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.
“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.
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 Post reported 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.”
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 23 article 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.