by Eddie Wong
President Trump and Republican Party candidates have clearly made China bashing and immigration restriction key themes their re-election bid. Trump can meander into the weeds as he did at a White House press conference on July 14 with bizarre claims that new buildings would no longer have windows if Democrats win and enact strict “net zero” carbon emissions standards. These are highly entertaining WTF moments, but Trump always returns to the tried and true: racial scapegoating and xenophobia, which is a perfect fit for his base but also shows how out of touch he is, e.g. 60% of people polled by CBS News on June 28 supported the ideas of Black Lives Matters.
Trump’s repeated reference to “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” have encouraged racism toward Asians. The dilemma is how to condemn Trump and his ilk without helping to reinforce their toxic message. Communications and political strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio posits that negation fails “because people recall the assertion but don’t recall if it is true or false.” Additionally, just saying “China Virus is racist” can backfire because people double down on their previous belief if it is directly contradicted.
Our challenge is to condemn Trump by telling our own story. Shenker-Osorio points out that people in the persuadable category hold competing beliefs and their allegiance can be shifted by offering an alternative view. “The job of an effective message isn’t to say what is popular; it is to make popular what we need said. This requires understanding not merely where people are but where they are capable of going,” wrote Shenker-Osorio in The Hill on Feb. 23, 2017. “We do this by understanding what our base will carry, activating what’s most progressive in most others and exposing the beliefs of our committed opposition for what they are out of sync with the values of most Americans.”
Chinese Americans are painfully aware that many people still see us as outsiders, the perpetual foreigners. Trump’s March 23 tweet which was intended to show that he was not anti-Asian racism revealed the opposite. “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world,” tweeted Trump. “They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER.” Us means real Americans, which makes Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, the others.
For many recent immigrants and others who have ancestral ties with China, there is consternation that China is once again being treated as a pariah despite having sharing the genome of the coronavirus with the international scientific community and working with other countries on finding a vaccine. And China should be praised for its spirit of cooperation. At the same time, China probably made mistakes in the handling of the pandemic early on. We may never know what transpired because the Chinese government has a deplorable record on censoring information and detaining writers and artists whom it considers to be critics. Thus, Chinese Americans don’t need to be cast as China’s defender even as Trump heaps abuse on China and fans up racism against Asian Americans. Nor do we need to portray ourselves as super pro American. We should be accepted just like anyone else and treated fairly. The focus needs to be on how Trump is using racism to divide people in the U.S. and legitimize xenophobia.
We know Trump’s statements embolden bigots to attack Chinese Americans and anyone who looks Asian. Indeed, #StopAAPIHate reported on June 18, 2020 that the perpetrators in 26.4% of the 1,900 reported cases mentioned China or Chinese. Here’s a detailed breakdown:
This barrage of taunts is a byproduct of assiduous use of “China virus” and “kung flu” by Trump and other members of his administration. Trump has not let a rally or press conference go by since March without invoking “China virus. “On July 14, Trump said, “And make no mistake: We hold China fully responsible for concealing the virus and unleashing it upon the world.” In late April, Trump claimed to have seen evidence that coronavirus originated at a laboratory in Wuhan, China. When asked by reporters to show proof, Trump said “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.” Nonetheless, the charge has been ratcheted up a few notches on the hysteria scale by Peter Navarro, Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. “They spawned the virus, probably came out of the biological lab. For two months, they hid the virus from the world and the possibility of a pandemic, behind the shield of the World Health Organization,” said Navarro on July 3 on MSNBC News. “They deliberately allowed Chinese nationals to come into the U.S, Italy and everywhere in between, who were infected, while they were locking down their own transportation network.”
Newsweek magazine asked scientists about the Wuhan lab conspiracy theory: “There are lots of data and lots of evidence, as well as previous examples of this coming from nature,” Kristian Andersen, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, told the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in May. We have exactly zero evidence or data of this having any connection to a lab,” he said.
On July 12, Navarro used the term “weaponized virus” to characterize the spread of Covid-19 as a war-like act. One can only guess where this could lead.
China bashing is going to be a prominent feature of the 2020 elections for other Republican candidates as well. On April 17, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out the “Corona Big Book Main Messages” by Brett O’Donnell, GOP advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban attack China,” stated O’Donnell’s memo. The key talking points are as follows:
Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) who is in a tight race with Democrat Mark Kelly, was one of the first to follow the GOP playbook when she co-authored the Stop China-Originated Viral Infectious Diseases (COVID) Act with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT). “The Chinese government must be held accountable for the pain it’s inflicted across the United States,” said McSally. “Our legislation to allow Americans to file lawsuits against the Chinese Communist Party for its role in perpetuating the global spread of the coronavirus will give the U.S. a piece of justice.” Yeah, good luck with that.
