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Criticizing China isn't racist
And criticizing Israel isn't antisemitic either. These are countries; they do things and get criticized
The latest round of fighting between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has coincided with both attacks on Arab citizens of Israel by racist mobs and a surge in antisemitic violence in major cities around the world.
These are obviously related events in both cases. What’s a little less obvious is the extent to which international conflict actually inspires racist violence versus simply providing a pretext for it. But certainly, hawks have mobilized to draw a straight line between political criticism of Israel and violence against Jewish Americans.
I think everyone on the left who is halfway sensible sees that there is some kind of connection here and a need for some discourse-policing. At the same time, I think all progressives are going to fundamentally agree with Michelle Goldberg that we can’t let the Israeli government “shut down criticism of the country as anti-Semitic.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon, an opinion editor at Newsweek, sees something hypocritical in this, given how progressives have understood the link between right-wing rhetoric and anti-Asian violence.
I would read this the other way — the criticism of Trump was overblown, the link to violence very unclear, and the motive for the double standard is almost certainly that progressives have a big problem with Donald Trump rather than with Jews.
Indeed, during the recent resurgence of discussion of the lab leak hypothesis, Apoorva Mandavilli, one of The New York Times’ lead Covid reporters, took the view that the lab leak theory has “racist roots” and we should therefore avoid discussing it.
This strikes me as a move toward intellectual and political paralysis. It’s clearly true that it is difficult, in practice, to hermetically seal strong criticism of Israel from attitudes toward the Jewish people, and there is a real possibility of spillover from criticism of the People’s Republic of China into racism against Asian Americans. At the same time, these are real states that do real things. I’m pairing the Israel and China examples because nobody that I’m aware of consistently upholds the principle “don’t criticize the state lest it has spillover consequences” in both of these cases. And the reason nobody upholds the principle is because it’s unworkable and unreasonable — the kind of thing you invoke opportunistically but don’t actually live by.
Lab leak theory is not racist
I think this is a particularly odd intervention in the lab leak debate, because while I don’t think the alternative theory — it’s a disease of zoonotic origin that crossed over to humans in a Chinese market — is in any way immune to the same basic concerns.
In the case of the market hypothesis, you can of course have a restrained and careful policy critique about the management of these institutions and the risks they pose to human health. Here’s a good video that Vox made based on market hypothesis, the known risks and regulatory issues, and what I do think remains the majority view among virologists that this is where SARS-Cov-2 came from.
At the same time, When Liz Cheney fires back at the Chinese foreign minister by saying “how about you stop eating bats,” that is not being incredibly sensitive. Paul McCartney was on Howard Stern’s radio show last spring and said “let’s face it, it is a little bit medieval eating bats.”
I have grown a bit leery of throwing around charges of racism. But Cheney is flinging a kind of vague collective aspersion on Chinese people, and McCartney is very specifically deriding Chinese cultural practices. Amazon is currently selling a “stop eating bats” novelty shirt. If I see you wearing this shirt, I am going to think that you are an asshole. Again, not because “viruses cross over to humans due to poor management at wildlife markets” is an absurd or racist thing to believe. But because the phrasing and framing cast it as a kind of general injunction based on the (to the best of my knowledge, false) idea that bat-eating is some incredibly widespread Chinese practice that generates some kind of collective guilt.
Long story short, the virus came from somewhere, and that somewhere is pretty clearly in China. Given that, any possible account of virus origins is going to have something to do with China. So whatever theory you come up with, you can come up with a way of casting it as implying collective guilt on the part of Chinese people or ratcheting up tensions with the Chinese government. My advice on the collective guilt part would be not to do that. As to the Chinese government, it depends more on the facts. But the answer obviously can’t be “never get mad at the Chinese government no matter what.”
The curious case of the “China virus”
Here I want to take a little detour into the World Health Organization’s somewhat odd 2015 decision to promulgate new guidelines on disease-naming:
My guess is that most of us were not paying much attention when these guidelines came out, but they became the basis for a subsequent political controversy in the United States. The stated policy goal here is to “minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”
I will admit that it never occurred to me to think of “Lyme disease” as potentially inciting hatred against people from Lyme, Connecticut, or the greater New England region. You can see why, though — from a tourism and marketing perspective — people would prefer not to have a gruesome disease named after their locale. Even though Wuhan is a large city, it’s one that most of us in the West had probably not heard of before this pandemic, and being mentally associated in everyone’s minds with a deadly pandemic is going to be bad for their tourism prospects. That being said, we all know the virus arose in Wuhan even though we didn’t call it “Wuhan Fever” or “Hubei Respiratory Syndrome,” so it’s not totally clear to me what was accomplished here.
That said, once the decision is made to call it SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, those are the names, and if you’re running around insisting on “China virus” (which is hardly in line with the traditional place names anyway) or worse, “kung flu,” then you pretty clearly are in fact trying to be an asshole.
Trump’s true bad act wasn’t about the name, though, it was about anti-Asian hate crimes. I don’t want to overly idealize George W. Bush, but it is true that after 9/11, he tried to tamp down anti-Muslim backlash and reassure the American Muslim community. I don’t think we should pin a medal on his chest for it; the point is that’s normal presidential behavior. Trump was never able to connect with the idea of providing symbolic leadership for people who didn’t vote for him, so he screwed the pooch on this and many other aspects of a traumatic pandemic experience.
