The next internment: the domestic front in a U.S.-China war

Resettled American Japanese families arrive at the Manzanar internment camp in California in March 1942. Credit: Newsweek

This essay expands on an article I published in Foreign Policy titled “The next internment: Would Chinese in the U.S. be rounded up during a war?”

Think of a war between the U.S. and China. In your mind, you might conjure scenarios of fleets facing off across the East and South China Seas, battles on and around Taiwan, and contagion to regional powers like Japan or Australia. Contemplating such a situation, you might tremble over the disruption of international commerce, the potential for crippling cyberattacks on civilian infrastructure, nuclear escalation, and the ensuing economic and geopolitical effects.

These are the most salient images of a dismal war between the world’s leading superpowers. Overlooked, however, is the home front — the U.S. communities thousands of kilometers away from Asia’s frontlines where enemies, real or perceived, mingle in their daily lives. Suddenly, Americans of Chinese descent and Chinese citizens who live and work in the U.S. become involuntary participants in a drama produced by statesmen and generals.

Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war

In a hypothetical future, an acrimonious dispute over trade balances and currency manipulation pits Beijing and Washington against each other. Reckless orders from Washington direct a carrier group to the Taiwan Strait as a show of force; the Chinese leadership, facing protests at home and egged on by its military, lashes out to save face and succor its position.

The fuse ignites, and brinksmanship quickly makes room for the abyss. In the U.S., the morning commute is more silent than usual. Cable news and talk shows, buzzing in a stream of contrasting analyses, more than make up for the population’s leaden spirits. The tone rises feverishly; then, someone asks: “What about all of these Chinese we have here in America?”

Soon enough, the numbers have been crunched, and they aren’t pretty. More than one in every hundred people in the U.S. can claim Chinese descent; in parts of the West Coast, the number can be five or ten times as high.

In the 2010 Census, three and a half million people in the U.S. identified exclusively as Chinese, and nearly half a million more as being both Chinese and another race. The growth rate is astounding: this is an increase of more than 1.1 million — 40 percent — since 2000. At this pace, the ethnic Chinese population is now likely to approach five million.

Concerned policymakers turn to the experts to quantify the influx. The public learns from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that, in the decade to 2015, an average of 80,000 individuals who were born in the People’s Republic of China or in its dependencies of Hong Kong and Macau gained lawful permanent residence per year. In the same span, 37,000 people from these jurisdictions were naturalized each year.

There had been hardening rhetoric against immigrants from south of the border. Now, tough-talking politicians direct their suspicion west, across the Pacific. Borrowing from a Spanglish neologism, they soon coin the term “bad Fu Manchus” for the 268,000 unauthorized Chinese immigrants who were in the country as of early 2017. They neglect to specify that, in the ten years to 2015, fewer than 1,700 Chinese nationals were removed ensuing a criminal conviction.

By now, however, U.S. forces are fighting skirmishes against their Chinese equivalents in an arc from Southeast Asia to the Korean Peninsula. The initial television chatter has become a constant braying. Chinese American guests are increasingly asked about their allegiance. Several Chinese-owned businesses are vandalized. Prominent community leaders begin to feel that they are being watched. But this is only the beginning.

Echoes of the past

If this nightmarish scenario sounds familiar, that’s because similar responses have punctuated American history ever since the republic’s founding. The history of Chinese immigrants and their naturalized descendants in the U.S. and of the American government and people’s response to foreign wars illustrate what might happen if Beijing and Washington crossed swords.

In her 2004 work The Chinese in America, Iris Chang chronicles the suspicion, racism, and violence that have accompanied the birth and growth of the American Chinese population ever since the first “Celestials” — as the Chinese were then known — crossed the Pacific to seek fortune in California’s 1848 gold rush.

