, however, applies to the AAPI community as a whole.
How Taiwanese and Chinese view ABCs: Two Perceptions
MANY PEOPLE in the Chinese-speaking world have a superficial understanding of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans. There are two competing images of Asian Americans in Chinese-language media. On the one hand, they see ABCs as “models of success” that bring pride to their country, using oft-repeated phrases describing them as “the light of Taiwan” (台灣之光) or the “pride to be a Chinese person” (以華人為傲). On the other hand, they see American-Born Chinese (ABCs) as oppressed and alone, racked by a constant identity crisis. But these two images of success and failure overlook the nuanced and complex history of Chinese Americans, and more broadly, Asian Americans, in the United States.
The Successful Chinese American and the Model Minority Myth
THE FIRST TENDENCY is to see Chinese Americans as successful, wealthy “model minorities.” The model minority concept has its own tortured history in the United States, but Chinese-language media has created its own version of this archetype: that of bringing pride to the mother country.
Recently, media reports in Taiwan and China featured glowing stories of successful Chinese Americans such as Charles Yu winning the National Book Award for his novel Interior Chinatown, Katherine Tai becoming the first Taiwanese-American U.S. Trade Representative, or Andrew Yang running for New York mayor. In late February, Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao won the Golden Globe for Best Director for her film Nomadland, which received wide positive coverage from Chinese-language press, calling her the “light of the Chinese people” (華人之光). Zhao subsequently attracted controversy in China, however, for past criticism of the CCP and saying “the US is now my country,” leading to her movie being censored on Chinese social media platforms Weibo and Douban.
While these achievements are worth acknowledging and celebrating, they do not convey the whole story of the struggles of Chinese and Asian Americans. The model minority stereotype is misleading. Asian Americans are overrepresented among the wealthy and among those below the poverty line. Erika Lee notes in The Making of Asian America that more Asian Americans have college degrees compared with all other U.S. adults, but more Asian Americans had less than a ninth grade education on average in 2015. For Chinese Americans, while counting among the highest earners, there is also a significant population of those who live below the poverty line and work in “low-wage service industries and live in crowded apartments.” Lee further points out that Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, and Japanese Americans have higher median income than the U.S. population, but Vietnamese Americans, Filipino Americans, and Cambodian Americans have lower than average earnings.
The perception in the Chinese-speaking world of highly successful Asian immigrants stems from the result of policies implemented in the 1960s welcoming skilled immigration to the United States. Many Taiwanese Americans are primary beneficiaries of these policies. In the shadow of the Cold War and global anti-communist efforts, Nationalist Taiwan and the United States grew closer over high rates of knowledge exchange and immigration. Madeline Hsu writes about this in her book The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority. The Hart-Celler Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, removed national origin quotas that previously discriminated against immigrants from Asia and created preferences for highly skilled immigrants or those with skills “vital to US national security.”
In 1967, Taiwan had the highest rates among Asian countries of conversion of student F visas to immigrant status at 86.1 percent. Coming into the United States with high levels of education and employment status, these immigrants had a relatively easy time integrating into American society and into the white mainstream. In 1990, 62 percent of immigrants from Taiwan had completed at least four years of college, compared to 46 percent of Hong Kong Chinese, and 31 percent of mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC) Chinese. This differs drastically from the earlier generations of low-skilled Chinese Americans who came to the United States and suffered in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
From the sixties onwards, educated KMT elites immigrated or came to the U.S. to study. Facing persecution, torture, and suppression, many political dissidents and native Taiwanese independence activists also fled the authoritarian KMT after the 228 incident to the United States. Many Taiwanese have pointed out to me that people from both the pan-blue camp and the green camp, including the DPP, have relatives or friends who have immigrated to the United States. These personal connections between Taiwanese Americans and broad ideological swaths of Taiwanese society contributes to the generally positive feelings Taiwanese people have towards Taiwanese Americans.
Since 1987, immigration from Taiwan leveled off after political liberalization and economic growth, which made Taiwan a more attractive place to live. But at the same time, immigration and educational exchange from the PRC began to rise significantly after Reform and Opening up. Some Chinese fled as political refugees and dissidents; others had no political motives other than to find economic opportunity. Today, China is the top country of origin for international students in the United States.
