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US-China Relations and the rise of Anti-Asian Sentiments

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Stop Asian Hate rally @ Art Gallery

Kelly Phan and Bob Mulders

The Atlanta spa shootings on 16 March have sparked #StopAsianHate movements across the United States and around the world, calling for awareness about growing anti-Asian sentiments and hate crimes. Predecessor movements, such as #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I’m Not a Virus), highlights the existence of anti-East and anti-Southeast Asian across the world since the pandemic took hold.

There are many facets to the anti-Asian discourse that are important to discuss, such as: the intersection of racism and sexism in cases of violence against East Asian women, the problematic model minority myth, the contribution of COVID-19 politics or the nuances of prosecuting hate crimes in the US. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge from the outset the wide diversity of people who are classed as “Asian” in the US and other Western nations. The homogenisation of an incredibly diverse group of people often results in discussions about racism that attempts (and fails) to capture the myriad of factors that contribute to racist discourse.

This article aims not to capture the movement in its entirety but rather focuses on the rising violence and racist discourses faced by East Asian and Southeast Asian diaspora communities due to COVID-19.

The Impact of COVID-19 politics

The US-based Stop AAPI Hate reporting centre recorded 3,795 incidents from 19 March 2020 to 28 February 2021. It is noted that this is a fraction of the real number of hate incidents, but it offers a useful demonstration of national trends. For example, women report hate incidents 2.3 times more than men and Chinese people are the largest ethnic group reporting hate (followed by Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos).

In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) acknowledged that disease names can ‘provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities’, which was why they recommended using the term “COVID-19” in February 2020. On 24 February 2020, they issued a statement saying, “Don’t attach locations or ethnicity to the disease, this is not a ‘Wuhan Virus,’ ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Asian Virus’.

Yet, the WHO’s warning only foreshadowed the racialisation of COVID-19 that was to come. In May 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted that “the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering”.

Former President Trump’s tweets about COVID-19 are quintessential examples of how COVID-19 caused an increase in anti-Chinese sentiment. A recent study concluded that former President Trump’s use of the phrases “Chinese Virus”, “Wuhan virus”, or “Kungflu” on Twitter coincided with a rise of anti-Asian hashtags from about 12,000 to almost half a million. More than 50% of tweets with #chinesevirus were associated with anti-Asian sentiment, compared to 1 in 5 of tweets with #covid19.

Although former President Trump and other commentators have downplayed the role of COVID-19 in anti-Asian sentiment, research indicates that data from Twitter can be used to detect changes in societal attitudes that lead to mass public opinions, including ethnocentric hate. If so, the institutional support for racialised and politicised language demonstrated by former President Trump and other US Senators’ use of “Chinese Virus” clearly inflamed the rise of anti-Asian sentiment.

How did the Trump Administration’s relationship with China affect anti-Asian sentiment?

When Trump ran for President in 2015, he expressed the view that China was manipulating its economy to the US’ detriment. Soon after being elected, he kept true to his word; a China-US trade war was born. The relationship with China further deteriorated amidst the pandemic when Trump blamed China for his low re-election chances.

Although anti-Asian sentiment in the West predates the Trump administration and the pandemic, the Trump administration regards shared culture and identity as key to good mutual cooperation and seems to view China as an entirely different society, one that inherently threatens the US society.

This view goes back to the fear that the ‘rise of Asia’ would result in a degradation of the hegemony of Western nations in the 19th and 20th century. That period saw the emergence of the so-called ‘yellow peril’, where the presence of East Asians in the West was seen as a threat to Western society. East Asians were seen in the Western world as morally inferior and incapable of adjusting to Western society, remaining loyal to their nations of origin.

In recent times, the resurgence of some of these ‘yellow peril’ political views has created a paranoia for anything that might be a sign of the influence of the Chinese government. These old views have contributed to anti-Asian sentiment by blurring the distinction between the Chinese government, Chinese people and other people of Asian descent.

What is the #StopAsianHate movement calling for?

A large part of the #StopAsianHate movement is fuelled by a desire to shed light on the issue of anti-Asian violence and racism. The model minority myth encourages Asian subjects to be the model (i.e. obedient) minority group, leading to severe underreporting of racist incidents. Asian-Canadian and Asian-American success has typically also been touted by leaders as evidence against systemic racism and the existence of a “colour-blind” society.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee’s hearing on Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans, which began on 18 March, is significant in this regard. As the first examination of anti-Asian discrimination and violence in three decades, it aims to examine anti-Asian discrimination from a historical and contemporary lens to inform future legislative change.

One example is the proposed COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act which would:

  • Create a position at the Department of Justice to facilitate expedited review of COVID-19 hate crimes.

  • Support state and local governments to improve hate crimes reporting

  • Ensure that hate crimes information is more accessible to Asian-American communities

  • Connect federal agencies to community-based organizations to encourage COVID-19 discourse that is not racially charged.

In Massachusetts, a bill has been proposed to address bias-related crime. Most relevantly, it adds immigration status and gender as two protected categories. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, State Representative Tram Nguyen, stated the normative significance of the bill: “That’s how we communicate to communities that we see them and that these crimes are unacceptable.”

The new Biden administration has taken a markedly different stance on COVID-19 and racism. The President and Vice-President have openly supported the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. Most notably, it set the tone for an administration that condemns anti-Asian racism since January 2021 through the issuance of a Presidential Memorandum that said:

“The Federal Government must recognize that it has played a role in furthering these xenophobic sentiments through the actions of political leaders, including references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin.”

Justice: one step at a time

Major acts of violence fuelled by racism, such as the Atlanta spa shootings, are enabled by a climate of racism marked by racial stereotypes. These political campaigns stigmatise ethnic groups and also silence victims. It will take a diverse range of efforts to combat anti-Asian hate - the journey for justice and equality will not end with just one prosecution of one shooter nor a social media movement.

Instead, legislative amendments to address gaps in hate crime prevention and punishment, as well as a new Biden administration that addresses China’s rise with a different tone, might be the first step towards a decline in anti-Asian sentiment in the near future.


Kelly Phan is a fifth year Law/Arts student at Monash University. She is broadly interested in international criminal law and justice and has completed an internship with the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. She is also the Marketing and Communications Director for Young Diplomats Society.

Bob Mulders is a third year China studies student at Leiden University. He is interested in history, China’s role in trade networks in the past and Chinese culture and society.



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