Civil rights

Don’t Sacrifice Civil Rights to Allay China Fears

Congress is struggling to pass legislation aimed at improving American “competitiveness”, especially against China, which increasing Numbers of Americans consider it a economic threatens. Significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill prove difficult to resolve.

President Biden was hoping for a quick bipartisan victory when the Senate passed his version of the bill last June with 68 votes. Last week, frustrated, he Told Speakers from the House and Senate trying to reconcile their differences to “Pass this fucking bill and send it to me”.

Congress must take its time. What is now called the Bipartisan Innovation Act is a complicated 2,300-page law littered with ill-considered provisions it will do more harm than good. Among the worst are those that will increase discrimination against Asian Americans.

The new “Yellow Peril”

The Pew Research Center reported one-third of Asian American adults “worried that someone would threaten or physically attack them”. Eight in ten Asian Americans think violence against them is on the rise. Many link the rise to anti-China rhetoric from US politicians competing to demonstrate how tough they are on China.

Historians Jack Chen and Dylan Yeats documented how the Chinese have been portrayed as a threat to US national security since the 1880s in Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. Contemporary American perceptions of a “China threatenstook root in the mid-1990s and has gradually spread over the past quarter century. These perceptions have encouraged congressional opponents of economic and scientific engagement with China to oversee and restrict business and academic cooperation between the two countries.

The current variant of what Ch’en and Yeats have called “yellow perilism” is driven by fears that the Chinese government will use economic and scientific cooperation to gain the upper hand in an epic struggle that political scientist Samuel Huntington has described as a “clash of civilizations.” The last three US administrations have all embraced the idea that China is a “strategic competitor” aimed at dislodging the United States from its supposed place at the top of a global hierarchy of nations.

The domestic consequences

US government efforts to control economic and scientific engagement with China, like those of the FBI China initiative, has led to the unfair treatment of Chinese-American scientists. The provisions of the Bipartisan Innovation Act would be,

enable the people of the United States, including the private sector, civil society, universities and other academic institutions, state and local legislators, and other relevant actors to identify and remain vigilant to the risks posed by improper influence of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) in the United States” and “implement measures to mitigate the risks.

Implementation would become the responsibility of the “head of each federal department and agency”. The new law would require them to “designate a senior official at the undersecretary level or above to coordinate the policies of the department or agency with respect to strategic competition with the PRC.”

What the law describes as a “whole of government” effort would encourage and legitimize discriminatory behavior at all levels of government, as well as in local businesses, schools and chambers of commerce. It is not difficult to imagine the adverse effects this would have on Chinese-American businesses, civic organizations and private life.

It’s also hard to see how this large-scale surveillance of every American person or activity linked to China will foster innovation. The intention appears to be to create a chilling effect that discourages any form of contact between Chinese and Americans.

Wider implications

Providing legal encouragement to government-led fear campaigns is a disturbing continuation of what Ch’en and Yeats to describe as a vast and ancient “American culture of political scapegoating”. Political and corporate elites peddling their hostility to China are tapping into powerful biases rooted deep in history when they blame America’s economic turmoil on China and its supposed agents and enablers in the United States.

There is no doubt that the Chinese communist rulers are creating serious economic and military problems that the US government is obligated to solve. But most people understand that scapegoating is a way of avoiding problems rather than solving them. It seems the only ones not doing so are politicians looking for an easier path to victory in their next election.

Members of Congress who resist this self-defeating impulse and insist on reviewing every provision of the bipartisan Innovation Act deserve gratitude, not criticism. There is no need to rush through what could be one of the most important pieces of legislation to pass a long-bitterly divided Congress.