Sinophobia: Why we Must Understand the Root Causes of the Current Wave of Anti-Asian Violence

Note: Sinophobia is commonly defined as a fear or hatred of China, Chinese culture, and people of Chinese heritage, including its diaspora.

The Asian American, or in my case, the Asian Canadian experience, has always been made out to seem “not so bad,” and something we should take for granted as people of color (POC). On average, we are the wealthiest racial group in the US (effectively ignoring the wealth disparity that exists). In addition to that, we have high enrollment rates in most top-tier colleges. We are the “model minority” — and there is an expectation for us to be grateful for what we have and believe that we have proximity to whiteness. Asians are expected to give white supremacy the “benefit of the doubt.”

Nearly 2,800 anti-Asian incidents were reported in the United States between March and December of 2020 to Stop AAPI Hate, and hate crimes towards Asians have increased by 1,900% in New York City in 2020, yet Asians are still expected to be silent and see the best in others.

Even with the increase in discourse surrounding this violence, these conversations have been strangely depoliticized and lacking analysis of their root cause. It’s even been described as a COVID racialized phenomenon by some, but it’s time we start addressing a large cause of this wave of “anti-Asian racism”: Sinophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment which intersects with xenophobia, imperialism, and anti-Communist rhetoric. Attempting to depoliticize the situation will only uphold the very systems that led to this violence to begin with. If your statement fails to address why Asians are being harmed, your advocacy and allyship has most likely failed.

This characterization is not meant to ignore the non-Chinese victims who experienced acts of violence and racism incited by COVID-19, but to recognize that you are deemed as a threat based on superficial physical distinctions associated with Chinese people, hence why victims of these acts of violence and racism incited by COVID-19 are usually of East and Southeast Asian ethnicities. Asians are not a monolith, and addressing the origins of the current wave of violence and racism is necessary to accurately uproot these cases.

Recognizing our Complicity in Sinophobia and the Need to Understand its Roots

Anti-Chinese sentiment forms a powerful foundation that drives the violence we are witnessing today. Most of us willingly denounce anti-Asian bias, but we have not acknowledged our tacit complicity in it. Millions of people, consciously or unconsciously, harbor anti-Chinese sentiment, driven largely by Western media.

We must recognize that instead of focusing on the perpetrators of individual cases of violence, that some of us are the ones fueling the West’s Sinophobic narratives, to begin with. By offering this lens which helps people understand the current issue, we begin to recognize how anti-Asian violence should be seen not merely as individual acts of violence targeting Asian people, but as a structure of a system that rewards whiteness and treats non-white folks as less than human.

We must also encourage a deeper analysis of the roots of Sinophobia to build solidarity and understand how anti-Blackness and racism towards Asians are completely different, yet are connected. Not all forms of racism are the same, but they share the goal of dehumanizing a group of people. Acknowledging violence towards Asians cannot be done by encouraging and excusing anti-Blackness — we must be able to contextualize each criticism of racism. Anti-Asian incidents and anti-Chinese sentiment should never be cited to excuse anti-Blackness and vice versa. If your analysis of the current rise in anti-Asian violence relies on blaming other communities instead of examining Sinophobic rhetoric and its history, you are failing to understand its root causes.

The Current Rise in Violence Towards Asians is not a Sudden Occurrence

The current wave of Sinophobia has been driven largely by Western media. When news of the virus began, virus-related racism and xenophobia began to thrive. In places where Asians are a visible minority, Sinophobia was fuelled by stereotypes of the Chinese, labeling them as dirty and uncivilized, and the usual jokes about Chinese people eating anything, including bats, were continuously thrown around.

Due to this, many social media comments and posts imply that the pandemic is the result of Chinese eating habits and hygiene. At the root of these reactions is something very familiar: throughout history, many cultures have portrayed foreigners as savage and filthy as a way to justify excluding or eliminating them, and thus unassimilable to their “civilized” countries.

At the turn of the 19th century, Chinese people were commonly regarded as “dirty, heathen rat-eaters”. These descriptions were what motivated the Chinese Massacre of 1871. In Los Angeles, a mob of over 500 invaded the city’s old Chinese quarter, slaughtering and hanging around 20 Chinese men in what many describe as the deadliest known single lynching incident in US history. By 1882, the Sinophobic rage was so great that the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese immigrants entirely and making it unlawful for existing Chinese immigrants to become citizens. The Act was not repealed for 61 years and is the only law in US history to ever restrict entry to the country explicitly based on race.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be new, but the wave of racism and xenophobia it brings is not. As history has shown, outbreaks of racism and xenophobia can spiral into violence, which is what we have seen in recent news today.

