Yesterday, NBC Asian America published an article titled “Rep. Judy Chu: How to talk about China’s role in pandemic in racially sensitive way.” The article reports that Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, released a “toolkit” for fellow lawmakers to “push back on rising anti-Asian bias, offering suggestions on how to discuss China’s role in the pandemic.” Suggestions in the resource include making statements around China’s role in the pandemic as specific as possible rather than making generalizations about China or Chinese people, avoiding “using ‘Cold War-style rhetoric’ like nebulous criticisms of China,” and considering the effect that depicting China as an enemy state can have on Asian Americans.
Many GOP lawmakers have consistently referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” “Wuhan virus,” and “kung-flu,” and even gone so far as to perpetuate conspiracy theories that the virus was invented as a bioweapon and originated because Chinese people “eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” A resource on how to speak about the coronavirus in a racially sensitive way certainly seems like a great place to start. Chu’s toolkit has been received positively by Democratic legislators and John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Reading about and experiencing anti-Asian discrimination, especially around the coronavirus, makes me feel upset, as I’m sure many other members of the AAPI community feel. But when I read about this effort to combat such discrimination by a lawmaker I respect, I must say I felt a bit disappointed and underwhelmed.
Chu states, “Absolutely it is possible to condemn China without putting AAPIs in danger, and that is what is so infuriating about Republicans’ insistence on using racist slurs like ‘kung flu’ or ‘China virus.’” What is “China’s role” in the pandemic? The scientific community has not yet firmly settled on where and how COVID-19 originated, with the theory closest to certainty being that the virus developed naturally and spread to humans from an animal source, most likely from bats. President Trump and other politicians have focused their attention on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies coronaviruses in bats, positing that it was accidentally leaked or even developed and intentionally released there. There is as of yet no consensus on the role China played in the origins of the pandemic.
More certain scrutiny has come down on the Chinese government’s concealment of accurate statistics and clamping down on whistleblowers like Dr. Li Wenliang, who eventually died of the virus, in the early days of the pandemic. President Trump has used this to his advantage, blaming the US’s coronavirus disaster (which has since skyrocketed beyond China’s worst numbers) on China’s failure to act and lack of transparency. As the Fortune article linked above states, “Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have been particularly harsh about China’s role in the outbreak. Enhancing Beijing’s role in the pandemic could be politically helpful to President Donald Trump, who has sought to shift blame for the U.S. outbreak away from his administration’s delays in achieving widespread testing for the virus and mobilizing greater production of supplies such as face masks and hospital ventilators.”
This is why I find Chu’s response to Republican lawmakers particularly disappointing. The response, essentially, is to put disclaimers on a campaign that continues to put China in the spotlight, rather than addressing the issues that are affecting Americans right now. Americans’ refusal to wear masks, assertions that COVID-19 is a hoax, lax reopenings that occurred much too soon, failure to develop a national testing strategy, widespread misinformation disseminated by the White House (such as that the only reason the US has seen an increase in cases is because of an increase in testing), and a plethora of other governmental, systemic, and individual failures are the true culprits of the national emergency we as a country have embarrassingly and tragically found ourselves in. To continue to “discuss and condemn” (really just more professional ways of saying “blame”) China’s role in the pandemic is nothing but a deflection from lawmakers who have clearly demonstrated they are not taking the pandemic seriously. We are past the point where any responsibility placed on China could explain where we have arrived as a country four months after lockdown began in many states. Continuing to use the Chinese government as a scapegoat for the pandemic in America will have racialized effects on Asian Americans, regardless of how we speak about China and the origins of the pandemic. It is, as Chu put in her own toolkit, prioritizing depicting China as an enemy state over protecting Asian Americans from discrimination. Does Chu ask her Republican colleagues to actively condemn Asian American discrimination and urge their constituents to avoid making racialized assumptions? The article doesn’t say, but I’m doubtful.
The NBC article reports that Rep. Chu’s toolkit has not received feedback from Republican lawmakers. This reinforces my skepticism that Chu’s choice to frame her toolkit around conceding that we should still be talking about China’s role in the pandemic, just in a more racially sensitive way, will actually have any effect on the way Republicans will speak about the pandemic.
This situation says a lot about both sides of this issue. Firstly, the article states that “more than 2,300 reported hate incidents have been recorded by Stop AAPI Hate as of July 15.” To respond to hate crimes by asking Republicans to “regard their words as more than just semantics” seems ridiculous, especially in light of Black Lives Matter protests, the surge of progressives ousting established Democrats in Congress, and a general intolerance for intolerance, so to speak. It’s my opinion that such low-bar responses to Asian American discrimination contribute directly to the model minority myth and lenience on such discrimination, but that’s a topic for another article.
Secondly, modern-day conservatives decry liberals for condemning views they disagree with, for refusing to engage in constructive debate and respectful conversation. And yet here we are, possibly the kindest, most minimal suggestion that Republicans could be more racially sensitive towards Asian Americans, and they completely ignore it. Nice.