The perception in Chinese-language media of highly educated, successful Chinese Americans reflects immigration trends of the latter half of the twentieth century, which led to the overrepresentation of Chinese Americans in high income brackets. Yet such a perception is only partly true: Asian Americans represent a diverse swath of socioeconomic, cultural, and ethnic experiences and struggles. As scholar Christine So in her book Economic Citizens writes, even if minorities obtain “visible, or even seemingly wholesale, entry” into public positions of power, racial divides do not disappear. Instead, in American race relations, there remains a constant “anxiety that permeates all exchanges between margin and mainstream.”
The Asian American as Discriminated Against and Alone
THE OTHER SIDE of Chinese-language media coverage portrays Asian Americans as oppressed, helpless minorities. Media in China and Taiwan widely reported the recent murders of Asian Americans in Atlanta, President Biden withdrawing the Department of Justice lawsuit against Yale University for Asian American discrimination in affirmative action practices (which is portrayed negatively in the Chinese-speaking world), and prejudice against Asians in the pandemic. Yet this overtly negative coverage also does not tell the whole story.
Recently, as seen most prominently among discourse in the PRC, a growing narrative tinged with nationalist hues has emerged: that Chinese Americans are alone, unempowered second-class citizens and better off being “ordinary citizens of the PRC.”
In 2019, when I was working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China, a friend sent me an article on WeChat entitled “Don’t immigrate to America! The honest thoughts of an ABC lead global Chinese to think deeply.” The article first surfaced in 2017 as a blog post and was reported on by Chinese state media Global Times. The author describes himself as a 30-year-old ABC whose family immigrated from impoverished Shanxi. He portrays the Chinese American experience as bleak, lonely, and alienating.
“Growing up as a Chinese American,” the author writes. “You are bullied by other races. Entering society, you are faced with the constantly changing face of discrimination. As these negative experiences accumulate, it makes many ABCs lose self-confidence and self-esteem, planting the seeds of failure.”
According to the author, ABCs have no identity of their own and are stuck between the “cracks” of Chinese and American culture. They are neither accepted by Americans nor by Chinese. Because they are Asian, even if they speak better English than white people, they are never accepted into mainstream white society. Growing up in America, ABCs have lost the sense of belonging and community that they would have had in China and are seen as perpetual foreigners.
He further notes the emasculation that many Chinese males experience in the United States. “White people,” he says, “especially don’t respect Chinese men. They like to make fun of them. They think they are ugly. Their bodies are not as strong, and they have small eyes.” Asian men have no social standing and are constantly bullied in society. Claiming that Asian women are “more welcomed by white men,” he complains that Asian men have a “hard time” finding a partner in a society filled with white women who do not find them attractive.
In the workplace, he says, ABCs are at a great disadvantage, seen as outsiders in white-dominated workspaces. When working at an international investment banking firm in Hong Kong, the author observed that while white individuals and PRC citizens were able to strike a rapport, ABCs were left out in the cold, unable to find a place in either group.
The author concludes, Chinese should not “rush to bring their children to a Western country that looks down on Chinese people, where they will grow up in the shadow of discrimination.” Instead, we should “be proud to be citizens of China and the motherland, and not force our children to be Westerners,” something they are not and never can be.
In some ways, the author of this post is not wrong. With recent incidents of violence against Asian Americans, the state of race relations in America has reached an all-time low. Negative stereotypes of Asians still pervade American society. It is reductionist and misleading to say simply that Asian women “have it better,” but the emasculation of Asian males and the hyper-sexualization and fetishization of Asian females in the West cannot be ignored and has been the subject of some scholarly attention. The shooting of six Asian women at an Atlanta spa on March 16 by a white man who allegedly suffered from “sex addiction” and who claims he wanted to eliminate “temptation” brings these endemic problems into tragic and infuriating relief.
It is also important to note that the above article does not necessarily represent the full diversity of Chinese public perceptions towards Chinese and Asian Americans. Studies have found two narratives generally dominate Chinese public perceptions of the United States: Chinese who romanticize American popular culture and lifestyle, and the patriotic citizens who see those who idealize the United States as unpatriotic. Many of the Chinese international students I have talked to share different and nuanced views of Chinese Americans.