While getting a financial settlement from the Chinese Communist Party is highly unlikely, that’s not the true point of the legislation. It’s another messaging vehicle to reinforce the narrative of culpability for a “manufactured virus” when the scientific evidence is otherwise. Blaming China serves Trump because it taps upon reservoirs of racial stereotyping of Asians as disease carriers. Trump probably flunked science or maybe the word zoonoses, the transfer of diseases from animals to people, is too difficult for him to understand. Here’s how the Center for Disease Control (CDC) explains Covid-19 on its website: Zoonotic diseases are caused by harmful germs like viruses, bacterial, parasites, and fungi. These germs can cause many different types of illnesses in people and animals, ranging from mild to serious illness and even death. Animals can sometimes appear healthy even when they are carrying germs that can make people sick, depending on the zoonotic disease. Zoonotic diseases are very common, both in the United States and around the world. Scientists estimate that more than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. Since human populations are intruding more and more into animal habitats to hunt and cultivate land, the chances of more zoonotic diseases increase and we may see other contagions in the future.
Reading that one section of the O’Donnell memo brings to mind hoary images of Chinese communists from the days of the Korean War. These are updated images, to be sure, but still ones designed to convey fear, hostility, and otherness to dehumanize “the enemy.”
Taking a page out of the McCarthy era of the 1950s when the U.S. government persecuted individuals who supported progressive causes as “communist sympathizers” and blacklisted people in Hollywood, the Trump administration is embarking on its own “spy hunt.” On May 28, 2020, the Trump administration announced plans to expel Chinese graduate students from U.S. colleges and universities if they had come from Chinese schools associated with the Chinese military, which includes some of China’s most prestigious universities including Beijing Institute of Technology, Harbin Engineering University, and Nanjing University of Science and Technology. Visas will be banned for 3,000 Chinese students. One can only imagine how that ban poisons the atmosphere for the estimated 340,000 Chinese students in the U.S. Will they be welcomed on campus or treated as potential spies?
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) have taken it one step further with the May 27, 2020 introduction of the Secure Campus Act, which would ban all Chinese students from STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The House version of the bill is being carried by Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN). Thousands of Chinese students have completed their studies in these fields and decided to work for American companies and become American citizens enriching our society with their innovations. Welcome to the Chinese Exclusion Act 2020!
The next “get tough on China” target is TikTok, the beloved short video app that has provided lockdown levity and been downloaded 315 million times between January and March 2020 in the U.S. Plans to ban TikTok were mentioned by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Fox News on July 7: “I don’t want to get out in front of the President, but it’s something we’re looking at…Only download the app if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” It is true that TikTok collects ip addresses, your location, and your unique device identifier, but that same information is collected by Facebook, Google and Twitter. If the Chinese government wanted to gather information from users in the U.S., they wouldn’t need to rely on TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company but operated separately by a U.S. subsidiary. Chinese hackers could tap any number of web apps.
Lost in the current discussion is the Big Daddy of government spying. Let’s revisit Edward Snowden’s revelations about spying on US citizens and foreign countries by the National Security Administration. In a June 2013 interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden said that there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and in the People’s Republic of China with one target being Chinese University. “We hack network backbones like huge internet routers, basically that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” Snowden said.
Banning TikTok or even WeChat, the popular Chinese web app used by 2.5 million people in the U.S., mainly Chinese and Chinese Americans, won’t make our data more secure.
Blaming China for the pandemic is certainly going to be repeated endlessly right up to the November election, but China bashing goes back to the 2016 Trump campaign when he positioned himself as the champion of the farmers and workers in the Midwest and Rust-belt states against the Democratic elites who sold them out and gave away America’s bounty to the rapacious Chinese. Thus, Trump’s trade wars against China and Europe have been prominent features of his administration, playing to his supposed strength as a “great negotiator” who can dominate any situation. But life is not a TV show like “The Apprentice” and Trump is widely seen as an ignorant, callous clown rather than respected world leader.
Trump is, however, a master at presenting a narrative that triggers an emotional response to the uncritical viewer. Trump’s messages whether it be on race relations or economics is based on a false reality of being displaced wrongly from power and the need to exact revenge. The facts do not matter so much as the perceived sense of being robbed and disrespected. Thus, the tearing down of Confederate statues is an affront to “white history.” The need to impose tariffs is to punish those countries which have unscrupulously pushed the U.S. from top dog status.
