A Cold War Comes Home? Anti-Asian Racism in Light of US-China Hostility

Racism against Americans of Asian heritage has received significant attention recently. Concerns about anti-Asian hate crimes arose last spring as the Covid-19 pandemic began to affect the United States.[1] The horrifying murders of eight people, six of them Asian, in the greater Atlanta area in March 2021 revived concerns about bigotry toward Asian Americans. As activists and others work to counter this evil, we should consider the role that hostile US policies and attitudes toward China—which go beyond the response to Covid-19—may play in fostering anti-Asian prejudice.

Covid-19 raised the possibility that people of Asian descent would be scapegoated for a pandemic that originated in Asia. Early in 2020, the FBI predicted that anti-Asian crimes would rise “on the assumption that a portion of the US public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.” Soon after, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned about “the potential for hate crimes by individuals and groups targeting minority populations in the United States who they believe are responsible for the spread of the virus.”[2]

Over a year later, the scale of anti-Asian hate crimes since Covid-19 broke out in the United States is hard to measure precisely. The FBI’s national report on hate crimes committed in 2020 won’t be available until this November. In the meantime, we have some preliminary, partial numbers and anecdotal evidence that is cause for concern.

The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism (CSHE) at California State University, San Bernardino, released a report this spring on anti-Asian incidents. Analysis of official preliminary police data showed anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 146% from 2019 to 2020 across 26 of the largest American jurisdictions.[3] The increase is all the more striking given that hate crimes generally increased by only 2% in these jurisdictions during this period.[4] The study also compared reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 large US cities and counties in the first quarter of 2020 versus the first quarter of 2021. It found a 164% increase, from 36 to 95, between 2020 and 2021.[5]

STOP AAPI Hate, a coalition of community organizers and academics, created an online, multilingual portal through which people could report incidents.[6] The portal collected reports of 3,795 anti-Asian incidents, both criminal and non-criminal, in 2020 and early 2021.[7] Police data for certain large cities show noticeable increases in anti-Asian hate crimes compared to previous years. New York City had an average of 6.4 anti-Asian incidents annually during 2015-2019 and 28 in 2020. For Los Angeles, the numbers were 6.6 annually during 2015-2019 and 15 in 2020.[8]

As noted, these data have limitations. The STOP AAPI portal doesn’t try to verify the incidents described to it, and since the portal was created in 2020 we cannot compare its numbers to previous years.[9] Also, the apparent increase in incidents might be the result of increased media attention rather than a real increase.[10]

Nevertheless, the numbers suggest a possible pattern of increased anti-Asian hatred. They might also be just the tip of the iceberg: many hate crimes might go unreported for various reasons. Quyen Dinh, the executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a civil rights group, comments, “A lot of our community members don’t know they can report, or they are afraid to report to law enforcement…They would rather share with the community groups they feel comfortable with.”[11]

Beyond the patterns suggested by numbers, anti-Asian bigotry turns up in multiple specific incidents reported since March 2020. A New York Times compilation of 110 such incidents provides disturbing details:

  • March 2020: In Midland, TX, three members of an Asian American family, including a 2-year-old and 6-year-old, were stabbed in a grocery store because their attacker thought they were Chinese and had Covid-19.[12]
  • November 2020: In Washington, DC, a tea shop owner was confronted by a customer who shouted “Chinese” and “Covid-19” and eventually pepper sprayed the owner.[13]
  • February 2021: In Los Angeles, a Korean American man was hit in the face by two attackers who called him racial slurs and “Chinese virus.”[14]
  • March 2021: In New York City, multiple violent attacks on Asian Americans took place, including an incident where a Filipino American woman was knocked down and kicked while her attacker yelled “You don’t belong here.”[15]
  • March 2021: In San Jose, CA, a woman was sexually assaulted by an attacker who shouted anti-Asian slurs.[16]

These and other anti-Asian incidents have taken place in the context of fears about Covid-19 and political rhetoric that identifies the virus with China. Former President Trump sometimes referred to the virus as the “China virus” or the “Chinese virus” (although he later backed off from those words and called for tolerance of Asian Americans).[17] Trump also once used the term “kung flu,” which was also used in several anti-Asian incidents.[18]

However, other circumstances, beyond Covid-19, might contribute to anti-Asian attitudes within the United States. Even as Covid recedes (we hope), hostility between the United States and China continues to be a serious problem. The Biden administration has identified China as a leading US rival.[19] CIA Director William Burns has called China “the biggest geopolitical challenge that we face.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has said “no challenge we face rivals the holistic threat posed by China, and more specifically the Chinese Communist Party.”[20] Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), arguing against cuts to the US defense budget, tweeted that “China’s goal is nothing less than the complete destruction of the United States.”[21]  