But the scenario of bleak failure he presents is one scenario out of the many diverse experiences Chinese Americans have in the United States. The article’s tone of resignation and surrender glosses over the progress that Asian Americans have fought for and achieved in the United States and fails to consider the space for activism and resistance that Asian Americans have carved out for themselves, staking a claim in American society. Further, the article ignores the third space forged by Asian Americans that sheds the framework of duality of “American” and “Asian.”
Being “Asian American” as Empowerment
ASIAN AMERICANS have long faced discrimination in white America, being perceived as inhuman, exotic, and foreign, or later, as “white-enough” model minorities and “robotic” economic contributors acceptable to the mainstream. Jennifer Ann Ho, in her book Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture, notes that Asians in America were called “Oriental,” a loaded term infused with negative stereotypes of Asians as exotic, sexualized, and inhuman.
But in the sixties, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and other Asians began to see themselves as a pan-ethnic coalition, and activists created the term “Asian American” to stake a claim in society and shed the negative stereotypes of “Oriental.” This pan-ethnic Asianism came into being in response to anti-Asian racism that did not distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or Vietnamese. Thus, becoming a pan-Asian coalition afforded political power and strength in numbers.
Photo credit: Georgetown Asian Pacific Islander Leadership Forum/Facebook
Key to understanding this movement is the founding of Asian American Studies as an academic field in American universities. Today, Asian American Studies encompasses a wide range of disciplines, which includes, as Jennifer Ho notes in her book, “literary studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, history, political science, art history, film studies, communication studies, economics, music, performance studies, drama, women studies, queer studies, urban studies, public policy, legal studies, public health, and a host of other fields.” Through these multidisciplinary angles, Ho adds that the study of Asian America gives full space for the accounting of the unique history of Asians in America, at the same time providing a source of solidarity while giving voice to the wide diversity of Asian America, challenging the idea that Asian Americans are a monolithic entity.
For many immigrant populations, establishing presence in American culture is a means of establishing American identity. Producing Asian American art and literature and by extension establishing an academic field devoted to studying that, is a way of politically empowering the larger Asian American community. Through art, novels, poetry, films, and plays, Asian Americans have sought to stake their claim in the United States cultural scene and thereby assert their own identity.
At many American universities, Asian American student groups on campus have fought to add Asian American classes to the course roster, a movement starting in the sixties at universities in California. But the struggle has continued to the present day. In 2019 at Georgetown University, students held a weeklong protest to add Asian Studies courses to the curriculum. Students would be photographed in the student center holding up signs saying, “What Georgetown doesn’t teach me.” Students wrote messages like “Georgetown doesn’t teach me about the history of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.”
Christine So, the only Asian American Studies professor at Georgetown, also participated, holding up a sign saying, “Georgetown doesn’t teach the students—Asian American Studies is a critical aspect of understanding race, U.S. nation-states, capitalism, war. We need more classes.” As a result, in the spring of 2019, Professor So taught the first class on Asian American history at Georgetown with more Asian American programming to be added. For Asian American students, this was a space in academia they could call their own.
The crux of the issue is that being Asian American is not to be stuck in some formless void between the duality of Asia and mainstream white America. Being Asian American is not to be trapped in the fruitless yearning of “if only I was born in Asia.” Neither is trying to integrate into a white, mainstream culture the answer. The spurious dichotomy between “assimilation” and “foreignness,” between “more Asian” and “less Asian” is unhelpful and erases the history of Asians in America. In reality, being Asian American is to be unique and to belong to a distinct, historically-constituted culture and identity in the United States. Finding this identity requires shedding the trappings of duality and finding one’s position as an Asian American without requiring the approval of people in Asia or of the American majority.
Clarifying Asian American identity is key to gaining force in political activism. Asian Americans face the simultaneous struggle of resisting the mantle imposed by mainstream America of “perpetual foreignness” and of one’s own internal identity crisis. Rejecting the false duality of identity serves to resolve that identity crisis and secure one’s footing to resist racism in the public sphere. Contrary to perception, gaining standing and representation in mainstream America is not an endeavor of futility but should be a subject of resistance and activism.
