Asian-American Groups Demand Biden Take Down His ‘Anti-China’ Ad

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the coronavirus outbreak, at the Hotel Du Pont March 12, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Progressive organizations condemn Biden for contributing to a climate of anti-Asian racism and belligerence.

Sarah LazareMay 20, 2020

We are try­ing to get out the vote, try­ing to get Asian-Amer­i­cans to show up, but Biden is not show­ing up for us,” says Michelle Liang, an orga­niz­er with NAKASEC Action Fund, an Asian-Amer­i­can advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion work­ing on vot­er turnout in the swing state of Pennsylvania.

Within this atmosphere, people who are perceived to be Chinese have seen an uptick in racist attacks and harassment.

Liang is one of eight co-authors, and more than 500 sig­na­to­ries, of an open let­ter to Joe Biden, call­ing on the for­mer vice pres­i­dent to renounce the bel­liger­ent anti-Chi­nese rhetoric of a recent video ad for his cam­paign, released as Covid-19 con­tin­ued to spread world­wide. The authors of the let­ter, which was signed by a broad range of Asian-Amer­i­can and pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions, say they share the Biden campaign’s goal of defeat­ing Trump,” but that goal is ham­pered by Biden’s embrace of rhetoric vil­i­fy­ing their com­mu­ni­ties, which are already tar­get­ed by Trump’s anti-Chi­nese invec­tives. The open let­ter is just one part of a larg­er out­cry as Biden’s cam­paign jock­eys to show it’s tougher” on Chi­na than Trump — rather than artic­u­late a vision that clear­ly diverges from the anti-Chi­na nation­al­ism the pres­i­dent is using to gin up his base.

It is dis­heart­en­ing to see the vil­i­fi­ca­tion of Chi­na and Asia and to hear Trump using this glob­al pan­dem­ic to push out this pro-ban, anti-immi­grant, anti-Chi­nese agen­da,” says Liang. We are see­ing Biden fall into the same trap.”

The ad in ques­tion, called Unpre­pared” and released by the Biden cam­paign on April 18, blamed Trump’s lack of aggres­sion towards Chi­na and Chi­nese trav­el­ers for enabling the glob­al out­break of Covid-19. The video starts by slam­ming Trump for his fail­ure to send health experts to Chi­na to inves­ti­gate the out­break. Trump rolled over for the Chi­nese,” the nar­ra­tor states, mak­ing no dis­tinc­tion between Chi­nese peo­ple and the gov­ern­ment of Chi­na. The ad goes on to assert that Trump’s praise of the Chi­nese is evi­dence of his lack of a back­bone. And the trav­el ban he brags about,” the video con­tin­ues, Trump let in 40,000 from Chi­na into Amer­i­ca after he signed it, not exact­ly air-tight.”

The open let­ter slams this mes­sag­ing as mis­in­for­ma­tion that rein­forces Trump’s racist and harm­ful efforts to iden­ti­fy the dis­ease with Chi­na and Chi­nese peo­ple. Pub­lic health experts agree that trav­el bans are a poor tool for con­tain­ing pan­demics, and the out­break in New York, the worst in the coun­try, most­ly came via trav­el from Europe, not Chi­na.”

Grace Pai is the Direc­tor of Move­ment Pol­i­tics for Asian Amer­i­can Mid­west Pro­gres­sives, and a co-author of the let­ter. She tells In These Times, When I first heard the ad, I thought it might be a Trump ad because of the talk­ing points to demo­nize trav­el­ers from Chi­na and to place blame for Covid-19 in the Unit­ed States on Chi­nese trav­el­ers. It con­cerned me per­son­al­ly being Asian Amer­i­can in this cli­mate, when we’ve seen a rise in anti-Asian racist, vio­lent attacks, because of the pres­i­den­t’s mes­sag­ing tying this virus to China.”

Trump has repeat­ed­ly claimed, with­out evi­dence, that coro­n­avirus orig­i­nat­ed in a Wuhan lab that research­es virus­es among bats, and Trump trade advi­sor Peter Navar­ro even went so far as to accuse Chi­na of using air­line trav­el­ers to spread the virus glob­al­ly — both accu­sa­tions denied by Trump’s own intel­li­gence offi­cials. Trump has also repeat­ed­ly referred to Covid-19 as the Chi­nese virus,” even as the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion warned against tying a par­tic­u­lar eth­nic­i­ty or nation­al­i­ty to the out­break, to avoid stigma.

These invec­tives are not iso­lat­ed. A mes­sag­ing guide from the Nation­al Repub­li­can Sen­a­to­r­i­al Com­mit­tee, dat­ed April 17, instructs can­di­dates to empha­size that Chi­na caused this pan­dem­ic by cov­er­ing it up, lying, and hoard­ing the world’s sup­ply of med­ical equip­ment.” It paints Chi­na as an adver­sary” that has stolen mil­lions of Amer­i­can jobs” and sent fen­tanyl to the Unit­ed States.” The memo, which was report­ed in the Inter­cept, instructs Repub­li­cans to attack China.”