White Americans treated these Chinese migrants as members of an inferior race. The Chinese were grouped with Native Americans and blacks and subject to discriminatory laws prohibiting them from becoming naturalized citizens if they were born abroad (the Naturalization Act of 1790), testifying in court (from a 1854 California Supreme Court decision), immigrating (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), and even owning real estate or marrying outside their race. (California’s Anti-Miscegenation Law and Alien Land Act were on the books from 1906 and 1913, respectively, until 1948.)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, political opportunists and the media were quick to scapegoat and target the American Chinese. These demagogues often played on white laborers’ resentment about their economic condition, focusing their anger at Chinese workers and farmers. Yet the racism of white capitalists and landlords did not prevent them from using Chinese workers as strikebreakers in the Northeast and as leverage against emancipated blacks in the South.

By contrast, Pearl Harbor led the American animus to mutate virtually overnight. The Chinese were now “loyal, decent allies,” to be valued and respected in the global fight against fascism. The reversal was such that the Chinese began wearing badges proclaiming “I am Chinese” to distinguish themselves from the ethnic Japanese, a population that had endured similar abuse but that now found itself detained en masse for dubious reasons.

However, the upswing did not last long. Four short years after World War II’s end, China had “fallen” to Communism. The establishment of a red China, its support of North Korea during the Korean War, and McCarthyism enflamed American paranoia on the Chinese.

This attitude of mistrust persisted throughout the Cold War and even survived the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the early 1980s, Iris Chang’s high school classmates asked her who she would support in a Sino-American war. As late as 1998, reporters were posing Matt Fong — a California state treasurer, fourth-generation American, and candidate for the U.S. Senate — the same question.

Time’s cover from June 7, 1999

In May 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump accused China of economically “raping” the U.S.. These claims echo the racist demagoguery of the past and pit Americans and Chinese against one another in a zero-sum game. Other policies, such as immigration bans targeted against specific ethnic or religious demographics, resemble by-gone and widely discredited exclusionary measures. Such rhetoric thrives in the mutually reinforcing ecosystem consisting of the president’s inner circle, aligned media outlets, and the noxious conspiracy theory and fake news undergrowth.

Neither history nor the present bode well for a hypothetical U.S.-China conflict. Chang concludes her book by noting, ruefully, that even in the 21st century the acceptance of Chinese Americans “was linked to the ever-shifting relations between the United States and China rather than to their own particular behavior.” Trump’s penchant for seeing non-white groups as unitary suggests he would be especially vulnerable to lumping together Chinese Americans, China, and the Chinese government, likely to the detriment of the former in case of war.

Fighting the fifth column

If the examples of discrimination provided thus far occurred primarily in peacetime, history also offers various models for the American domestic response during war. In the best of all possible worlds, the president who finds himself or herself at the helm during a Sino-American conflict will have both the integrity and the will to restrain the worst impulses of a nation at war. If the confrontation is between governments, rather than between peoples, then the crisis might pass with relatively minor trouble for the American Chinese population.

An alternative situation is much more pernicious, though generally still contained. The U.S. response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks presents a plausible example of what might occur. Once President George W. Bush initiated an ill-defined state of war against global terrorism — its Islam-inspired strain in particular — the machinery of government and the gut of the general population responded by targeting specific minorities, whether explicitly or implicitly.

While the military intervened abroad, national and local security and law enforcement agencies broadened their reach domestically to prevent further attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation operated a system of informants that on multiple occasions ensnared racially profiled civilians in fake terror plots and punished individuals who refused to cooperate. The New York Police Department ran operations to infiltrate Muslim and Arab communities, spreading suspicion and fear over years without generating a single real lead.

At the same time, citizens often took matters into their own hands. While violence against Arabs or Muslims was in no way systematic, several cases shine light on the threat that looms over those groups wrongfully associated with foreign enemies. Among the starkest examples of this phenomenon are the assassination of an imam and his assistant in Queens, New York, and the long-term harassment of a Lebanese family by their white neighbor in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The harassment culminated with the murder of the family’s son. Hatred and ignorance proved to be blunt weapons: perpetrators have targeted communities they imagine to be Arab or Muslim, as in the killing of six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and a general nation-wide increase in anti-Sikh hate crimes after 9/11.