We have seen this kind of activism in the past. For example, Yen Le Espiritu, in his book Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities, discusses the activism of pan-Asian coalitions in the 1980s and 90s to fight the Census Bureau’s move to collapse all Asian categories into one “Asian” race. In the face of such resistance, the Census Bureau agreed to list out detailed breakdown of Asian groups in Census forms.
It is encouraging that now the idea of a “third culture” of Asian Americans has escaped the confines of academia and is entering the mainstream. Korean American Stephen Yeun, the lead actor in the 2021 critically acclaimed movie Minari that features the story of a Korean American family in rural Arkansas, referred to this third culture in a recent interview. To be Asian American, he argues,
“…[is] really just a confidence in our own existence. I think, oftentimes, because we only have the parameters of Korea (or Asia, or a mother country) and America, we have to pick a side and pick little bits and pieces to help us find ourselves. And while that can work, it often ends up sounding like I have a foot in both. And the truth is I don’t have a foot in both. I just have a foot in my own thing — like our own intrinsic third culture.”
Yet there still exist significant ethnic, class, and generational divides in the Asian American community, more so than other minority communities in the United States. Divisions between Southeast and South Asians and the numerically dominant East Asian American community continue to percolate on ethnic and socioeconomic lines. East Asian American elites dominate the agenda of Asian American politics. Indeed, the Asian American Studies space started out as a “shorthand” for East Asian Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, with, as Ho says, “a glancing nod to Filipino Americans.” Only later was an effort made to include Southeast Asians and South Asians in the field. Additionally, first-generation Asian immigrants still often view other Asian groups with suspicion and unfamiliarity.
Further, the feeling of a pan-ethnic Asian identity waxes and wanes. Asians in America have been historically triangulated between whites and Black Americans, categorized in the white supremacist structure as neither fully white nor Black. In those confines, Asian Americans have wavered between aligning more with the white majority or with other Asian and minority communities. This alignment struggle is borne out in empirical studies of pan-ethnic Asian sentiment. A 2020 study in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities indicated that the feeling of common identity with other Asians and minority groups in the United States was affected by how close or alienated Asian Americans feel from the white majority.
Without coming to terms with these inner divisions, greater cohesion will remain elusive. But as the threat of anti-Asian racism rises, Asian Americans should be jolted into awareness of the need for both intra-group unity and community with other minority groups. Today, the need for solidarity has never been greater.
How Chinese and Taiwanese Americans view Asia: Cultural Identity and “Asianness”
JUST AS simplistic depictions in Chinese-language media belie the complexity of the Asian American experience, likewise do Asian Americans have misconceptions of Asia. Asian American identity is a distinct product of the unique political dynamics of the United States and of growing up in an environment where Asians are the minority nationally. Thus, Asian Americans view countries and societies in Asia through the colored lens of their formative experiences growing up as Asian Americans.
Many, if not most, Asian Americans lack a deep understanding of Asian current events, people, history, or geopolitics. But many non-Asian Americans often assume and expect that Asian Americans can somehow represent “Asia” and have an in-depth knowledge of the region. Similarly, some Asians see Asian Americans and assume that they are just like them, think like them, and have the same values as them. As anthropologist Andrea Louie writes on the Chinese American experience, the “cognitive and emotional distance from China, combined with the pressure to know and identify with it, results in a complex and confusing relationship between Chinese Americans and their ancestral land.”
This is seen viscerally on college campuses. With the influx of Chinese and–to a lesser degree–Taiwanese students to American universities over the past decade, Asian Americans are sometimes lumped together with or mistaken for international students and vice versa, their viewpoints, interests, and desires being treated as one and the same.
But Chinese Americans and Chinese do not think monolithically. On the contrary, they are often divided by a cultural gap. A Chinese American college student tells me that Chinese and Chinese American social circles generally do not overlap. They have different interests, too. In Chinese student groups on campus, he observed that while Chinese international students generally prefer purely cultural group activities, many Chinese American students want to take political stances and pursue activism on Asian American issues. There are exceptions, of course.