“Don’t criticize China” doesn’t work
Notwithstanding Bush’s efforts to be decent, the “war on terror” concept clearly did end up empowering Islamophobic politics. And from the beginning, the drive to invade Iraq relied on a lazy conflation of disparate Middle Eastern and Islamic countries and political trajectories.
My friend Spencer Ackerman, whose forthcoming book plumbs this terrain, had a similar reaction to the general question of US-China tensions.
And Nina Luo wrote something similar at greater length for The New Republic:
In recent decades, the defense industry has perfected this rhetoric to make the case for war on China. Republicans and Democrats—including both President Biden and even our most progressive members of Congress—amplify the warmongering and push for increased defense spending. There is no violence like the mass rape and murder of war, yet in this moment of outcry against anti-Asian violence, lawmakers in D.C. are bringing us to the brink of global conflict. Asian and Pacific Islander peoples around the world—who are, like my grandparents living in China, often loved ones of people here—will suffer that violence. And as in all wars, the enemy abroad becomes the enemy at home, making Asian Americans at home once again the target of state and community brutality.
This is obviously not a totally irrational fear. The war between the United States and Japan in the 1940s led to horrifying and totally unjustifiable human rights abuses against Japanese Americans.
That being said, the problem with FDR’s internment policy was the internment policy. If you had some kind of time machine and could voyage to the 1940s and try to fix things, what you would try to do is have less racist hysteria and cruelty. Going back in time to try to say the U.S. shouldn’t respond militarily to the attack on Pearl Harbor would be bizarre. This is just to say that while racist backlash is bad, it can’t be the controlling consideration in every national security conversation.
And ultimately the problem with Bush’s vision of a “war on terror” is that the policy goals were wild and unachievable. His idea was that the joint invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan would unleash a wave of democratization that transformed the region for the better, but what actually happened was lots of destabilization and fighting and very little positive change. By the same token, the reason conservatives like Mike Pompeo are so willing to call Ilhan Omar antisemitic for her criticisms of Israel is that Pompeo thinks Israel is right on the merits. He’s not in fact hyper-sensitive to antisemitism or offensive language; he’s just wielding this talking point in defense of a country he thinks doesn’t deserve criticism.
Luo, too, turns out to just disagree with hawkish China policies:
China is not a threat because it’s attacking U.S. soil. China is a threat because it threatens American global hegemony. Here the underlying logic of Yellow Peril becomes clear. Proliferating the false idea that China will take over the West rationalizes starting conflict in the Asia-Pacific; this nearly perfectly parallels the geopolitical theater of a century ago. The Yellow Peril, the faceless horde, the ever-growing yellow population, an existential threat to the West, to liberal human rights, to the market economy, to the “rules-based” order, to American primacy.
Taking a step back, I think there is something to Luo’s point. American policymakers often fail to exhibit what Robert Wright calls “cognitive empathy.”
We are the ones who have military bases in Japan and Korea.
We are the ones who most clearly trampled the “rules” of the international order by invading Iraq.
We are the ones who contributed most to the historical stock of greenhouse gas emissions.
We are the ones with the gigantic nuclear arsenal.
I think we owe it to ourselves and the world to look at things from a Chinese perspective and not paint a major country’s desire to influence the region it inhabits as pathological when it’s actually very normal.
That being said, China is conducting some pretty egregious human rights abuses at home. And they are using the size of their domestic market to get western multinationals to crack down on criticism of those abuses here in the United States and Europe. They are messing with Vietnamese territorial claims, they’re fighting on the border with India, they’re getting into naval disputes with the Philippines — it’s a lot. It is good and important for American leaders to go out of their way to safeguard the interests of Asian Americans while addressing these disputes. But the idea that anti-racism requires American leaders to ignore these interests doesn’t make sense.
American nationalism isn’t racism
The ad is certainly nationalistic and maybe a bit demagogic, but to construe it as racist is, I think, a kind of fundamental misunderstanding.
In 1868, Horatio Seymour’s presidential campaign had posters that literally said “This is a white man’s country; let white men rule,” and even though he lost, that underlying sentiment has in fact fueled a lot of policy over the years. But the correct view has always been the view of Seymour’s opponent, Ulysses S. Grant, or that of Thaddeus Stevens and the proponents of the 14th Amendment. We had the Chinese Exclusion Act, but then later we had the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Barack Obama serves as president for eight years. Kamala Harris is vice president today.
America is not a “race” and American nationalism vis a vis China or anyone else isn’t racism.
I try not to obsessively tout my book too much, but this is part of the point of “One Billion Americans.” America is a country whose traditions and patriotic self-image support immigration and integration in an unusually strong way, and America is also a place that people want to live in. If we give visas to people who’d like to depart post-democratic Hong Kong, many of them will take us up on that offer. Nobody is angling to move to China, despite their real economic successes over the past 30 years. We should not blunder into stupid conflicts with China, but we should engage in reasonable diplomacy with China’s neighbors, stand up for the right of American citizens to criticize China’s human rights record, and try to remain the most important economy in the world.
With respect to issues like the Covid pandemic, we should of course pursue our interests vigorously — while also being realistic that China is a giant country that we can’t really push around or force to do much of anything. But most of all, we can’t just reduce international relations to American racial politics. Israel is a real, albeit small, country, and when it does controversial stuff, people are going to complain. China is also a real, much larger country that does lots of bad stuff. Normal people — including people of all races — are going to get upset about it, and that’s as it should be.