With­in this atmos­phere, peo­ple who are per­ceived to be Chi­nese have seen an uptick in racist attacks and harass­ment. Rus­sell Jeung, chair of San Fran­cis­co State University’s Asian Amer­i­can Stud­ies depart­ment, pub­lished an analy­sis which found that, between March 19 and April 15, there were 1,497 reports of coro­n­avirus dis­crim­i­na­tion” sub­mit­ted to the Stop AAPI Hate” web­site, tar­get­ing peo­ple of Chi­nese, Kore­an, Cam­bo­di­an, Japan­ese and oth­er eth­nic­i­ties. The Wash­ing­ton Postreport­ed on May 19 that Asian-Amer­i­can health­care work­ers, in par­tic­u­lar­ly, have report­ed a rise in big­ot­ed incidents.”

Peo­ple have been insult­ed, spat on, beat­en, and injured; in one inci­dent a man attempt­ed to mur­der a fam­i­ly, stab­bing chil­dren aged two and [six], alleged­ly because he believed they were spread­ing COVID-19,” the open let­ter states. The Unpre­pared’ ad may make this worse.”

On May 14, Biden shared a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the Unpre­pared” ad that says Chi­nese gov­ern­ment” instead of Chi­nese” and does­n’t include the 40,000 trav­el­ers” line. How­ev­er, Pai says the new video is still prob­lem­at­ic.” She explains, This new ad may spec­i­fy the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment as opposed to Chi­nese peo­ple, but the aver­age Amer­i­can will hear that and con­flate it with peo­ple they per­ceive to be Chi­nese on the street. This is still part of Chi­na-bash­ing. You may tweak the lan­guage but the core mes­sage comes through.” Mean­while, the orig­i­nal ver­sion has not been tak­en down from Biden’s YouTube page.

This video is not an iso­lat­ed case. Anoth­er, cre­at­ed by pro-Biden super PAC Amer­i­can Bridge 21st Cen­tu­ry, uses a sim­i­lar line of crit­i­cism that Trump is a pushover to Chi­na. As the Trump camp releas­es ads try­ing to depict Biden as soft on Chi­na, and the Right labels him Bei­jing Biden,” Biden appears to be coun­ter­ing this mes­sag­ing with his own anti-Chi­na mes­sage, even as he, at times, denounces Trump’s xenophobia.

This approach is not tak­ing place in a vac­u­um. A memo from the war room of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee, estab­lished in 2017 to oppose Trump, cites the claim that Trump rolled over for Chi­na” as a key talk­ing point, as the Inter­cept reports. There is no ques­tion that Chi­na must be held account­able,” the memo states. But Trump has proven that he’s not capa­ble of doing that. He spent weeks and weeks offer­ing absurd flat­tery of Chi­na and unwar­rant­ed praise for its trans­paren­cy as the cri­sis developed.”

Con­fronta­tion­al footing

Anti-Chi­na rhetoric has impli­ca­tions far beyond U.S. bor­ders. The open let­ter notes that ratch­et­ing up hos­til­i­ty towards Chi­na could under­mine glob­al efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19. Ten­sions between the U.S. and Chi­na have dam­aged efforts to con­front Covid-19 by under­min­ing urgent­ly need­ed glob­al coop­er­a­tion around the pro­vi­sion of med­ical sup­plies as well as research into treat­ment and a vac­cine,” the let­ter states. While many of us have been crit­i­cal of the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and its ini­tial response to the Covid-19 out­break, it is clear that U.S.-China coop­er­a­tion is an urgent and over­rid­ing pri­or­i­ty until the pan­dem­ic is under control.” 

Tobi­ta Chow, the direc­tor of Jus­tice is Glob­al” and co-author of the let­ter (who serves on the board of In These Times), says, There are a bunch of prob­lems with the use of anti-Chi­na mes­sag­ing from the Biden cam­paign and DNC infra­struc­ture. In addi­tion to the rise of anti-Asian racism and how this has under­mined the glob­al coop­er­a­tion we need to beat Covid-19, there’s a march to mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion towards Chi­na. What we’re see­ing from the hawks in the nation­al secu­ri­ty estab­lish­ment, as well as the anti-Chi­na right-wing nation­al­ists that have tak­en over the GOP, is they’re talk­ing about the U.S.-China rela­tion­ship in terms of a new cold war.”

There were already signs that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion was tak­ing a con­fronta­tion­al pos­ture before the Covid-19 cri­sis hit: Trump has made great pow­er com­pe­ti­tion” with Chi­na an inte­gral part of his mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, and under his admin­is­tra­tion, annu­al mil­i­tary bud­gets have increas­ing­ly embraced a U.S. mil­i­tary piv­ot towards con­fronting Rus­sia and China.