More recently, 2015 witnessed the most anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2001. The Huffington Post linked this rise to the fact that multiple Republican presidential candidates, including the eventual nominee, “have called for shuttering mosques, killing families of terrorists, waterboarding terror suspects, developing a religious test for refugee admission, and have compared Muslim refugees to rabid dogs.” To James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, these trends derive from policymakers and citizens’ lack of knowledge about Arabs and the Arab world, which lead to views of Arabs and Muslims based on stereotypes and misrepresentation.

A wartime cartoon depicting the American Japanese as enemy infiltrators and saboteurs

These reactions, worrying as they are, appear minor when contrasted to the worst-case scenario. The forced relocation and internment of more than 120,000 American Japanese during World War II epitomizes the potential for extreme, unchecked policies against an entire group that is cast as the enemy. The toxic recipe for this solution, which the writer Richard Reeves describes in Infamy, entails a mixture of racism; incompetent or power-hungry leaders in politics and the military; an enabling media and civil society; greed from those who stand to benefit economically from the response; and a widespread feeling of threat, whether real or imagined.

Although the exclusion order occurred more than 75 years ago, it remains a potential precedent for future decisions. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government and against Japanese American plaintiffs who challenged the measure’s constitutionality. The Supreme Court has not overturned that decision, leaving what for Reeves amounts to a “loaded gun” that might once again threaten some Americans on virtue of their race or religion.

A 2011 ad for Mark Amodei’s successful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives highlights the use of China and Chinese people in antagonistic political narratives

Trump, while still a candidate in late 2015, argued that his proposal for a “Muslim ban” was no different from Roosevelt’s policy towards the American Japanese in World War II. A year later, after Trump’s election, one of his surrogates repeated this analogy to support the then-president elect’s anti-Muslim policies. Although Justice Stephen Breyer has argued that the 1944 decision is so discredited that no court would rely on it positively, it is clear that this does not impede unscrupulous politicians from pointing to it approvingly — perhaps with some temptation to test the courts.

Modern bulwarks

American society today differs from what it was in the 1940s. Back then, the American Civil Liberties Union did not defend the American Japanese’s rights because its director was a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, it is unthinkable that it would stand by the sidelines. Earl Warren, attorney general of California from 1939 to 1943, also pushed for expelling the Japanese — citizen and noncitizen alike — from the state and detaining them. As we have witnessed since January, numerous advocates, including states and civic groups, will challenge a president’s discriminatory executive orders. In response, courts across the country have stayed the orders’ execution. (This may not suffice when there is a U.S. attorney general who, like Jeff Sessions, has a history of working to bend the law to suit his nationalist and racial vision and cannot be counted on to uphold constitutional and legal rights.)

A further defense against anti-Chinese policies is the group’s strength in numbers and integration. In 1940, the American Japanese amounted to one-tenth of one percent of the entire U.S. population. The American Chinese population is 13 times as large in relative terms, and over 30 times as large in absolute terms. The official 1982 report by the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians noted that Germans (and Italians) did not suffer the same treatment as the Japanese because the latter constituted much larger populations, had significant economic and political clout, and — importantly — did not face such strong racial prejudice. Today, the American Chinese can likely count on similar dynamics.

The Chinese community has gained greater representation within key institutions like Congress, the Federal Government, and the armed forces. There are three are representatives and one senator who can claim Chinese descent. While there are no publicly available statistics that break down the federal workforce and military by national descent, it is possible to derive general estimates of the Chinese American contingents within each organization. In 2011, the proportion of Asians in the federal workforce and military was comparable to that of Asians in the general population. Assuming that the percentage of Chinese in the Asian American population applies to the government and military, one would expect to see around 17,000 Chinese American federal employees (excluding political appointees) and 19,000 Chinese American enlisted members and officers. (The willingness of Chinese Americans to serve in uniform has not shielded them from discriminatory treatment by their peers.) These numbers, however, may equally well constitute a bulwark against systematic discriminatory measures or fodder for hysteria on “foreign infiltration.”