A Chinese international student agrees. “There’s a cultural gap. Many of them can’t speak Chinese, and some even seem to be ashamed of their heritage,” she explains. She reminisces about one instance of trying to strike up a conversation with an American Born Chinese (ABC). “There was an ABC girl I talked to in Boston. I asked if she was Chinese. ‘No,’ she said. She was a little offended.”
Chinese Americans’ connection with their heritage country is often at once profound and superficial, having a personal connection with their heritage through their parents, yet still selective and incomplete. Their understanding of the culture of Asia is often shaped through specific contexts in the home or with family members. Outside the home, American and English-language media and entertainment contribute to their perception of Asia. As Asian American Studies scholar Jeanne Tsai observes, because of a binary exposure to Chinese culture at home and American culture in school or work contexts, for second-generation Chinese Americans, “being Chinese and being American … may develop independently.”
Even when visiting Taiwan or China, ABCs view the country through a cultural lens, arguably reducible to a “tourist” conception of Asia. Visiting for a short time, they identify with the food, the people, and the places, yet do not possess a deeper, holistic understanding of the people, the unwritten rules of society, the cultural cues, the history, or the politics. For ABCs, despite often feeling out of place in mainstream white society, in Asia, their behavior and communication is distinctly American.
First generation immigrants, on the other hand, have a different perspective. For first generation immigrants, views of China and Taiwan stem from deep personal and emotional connections to their homeland. Among Taiwanese Americans, first generation mainland Chinese KMT waishengren (外省人) immigrants identified more with Chinese culture and the Chinese nation, and were more willing to identify as “Chinese American.” But native Taiwanese benshengren (本省人) immigrants, fleeing the oppressive KMT, had a strong Taiwanese consciousness, refusing to speak Mandarin in favor of Taiwanese Hokkien and spearheading movements to write in “Taiwanese” as their ethnicity on U.S. Census forms. This bensheng and waisheng divide has diminished dramatically, however, as the PRC gained political and economic heft, and as Taiwan’s status as the not-so-free “free China” under the KMT grew obsolete as Taiwan democratized and the Taiwanese identity grew stronger than the Chinese identity.
For first-generation immigrants from mainland China, despite personal and emotional ties to China, “most of them have little time, energy, and resources to participate in US-China relations.” For the small minority that are politically active, many are involved in the dissident and activist community, strongly opposing the CCP. Others have a more neutral or a more business-oriented view towards the PRC. Even others, influenced by American liberal and democratic ideas, have historically supported the Tiananmen student protests, but at the same time they support the PRC’s view of Taiwan being a part of China. Notably, some Chinese Americans protested Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s 1995 visit to Cornell, citing the United States’ One China Policy in a public letter to President Clinton.
Second and post-second generation East Asian Americans, however, do not have deep-rooted ties to Asia like those of their parents, and thus their perception of Asia is shaped by the American and Asian American societal milieu. Asian Americans grow up exposed to Asian culture, but in a particularized, piecemeal fashion. They remain steeped in the American political context, being often well-versed in Asian American political and cultural struggles, not Asian ones. The sheer fact of their Asian heritage does not automatically equate to the ability, right, or even desire to speak authoritatively about their heritage country. That is not to say there has not always been an active and recently growing minority of first and second generation Asian Americans engaging in the politics and society of Asia, but they remain the minority.
When the Politics of Asia and Asian America Intersect: COVID-19 and Cross Strait Relations
THE MISUNDERSTANDINGS between Asia and Asian America have been brought into stark contrast in the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true for Taiwanese and Chinese Americans on issues of U.S.-China relations and cross-Strait tensions.
In Taiwan, the COVID-19 “naming controversy” sheds light on the different political divergences between Taiwanese Americans and many Taiwanese.
In the early days of the pandemic, the WHO announced the official name of what was at first commonly referred to in China and Taiwan as the “Wuhan coronavirus,” as first the “2019 novel coronavirus” and then later as “COVID-19” or “coronavirus disease 2019.” As cases from China surged and Beijing pressured other countries to drop “Wuhan pneumonia” (武漢肺炎), many in Taiwan and Hong Kong saw this as an attempt to shirk responsibility and distract from the initial CCP cover up of the virus. The Taiwanese government, many media outlets, and many of the Taiwanese public continued to use the Chinese phrase “Wuhan pneumonia,” although the often seen as “pro-China” pan-Blue parties have eschewed the usage of “Wuhan pneumonia.”