This is why it’s incredibly important that we terminate racism towards Asians and all BIPOC in any context. People often label racist remarks as “jokes” to keep their true emotions and racism hidden. The only way to denounce racism in all forms, including at its loudest, is to grasp the issue by its roots, even if those ‘roots’ seem insignificant. Racism is not an opinion or a joke, because these remarks will always become something much more sinister with real-world impacts; it will always cycle back to violence if the lower forms are not condemned.

Standing in Solidarity and Combating Anti-Chinese Sentiment

While the same sort of Chinese eating habits comments and “jokes” have surfaced in Asia, the anti-Chinese rhetoric in the West has taken on a deeper and more xenophobic tone.

The prevalence and intensity of Sinophobia in the West have shifted with the changing political, economic, and social relationship between China and the West, particularly the US. Policy positions against China often lead to negative views and actions towards Americans of Chinese ancestry. This can be extended to all immigrants and POC; with one of the most horrific examples being the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II due to suspicions about their loyalties.

Comments and “jokes” eventually led to terms such as “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” that scapegoated the Chinese for COVID-19. When these terms gained traction and were exacerbated by politicians, particularly Trump, the major backlash came from both the Asian American community as well as Asian countries and communities beyond the US. However, a major distinction between these groups is that US citizens of Asian ancestry can vote, while Asians without citizenship cannot. Politicians inevitably capitalize on this very fact to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and non-American Asians.

They want Asian Americans to be nationalistic and to distance themselves from their homelands. In other words, Asian Americans may strive to assimilate into Western society by emphasizing their dedication and loyalty to America, to become the well-behaved Asian America. If they were to reject this mindset and declare their solidarity with their motherland, they risk being seen as untrustworthy foreigners whose loyalty is fundamentally questionable. Sadly, this mindset has even been reinforced by some of the most visible Asian American politicians, such as Andrew Yang. Such a dilemma is not limited to Chinese Americans or even Asian Americans, as most immigrants living in white-majority Western societies face similar suspicions.

The vision of a divided Asia/America implies that foreign countries and people can be blamed and attacked, which is why present-day Sinophobia in the West is, at its core, a form of fear and hateful xenophobia targeting the foreign. But this nationalistic mindset is inadequate for tackling Sinophobia that sees no national boundaries; racists see no national distinctions and only see a generalized and imagined “Chinese look.” Sinophobia towards non-American Asians will always lead to the same sentiment towards Asian Americans. This is why Asian communities in different diasporic conditions, together with their local and international allies, must embrace and stand in solidarity with the foreign to combat the violence we see today.

Embracing the foreign does not mean becoming apologists for all the decisions made by other governments. Sinophobia has been seen as legitimate and even necessary through its integration into international and interracial politics by emphasizing dominant Sinophobic tropes, such as the “yellow peril” or the Red Scare of a Communist regime. While there are good reasons to be critical of CCP rule in China, rejecting Sinophobic discourse and portrayal does not mean that we cannot criticize the Chinese government’s policies and actions. When we steer clear of such Sinophobic tropes and tendencies, we end up with more nuanced case-by-case methods of critique where we can ask ourselves: are we critiquing China truly because we have the best interests of the people at heart? Our analysis of racism must be extended to the examination of biased Western discourses when discussing international affairs. It is only with this that we can be critical without inviting anti-Chinese sentiment, especially towards those in the mainland.

Conclusion

It is difficult to summarize and unpack the roots behind the surge in violence against Asians in one post or article. This analysis still only scratches the surface. There is still so much more to go in-depth about: the legacies of the Cold War, the effects of imperialism, the history of Asian and Black solidarity, the history of anti-Asian violence, and much, much more. This also does not touch on acts of racism towards Asians that are not driven by Sinophobia, whether it’s towards non-Chinese East Asians, Southeast Asians, South Asians, Central Asians, or West Asians. Again, Asians are not a monolith, and all experiences must be accurately heard.sinophobia-why-we-must-understand-the-root-causes-of-the-current-wave-of-anti-asian-violence

Recognize that the information presented so far and action steps provided should only be treated as starting points for combating Sinophobia and anti-Asian violence. Confronting bias against Asian Americans or any other racial minorities is a difficult task. Doing so requires acknowledging biases that we may not be conscious of, confronting the people around us, condemning hate in public settings, and demanding changes from institutions in addition to the media. This requires us to end the silence at our dinner tables, in our classrooms, and at our workplaces. As risky as it feels to take action, our silence and inaction are even riskier.

With these attacks on Asian Americans, people tend to target those whom they perceive as weak, to be outlets for their entitlement. Unfortunately, most of the time, this means targeting elders and women. The only way this can end is by having a clear understanding of these issues and their roots. We all, Asian or not, American or not, need to do better.


Edited by Tyler Vu & Jack Hillis

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