It is already clear that the US presidential campaign will add fuel to growing Sinophobia in the USA. There are already concerns that the world will be zero-sum for new generations of Americans raised in these times of great uncertainty, causing people to think in black and white categories of “us” and “them”; one’s gains will be perceived as one’s losses. Attacks on Asian people in the USA during the pandemic have already exposed an uncomfortable truth about anti-Asian perceptions in the country: the identity of Asian Americans is still being challenged in the modern USA. Thus, how will these interstate animosities impact Asian Americans, and what will it mean to be an Asian American in post-COVID America?
As Asian Americans began to receive much more recognition in popular media for their talents and contributions to American society, the COVID-19 outbreak and the ongoing confrontation between the USA and China dented this progress. Within six weeks of its launch in March 19, 2020, the STOP AAPI HATE reporting center received nearly 1,700 calls of coronavirus-related discrimination from Asian Americans. Those incidents included shunning, verbal harassment and physical assaults. While also facing the risks of getting infected with COVID-19 and surviving financially, Asian Americans were also dealing with the prospect of being harassed for the alleged Asian origins of the virus.
Instead of holding the government accountable for the failure to control the spread of the disease, perpetrators were putting the blame for the spread of the coronavirus on Asian American communities. As the New Center for Public Integrity/Ipsos Poll exposed, 32% of Americans have witnessed someone blaming Asian people for the coronavirus epidemic. The share of Asian Americans who have witnessed such behavior was 60%. In a similar fashion, the inhouse FBI report predicted that hate crimes against Asian Americans in the US will most likely surge due to the association of COVID-19 with China and Asian American communities.
The racially discriminatory association has already impacted Asian-owned companies, as there is mounting evidence that Asian American businesses were among the most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. There are 1.9 million Asian-owned small businesses, which employ approximately 3.5 million people and generate US$700 billion in annual GDP. These businesses tend to concentrate in industries that are dependent on foot traffic and are subjected to longer shutdowns due to the social distancing rules. Thus, the enforced lockdowns along with the spikes in anti-Asian sentiments have left many Asian American businesses in crisis.
For instance, according to the US Census Bureau, nearly 26 per cent of Asian-owned businesses are in accommodations and food service industry, 17 per cent are in retail, and 11 per cent in education service, making the Asian American share in these sectors higher than any other group. As a result, Asian-owned businesses not only became overrepresented in one of the hardest-hit industries, but they also experienced decline as early as January of this year, as soon as the news of the outbreak reached the U.S, before the lockdowns were introduced. Chinatowns’ entire business model has been significantly upended by lockdowns, fears of coronavirus and growing anti-Chinese prejudices.
The anti-China rhetoric of the American leadership only worsened anti-Asian and anti-Chinese animosities. Trump has been consistently attacking China on a number of fronts, from calling the UN members to hold Beijing accountable for the COVID-19 outbreak to accusing China of attempts to steal classified information. Donald Trump repeatedly branded the COVID-19 as “a Wuhan Virus”, “a Chinese virus,” and “a Kung Flu,” rejecting warnings that such labelling can ignite racism against Asian Americans and stigmatize Chinese Americans. Eyeing the upcoming elections, Trump’s presidential opponent Joe Biden also resorted to strong anti-Chinese rhetoric. One of Joe Biden’s video advertisements vilified Chinese, for which he was lambasted by a broad range of Asian American advocacy organizations. Nonetheless, Biden continued criticizing Trump for being too soft on China, promising the American voters a much harder line in dealing with China.
Such messages are not only disheartening for the Asian American communities, but they are also indicative of current American foreign policy trajectories. Only last month the US State Department confirmed that since June 2020 it has revoked more than 1,000 visas issued to Chinese students and scholars for alleged ties to Chinese military. Visa revocations are only one of many sanctions from the White House within the broadening confrontation between the USA and China. In either case, it is already clear that China will remain the number one foe of the White House, irrespective of who wins the US presidential elections in November 2020. The current standoff between the USA and China is one of the worst downswings in relations between the two nations for decades, and there are no signs that this trend will break any time soon.
That said, Asian Americans came a long way from a practically invisible group to become despised and forgotten again. While Mexico (25%) remains the top single country that most US immigrant population originates from, Asian immigrants combined (28%) account for the greatest share of all immigrants to the USA. Immigrants from China (6%) along with those from India (6%) lead the Asian demographic. By 2055 Asian Americans are projected to surpass Hispanics to become the largest immigrant group in the US. Nonetheless, while the era of overt state-sanctioned anti-Asian racism seems like a thing of the past, aggressive political rhetoric and negative nature of political debates in the US reminds us of the fragility of race relations. It is apparent that hereafter Asian Americans will face a new tension in their daily lives.