A tangible nightmare

The specter of conflict is not as far-flung as it seems, and has become more material in the last few months. The primary cause for concern is Donald Trump’s successful trundle to the White House with a fellowship of advisors with axes to grind about China’s status in the international order.

Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, remarked in March 2016 how “We’re going to war in the South China Sea. I was a sailor there, a naval officer, we’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years, aren’t we? There’s no doubt about it.” National Trade Council head and presidential confidant Peter Navarro is a similarly notable anti-China ideologue with a history of evoking the possibility of both trade and military confrontation.

The new tone in Washington did not fail to make an impact in Beijing. Shortly after Trump took office, the South China Morning Post — a Hong Kong newspaper — described an official post on the website of China’s People’s Liberation Army, which stated that the chance of war between the U.S. and China had become “more real.” The post’s author, a PLA officer, added: “A war within the president’s term or war breaking out tonight are not just slogans, they are becoming a practical reality.”

Outside of the halls of power, international security experts also point to the potential for a Sino-American war. A recent major study branded the potential for war between a leading power and its main competitor as “the Thucydides trap,” after the great Greek historian who narrated the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. In this analysis, while conflict is not inevitable, the odds are steep:12 out of 16 documented cases of this phenomenon resulted in conflict, including two world wars.

Graham Allison, the Harvard scholar behind this research, somberly highlighted that

Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not. Moreover, current underestimations and misapprehensions of the hazards inherent in the U.S.-China relationship contribute greatly to those hazards.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Kagan similarly argued in an essay titled “Backing Into World War III” that Washington’s declining confidence and capacity and Beijing’s increasing ambition and activism placed the world on a clear path to the next global conflict.

Whether the flashpoint is North Korea, Taiwan, or indeed the South China Sea, the outcome will be the stuff of Iris Chang’s nightmares: “All I could think of […] was how disastrous such a scenario would be for the Chinese American population, who would no doubt find themselves hated by both sides.”

Keeping alert, between dystopia and disaster

It is impossible to foresee the impact on the American Chinese community of a war between the U.S. and China. Too many variables, such as the duration and severity of the conflict, which side gains the upper hand, and who sits in the White House will influence the tension between restraint and reprisal. Yet history shows that racist reactions in times of war are not just a bug in the American system — they are an unavoidable feature.

The consequences will be dire for innumerable communities. Neighbors will become suspicious of and hostile to one another. Towns and businesses will target those whom they perceive to be on the enemy’s side. Even within the American Chinese population, conflicted sympathies for Beijing and Washington will threaten family and community cohesion: a paradoxical outcome of the American government’s mistreatment of its Japanese residents was that it drove many to form gangs that organized in support of Imperial Japan inside internment camps. Even after peace returns, the stigma will cause lasting psychological trauma and societal effects.

To domestic audiences inflamed against the Chinese, anyone with East Asian features will become a target, regardless of their background. Unfortunately, non-whites are a fungible scapegoat for hate and repression for those seeking to vent their war-induced nationalism and xenophobia.

Trapped between the two superpowers, the ethnic Chinese population in the U.S. faces significant uncertainty and travails. In The Plot Against America, the novelist Philip Roth imagines an America that elects a fascist government which initiates systematic discrimination against Jewish citizens.

The novel is powerful precisely because it treads the fine line between dystopia and a not-too-distant reality. As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues,

The Plot Against America is about how it can happen here; about how, if it were to happen here, American Jews and, for that matter, many other courageous Americans would rise up, organize, and resist; and about how their altogether American resistance against an altogether American abuse of power might nonetheless not suffice.

The domestic ramifications of a U.S.-China war display the same characteristics: they are too awful for us to want to think about them, yet so plausible that it would be egregious not to. When we speculate on the military and geopolitical dimensions of a Sino-American war, we often neglect the critical home front. If such a scenario were to materialize, American society must be able to resist the temptation to victimize some of its members because of their race. Given the historical precedent, it is crucial to stay on guard for when that time will come.

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