Meanwhile, the Senate is considering a bill, the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, targeting China. The bill calls for spending $300 million annually “to counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally.” The funds would go, among other activities, to “expose misinformation and disinformation of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda” and “support civil society and independent media to raise awareness of and increase transparency regarding the negative impact” of various Chinese economic initiatives.[22]

As Jessica J. Lee and Rachel Esplin-Odell of the Quincy Institute comment, the Act could encourage paranoia and hostility toward China and skew media coverage of China, “in favor of anti-China journalism, [while] drowning out more unbiased analyses and reports on constructive engagement with China.” While the Act, to its credit, condemns anti-Asian racism, it may nevertheless encourage general hostility to China that will influence attitudes toward Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans.[23]

Fears of foreign influence might already be influencing the treatment of Asian Americans within the State Department. The Asian-American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA), which represents diplomats of Asian heritage, has long expressed concerns about how security clearance rules intended to reduce “targeting and harassment by foreign intelligence services as well as to lessen foreign influence,” are applied to Asian Americans.[24]

In March 2021, 100 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from the foreign policy and national security fields released a statement saying “the xenophobia that is spreading as U.S. policy concentrates on great power competition has exacerbated suspicions, microaggressions, discrimination, and blatant accusations of disloyalty simply because of the way we look. Many of us have been targeted because we are either ethnically Chinese or simply look Asian.” The statement goes on to say “Treating all Asian-Americans working in national security with a broad stroke of suspicion, rather than seeing us as valuable contributors, is counterproductive.”[25]

Some positive steps to counter anti-Asian racism have been taken. Congress recently passed, and President Biden signed into law, the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which contains provisions to improve multilingual reporting of hate crimes, access to support services, and public education about hate crimes.[26] The 2021 State Authorization Act, currently being considered in Congress, would reform State Department security clearance procedures. The new procedures would allow diplomats to appeal clearance decisions and have the decisions reviewed independently.[27] Meanwhile, the Strategic Competition Act should be rejected, at least in its current form.

We should also step back from the general hostility toward China that is increasingly embraced by both parties in the United States. This need not mean stopping all criticism of the Chinese government over, for example, its human rights record in Hong Kong or Xinjiang. However, it does mean scaling back extreme anti-China rhetoric and balancing criticism with recognition of the need for great power cooperation. Hostility among nations is always dangerous. Such hostility has the added danger of turning inward and harming vulnerable communities at home.

Post-Script: Since I originally wrote this essay, updated hate crimes data for 2020 became available from the FBI. The 2020 numbers of reported hate crimes provide quantitative confirmation of earlier assessments: hate crimes against people of Asian heritage rose from 161 incidents in 2019 to 279 in 2020: a 73% increase.[28]

While the total number of anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 was lower than the numbers of crimes against other groups, such as Black and LGBTQ+ Americans, the increase in anti-Asian crimes was greater than the increases (if any) in crimes against many other groups. The anti-Asian hate crime increase was also greater than the overall increase in hate crimes from 2019 to 2020.[29]

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] See “Sickness is the Health of the State? Civil Liberties and Conflict during a Pandemic.”

[2] Griffin Connolly, “Coronavirus: FBI Director Warns of Potential for Spike in Hate Crimes As Anti-Asian Incidents Surge,” Independent, April 20, 2020, https://bit.ly/2SivztZ.

[3] Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, California State University, San Bernardino, Report to the Nation: Anti-Asian Prejudice & Hate Crime (San Bernardino, CA: Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, 2021), 3.

[4] Ibid., 3, 4 (Table).

[5] Ibid., 2 (Table), 3.

[6] Ibid., 3; Priya Krishnakumar, “Why Hate Crime Data Can’t Capture the True Scope of Anti-Asian Violence,” CNN, March 18, 2021, https://cnn.it/3w1eTWx.

[7] Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, Report to the Nation, 3.

[8] Ibid., 7 (Figure).

[9] Krishnakumar, “Why Hate Crime Data Can’t Capture the True Scope of Anti-Asian Violence.”

[10] Weiyi Cai, Audra D. S. Burch, and Jugal K. Patel, “Swelling Anti-Asian Violence: Who Is Being Attacked Where,” New York Times, April 3, 2021, https://nyti.ms/3x2Qujr.

[11] Krishnakumar, “Why Hate Crime Data Can’t Capture the True Scope of Anti-Asian Violence.”