But in the United States, the Trump administration started using the term “China virus.” Many Asian Americans saw this not as holding the CCP accountable but reinforcing racism that “the virus is from Asia; Asians are a virus.” In the American and Western context, this was a resurrection of the anti-Asian racism that Asian Americans had fought for decades to overcome. They saw this as a personal attack, and it has become a personal attack as acts of violence against Asian Americans have risen to record levels.
For many in Taiwan, the biggest threat is not President Trump and anti-Asian racism, but the exponentially more powerful CCP regime on the other side of the strait that regularly threatens to destroy and “wipe out” those who oppose reunification with the “motherland” and support independence, which under Beijing’s definition would encompass most Taiwanese people. Usage of “Wuhan pneumonia” largely by the ruling DPP in Taiwan was not so much a racial statement, but a statement of resistance against a much larger, domineering neighbor.
That is not to say there is not racism in Taiwan, such as against Indigenous peoples (原住民) or Southeast Asian migrant workers, but the race dynamics in Taiwan in relation to China are different from the United States. As Noah Weber wrote in SupChina, “While Chinese people might feel victimized — and rightly so — by such language, Taiwanese people could surely point to their own stockpile of articles in Chinese media that make them feel dehumanized.”
The majority of Taiwanese do not identify as “Chinese” (in the sense of citizens of the PRC), but China consistently uses its economic weight to pressure countries and parties in international fora, multinational companies, and others to refer to Taiwan as “part of China” and “Chinese,” coercively affixing a label to Taiwanese that they do not want, degrading their identity as Taiwanese, and thereby using this language to forcibly co-opt them into a larger identity of the Chinese “motherland” under the CCP.
The naming of COVID-19 in Taiwan is not a simple issue, and the dynamics of race and power blur a clear-cut moral or philosophical answer. It is worth noting, too, in the face of global anti-Asian racism, the Tsai Ing-wen government has adopted the usage of “COVID-19” in English-language statements and publications but continues to use “Wuhan pneumonia” in Chinese. Nevertheless, in these vastly different sets of circumstances, Taiwanese Americans have found it difficult to understand the position of many Taiwanese, and vice versa.
The intersection of global politics and race is further illustrated in the example of Chinese espionage in democratic societies. Chinese state media often features stories of Chinese Americans subject to espionage charges, decrying the apparent racial profiling by the U.S. government of Chinese Americans. In contrast, in Taiwan, where CCP espionage is a significant concern, Taiwanese media often report on widespread Chinese United Front efforts, efforts that often implicitly urge overseas Chinese to be “loyal to the Chinese bloodline” (忠於中國血統), that their Chinese blood makes them ultimately loyal to the “Chinese nation” over their American citizenship. Taiwanese policymakers are especially attuned to these issues as Taiwan is one of the primary targets of Chinese large-scale online disinformation campaigns. Globally, Taiwan ranks as one of the democracies worst affected by disinformation spread by a foreign power.
But many Asian Americans are vigilant against narratives that question the loyalty of Chinese Americans, which raises the insidious specter of Japanese internment, racism, and latent perceptions of Chinese Americans as the perpetual foreigner. The COVID-19 pandemic and heightened U.S.-China tensions have thus revealed ugly anti-Asian racism in juxtaposition with the complexities of global politics, interactions that defy simple answers.
Conclusion: Finding the Balance
IN THE AFTERMATH of the recent hate crimes against Asian Americans, including incidents of violence against elderly Asian Americans and the most recent shooting in Atlanta, many rightly point to the racist rhetoric employed by the previous Trump administration touting the “China virus” and refraining to condemn pejorative terms like “kung flu” as the source of these surging attacks. But some also decry the perceived “demonization” and “overwhelmingly” negative coverage of China in Western media as a cause of anti-Asian racism.
There is a difference, however, between legitimate, critical reporting on China’s human rights abuses or regional irredentism and irresponsible, unfounded racist rhetoric. There is also a fine line between some arguing that negative coverage writ large has indirectly spurred racism and arguing that any negative coverage of China is therefore somehow inherently Sinophobic and merely “anti-Chinese propaganda.”