But since the Covid-19 out­break began, we’ve seen a marked eca­lata­tion, with the U.S. Indo-Pacif­ic Com­mand recent­ly request­ing an addi­tion­al $20 bil­lion to deter” Chi­nese mil­i­tary action in the region. As CNN report­ed on May 15, over the past few weeks, U.S. Navy ships and Air Force B‑1 bombers have under­tak­en mis­sions aimed at send­ing a very pub­lic mes­sage that the US mil­i­tary intends to main­tain a pres­ence in the region and reas­sure allies.” This esca­la­tion is accom­pa­nied by increased diplo­mat­ic pres­sure from the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, as well as open accu­sa­tions from the Pen­ta­gon that Chi­na is attempt­ing to use the region­al focus on Covid to assertive­ly advance its own inter­ests,” CNN reports.

While the let­ter does not address Biden’s track record in the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, his remarks reflect a broad­er his­to­ry of bipar­ti­san mil­i­tary esca­la­tion against Chi­na. A con­fronta­tion­al stance towards Chi­na was also a cor­ner­stone of the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion, which embraced an Asia-Pacif­ic piv­ot,” that, how­ev­er incom­plete, had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the region. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion reached an agree­ment with the Philip­pines in 2016 to estab­lish a per­ma­nent U.S. pres­ence at five mil­i­tary bases in the coun­try, and sup­port­ed the efforts of con­ser­v­a­tive Prime Min­is­ter Shin­zo Abe to remove lan­guage from Japan’s con­sti­tu­tion pro­hibit­ing the use of force in inter­na­tion­al dis­putes. Under Oba­ma, the Unit­ed States nego­ti­at­ed with the pre­vi­ous right-wing South Korea gov­ern­ment to launch a THAAD mis­sile sys­tem, touch­ing off large protests.

The Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship, a NAF­TA-like trade pol­i­cy aimed at hedg­ing against Chi­na, was large­ly viewed as an eco­nom­ic corol­lary to this mil­i­tary uptick. Peo­ple are say­ing we don’t want more U.S. mil­i­ta­riza­tion in our coun­tries,” Rhon­da Ramiro, Vice Chair of BAYAN-USA — an alliance of Fil­ipino orga­ni­za­tions in the Unit­ed States—told me in 2014, amid protests against the TPP and U.S. mil­i­tary piv­ot at U.S. embassies in Japan, South Korea and the Philip­pines. This is about U.S. mil­i­tary pow­er and eco­nom­ic domination.”

Biden pub­licly embraced this rebal­anc­ing,” assur­ing Aus­tralia in July 2016 that the Asia-Pacif­ic piv­ot would con­tin­ue regard­less of who was in the White House. The Unit­ed States has kept and will keep a laser focus on the future in the Asia-Pacif­ic,” he pro­claimed. And he has, at times, echoed con­fronta­tion­al talk­ing points from the cam­paign trail, declar­ing in a Decem­ber 2019 pres­i­den­tial debate, We should be mov­ing 60% of our sea pow­er to that area of the world.”

Lind­say Koshgar­i­an, pro­gram direc­tor of the Nation­al Pri­or­i­ties Project and co-author of a recent report on U.S. mil­i­tarism and cli­mate change, told In These Times that a con­fronta­tion­al U.S. pos­ture towards Chi­na, no mat­ter who is in the White House, has dire impli­ca­tions. The thing I’m the most wor­ried about long-term with Chi­na is the real dan­ger that we are going to get in a cold war and blow our chances on cli­mate change,” she says. The most obvi­ous thing is that we could have com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the coun­tries degrade to the point that we can’t have a new Paris Agree­ment that has both coun­tries. But now, if Chi­na and the Unit­ed States get into an arms race, we will be tak­ing those resources away from any oth­er response to cli­mate change.”

While the Biden cam­paign did not imme­di­ate­ly respond to a request for com­ment, Politi­co not­ed in an April 23arti­cle that the Biden cam­paign point­ed out that Biden has blast­ed’ the hate­ful acts against Asian Amer­i­cans and that he’s con­demned Trump for using terms like Chi­nese virus’ to describe the pan­dem­ic. But it defend­ed the recent ad.” The arti­cle quotes a state­ment from the Biden cam­paign: Our ad lev­els sub­stan­tive and deserved crit­i­cisms at Don­ald Trump for believ­ing dis­cred­it­ed Chi­nese gov­ern­ment pro­pa­gan­da about con­tain­ment of the virus — some­thing Joe Biden pub­licly warned him not to fall for. That mis­judg­ment has had dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences for the Amer­i­can people.”

But activists say they want a full retrac­tion of the ad. The Unpre­pared’ ad must be tak­en down, and all cam­paign mes­sag­ing that fuels anti-Asian racism and Chi­na-bash­ing must end,” states the open letter.

In the words of Pai, I’m look­ing towards Novem­ber and think­ing, is this what we’re going to see for next six months from now to the elec­tion? Are we going to keep see­ing this esca­lat­ed Chi­na message?”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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