[12] This incident and the others listed are all mentioned in Cai, Burch, and Patel, “Swelling Anti-Asian Violence.” Also, this specific incident is described in JuYeon Kim, “Report: Sam’s Club Stabbing Suspect Thought Family Was ‘Chinese Infecting People with Coronavirus,’” KXAN, April 8, 2020, https://bit.ly/3x56phj.

[13] Peter Hermann, “Police Investigating Attack on Chinese Tea Shop Owner As Hate Crime,” Washington Post, November 11, 2020, https://wapo.st/3pDqjxy.

[14] Hetty Chang, “Attack on Asian American Air Force Veteran in Koreatown Investigated as Hate Crime,” NBC-4 (Los Angeles), February 23, 2021, https://bit.ly/2Safsio.

[15] See variously ABC-7 (New York), “66-Year-Old Asian Man Attacked in Manhattan in Unprovoked Assault; Rallies Held,” March 21, 2021, https://7ny.tv/3xbmkLf; Joseph Choi, “NYPD Investigating Anti-Asian Incident against Teen,” The Hill, March 18, 2021, https://bit.ly/3w4fQ0s; Michael Gold and Jonah E. Bromwich, “Man Arrested in Anti-Asian Attack Was on Parole for Killing His Mother,” New York Times, March 31, 2021, https://nyti.ms/3z9tBgc; Graham Rayman, “‘I Came Here to F— Up Asians’: Woman Hit in Face with Metal Pipe in Latest Manhattan Hate Crime,” New York Daily News, March 22, 2021, https://bit.ly/3w8zQyY.

[16] Fareeha Rehman, “Asian Woman Called Ethnic Slur, Sexually Assaulted in San Jose,” KRON, March 12, 2021, https://bit.ly/3csEb8l.

[17] Maegan Vazquez and Betsy Klein, “Trump Again Defends Use of the Term ‘China Virus,’” CNN, March 19, 2020, https://cnn.it/2TaLeMh; Maegan Vazquez, “Trump Says He’s Pulling Back from Calling Novel Coronavirus the ‘China Virus,’” CNN, March 24, 2020, https://cnn.it/3cpKqdd; Maegan Vazquez, “Trump Says Spread of Coronavirus Not the Fault of the Asian American Community,” CNN, March 23, 2020, https://cnn.it/3pyKw7B.

[18] Skyla Luckey, “Racist Slurs Target TB Rays Reporter Wearing Face Mask At Publix,” Patch, June 26, 2020, https://bit.ly/2ShyD9T; Melissa Macaya, Maegan Vazquez, Joe Ruiz, and Kyle Blaine, “Trump Holds Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” CNN, June 21, 2020, https://cnn.it/3x356iY; Yahoo News, “Asian American Targeted in Racist Attack on New York City Subway,” August 12, 2020, https://yhoo.it/3pwKgpC.  

[19] The White House, “Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World,” February 4, 2021, https://bit.ly/2T7pOPZ.

[20] Ken Dilanian, “Biden’s CIA Pick Tells Senate Confronting China Will Be His Top Priority,” NBC News, February 24, 2021, https://nbcnews.to/2T6E6Ao.

[21] Jessica J. Lee, “Our Anti-China Foreign Policy Is Fueling Violence against Asians,” Responsible Statecraft, March 21, 2021, https://bit.ly/3zdbjKY.

[22] “S.1169 – Strategic Competition Act of 2021,” introduced April 15, 2021, available at https://bit.ly/3zdIWw6; accessed June 8, 2021.

[23] Jessica J. Lee and Rachel Esplin-Odell, “Congress’s Fixation with China’s ‘Malign Influence’ Undermines Americans’ Civil Liberties and Security,” Responsible Statecraft, May 14, 2021, https://bit.ly/3z9EyhO.

[24] Ryan Heath, “Foreigners in Their Own Country: Asian Americans at State Department Confront Discrimination,” March 18, 2021, https://politi.co/34Y2xTd.

[25] “Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in National Security Statement on Anti-Hate and Discriminatory Practices,” online statement, accessed June 8, 2021, https://bit.ly/3cqWzP7.

[26] “S.937 – COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act,” became law May 20, 2021, available at https://bit.ly/3z4ggpo; accessed June 8, 2021.

[27] Ryan Heath, “Foreigners in Their Own Country.”

[28] FBI Crime Data Explorer, “Hate Crime in the United States Incident Analysis,” accessed December 2, 2021, https://bit.ly/3qirza0; Sakshi Venkatraman, “Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Rose 73% Last Year, Updated FBI Data Says,” NBC News, October 25, 2021, https://nbcnews.to/3HgGcS9.

[29] Ibid.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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