Photo credit: Teddy Tsai
While the cumulative effect of both types of negative coverage may have incited anti-Asian racism, it is insufficient and unproductive to say that all negative coverage of China has led to racism and leave it at that. To accept carte blanche the implicit assumption that criticizing China is racist, on the one hand, allows racists to co-opt the realm of legitimate criticism and proclaim themselves as the standard-bearers of human rights and democracy. On the other hand, it plays into CCP efforts to paint all negative portrayals of China as racist and prejudiced, thereby delegitimizing any criticism of the regime.
It is more important than ever to distinguish between irresponsible, racist rhetoric and legitimate, pointed criticism. To simply accept the contention that all negative coverage of China has led to racism without differentiating the founded from the unfounded, is either intellectually lazy or complicit, and sets up the false dichotomy that to stop racism, we must somehow stop negative coverage of China.
Rather than ceding the ground of “standing up to China” to those who would like nothing better than to wantonly demonize China, the key to supporting the AAPI community lies in reclaiming the space to stand up for human rights in both the Chinese and American contexts and reintroducing the bright line between legitimate criticism and demagoguery in the public discourse.
While the primary burden should fall on those in public positions of power to speak up on U.S. race issues and Asia, in this treacherous period of American discourse, it is more important than ever that Asian Americans overcome their misunderstandings of Asia and Asians. For people in Asia, it is equally important to break through surface level understanding and better understand the rhetoric and perspectives of Asian Americans. Only then is the domestic conversation on each side of the Pacific better informed.
Chinese and Taiwanese Americans play a key role in communicating these nuances. Chinese Americans with a background from mainland China are in a position to increase the understanding of China in America. As mentioned above, these Chinese Americans have a diversity of political views on China, ranging from apathy to activism, from anti-CCP dissidents to strong supporters of the CCP. As U.S.-China relations gain more attention, ABCs are increasingly having to come to grips with how to treat their heritage country, part of which involves distinguishing the people and culture from the regime and government.
A Chinese American I interviewed who grew up in Flushing, New York, observed that many second-generation Taiwanese Americans care more about Chinese politics than the average ABC. Among second and third-generation Taiwanese Americans, Taiwanese campus organizations, online forums, and websites have afforded a space for politically active Taiwanese Americans to forge a Taiwanese identity, often through learning about Taiwan’s period under colonial oppression, the hegemonic threat from China, and cultural and ancestral ties to Taiwan.
Of course, many Taiwanese Americans do not identify as such or feel very strongly about it. Taiwanese American and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang notably deemphasized his Taiwanese identity and embraced a broad “Asian American” identity, ostensibly because of the sensitivities of the Taiwan issue.
Yet Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans can play a unique role in understanding and conveying the complex dynamics that shape China, Taiwan, and the United States, finding the balance in criticizing the CCP without feeding into the racist narratives that underlie segments of American society; showing support for Taiwan without glossing over the struggles of Asian Americans or only viewing China through the lens of negative stereotypes.
Teachers of the Chinese language that come from Taiwan to the United States often face this dilemma in sharing their home country. In a thought-provoking article, one teacher points out that her American students mostly have only heard of China. Teachers from Taiwan understandably want their students “to understand Chinese culture without ignoring Taiwan,” yet at the same time “give students a familiarity and understanding of Taiwan’s predicament without generating excessive hostility towards China.” Admittedly, this is difficult. But we can perhaps learn from these teachers in their efforts to explain the complex dynamics of Asia in the American context.
Spurred on by the pandemic, geopolitics of Asia and race issues of the United States are inextricably linked. To support the AAPI community should not mean giving a blank check to authoritarian regimes in Asia, nor is criticizing the CCP mean aligning oneself with racists. Given the collision of Asia policy with the struggles of the AAPI community, it is incumbent on Asian Americans—and supporters of the AAPI cause—to better understand the complexities of Asia, even while trying to establish their own identity as Asian Americans. For those in Asia concerned about the rise of the CCP, particularly in Taiwan, it is likewise incumbent on them to understand the nuances, history, and struggles of Asian and Chinese Americans in the United States.