Every time Trump gives a speech, the fact checkers have their work cut out for them because the patchwork of misinformation and lies is truly astonishing. The Washington Post Fact Checker Team reported on July 14, 2020 that Trump has made 20,000 false claims since his inauguration. In the last 14-month period, his lies amounted to 23 per day! Well, at least he’s good at something. Put that on the gravestone.
In his July 14 press conference, Trump painted this picture of trade relations with China:
If you accept this version of history, then you would have to conclude that China is an ingrate who suckered the U.S. But CNN fact checkers pointed out the following: Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote in 2008: “China has been the fastest growing economy in the world over almost three decades, expanding at 10 per cent per year in real terms.” And China had been having the worst year in 29 years, not 67, before the present crisis hit. According to World Bank figures, China grew by 7.7% in 1999, 8.5% in 2000 and 8.3% in 2001. After joining the WTO, it grew by 9.1% in 2002, 10.0% in 2003 and 10.1% in 2004.
Trump’s assertion that China took billions out of the U.S. Treasury is truly a head-scratcher. Perhaps he’s confusing the U.S./China trade deficit, which has been historically high given the vast number of consumer products U.S. consumers buy from China. It is a deficit that has continued to grow despite Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and imposition of $300 billion in tariffs levied against Chinese firms in 2019. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported on January 13, 2020 that U.S. trade deficit with China grew by 21% from 2016 ($347 billion) to 2018 ($420 billion). “U.S. jobs displaced by those China trade deficits increased from nearly 3.o million jobs lost in 2016 to 3.7 million jobs lost in 2018,” said Robert E. Scott from EPI.
Trump’s “America First” policies have failed to bring back manufacturing jobs and damaged relations with many countries. The current pandemic has vastly exacerbated the plight of farmers and workers in the Midwest and Rust Belt states which were so critical to his narrow victory in 2016. Even before the pandemic, the recovery wasn’t happening for workers in the manufacturing sector. “Last year, Pennsylvania saw a drop of 5,700 factory positions, while Michigan was down 5,300 and Wisconsin lost 4,100 jobs,” said Christopher Cadelago, a Politico writer in his May 14, 2020 post.
“The way I’ve come to terms with what happened in 2016 in these working-class areas is that the Trump vote was a vote of despair and desperation. And that despair and desperation remain in 2020,” said Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University, in Politico. “The big question is, will people in those areas react in the same way that they reacted in 2016 … or have they had enough?”
Trump’s drop in the national polls placing him nine percentage points behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden correlates to the 58% disapproval rate of Trump’s response to the pandemic (FiveThirtyEight data on July 17, 2020). Other national polls reveal that 76% of those polled believe that reopening too soon will prolong the crisis. Meanwhile, Trump is pushing school systems to reopen.
Citing Trump’s ineptitude in the Covid-19 crisis and his wacko pronouncements (pick one: the crisis will just fade away, the Lysol cure, stop testing because it leads to more cases) is the best way to blunt his barrage of racist and xenophobic comments. Don’t reinforce his message by using his language. Refocus the discussion on the true damage that he is imposing on all of us.
In tandem with his China bashing, Trump never forgets to lash out against Latinx immigrants. In his July 14 rambling press conference, Trump revived rhetoric against Latinx immigrants as murderers and rapists. He decried the proposed Democratic platform on immigrants as “provide taxpayer subsidies and welfare for illegal aliens and new immigrants. They want government healthcare for all illegal aliens.” Once again, Trump paints a picture of the undeserving taking money from U.S. taxpayers, ignoring the need for universal health care regardless of legal status to put a lid on the pandemic.
The best way to condemn Trump’s racism and xenophobia is to remove him from office and defeat his Republican enablers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. This will not end racist assaults and anti-Asian bullying but having a new national leadership that will set a new moral tone and follow the advice of scientists and medical professionals about handling the Covid-19 crisis may be our best chance to avoid going over a cliff into total chaos.
There are many unknowns in the upcoming election such as the extent of voter suppression to be enacted by the GOP in key states and the possibility of a manufactured confrontation with China that Trump would use to rally “national unity.” But we do know that organizing as high a turnout as possible to defeat Trump will advance our progressive agenda well beyond the fall elections.
Traditional methods of “getting out the vote” via in-person canvassing are not happening with the need for social distancing, but robust programs for voter contact via letter writing, postcards, texting and calling are available and need volunteers NOW. Visit Vote Forward, Swing Left, and Seed the Vote to get involved. We have suffered enough. Each day Trump remains in office is another day of toxic messages and repressive policies. Let’s end it by doing what we do best rally people of good will to embrace building a society built on peace, justice and equality.
Author’s Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind Ezine.
Published in In Motion Magazine - July 25, 2020.
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