As coronavirus deaths mount, President Donald Trump’s China-bashing has evolved from a short-term political tactic into a full-fledged election strategy.
Take the ad “Travel Ban,” which was unveiled last week by pro-Trump Super PAC America First Action. The spot is one of several anti-China ads released by the group over the past few weeks, and it revisits some standard Trump campaign tropes: There are images of Biden from the Obama years, clips of the former vice president stumbling over his words, and allusions to the decades Biden spent in Washington. But the ad, which is part of a larger attempt to dub the presumptive Democratic nominee “Beijing Biden,” reserves its greatest ire for Biden’s purported ties to China, zooming in on a shot of him shaking hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “China is killing our jobs and now killing our people,” a male voice intones ominously.
Instead of taking the high road, the Biden campaign has offered its own version of xenophobic hype. A Biden campaign spot released in mid-April juxtaposes Chinese medical workers in Tyvex suits with lines of Americans waiting to get tested for the virus. “Trump rolled over for the Chinese,” a narrator says.
Both ads have angered Asian American activists. The Biden spot in particular has upset people who view him as a potential ally at a time of rising xenophobia. They worry that even without going to extremes like calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” and the “kung-flu” — terms used by Trump and officials in his administration over the past few months — images of Asian faces and offhanded mentions of “the Chinese” are just a slightly subtler form of racist dog-whistling, and harmful at a moment when hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise.
“There’s a clear link between the rhetoric that’s being used and the increased harm to our community,” said John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC. “We are equally concerned about both parties. We are concerned that there will be a race to the bottom.”
America First Action has planned a $10 million ad buy in battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The money is apparently not going toward fact-checking. A website maintained by the group, beijingbiden.com, is splashed with Chinese text written in the traditional characters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, rather than the simplified type used on the mainland. An airplane shown in the initial version of the “Travel Ban” ad was emblazoned with the insignia of China Airlines, Taiwan’s national carrier. After people mocked the gaffe on Twitter, the group replaced the image with a jet from Air China, a major mainland airline.
An earlier America First Action spot used footage of Biden walking toward former American Ambassador to China Gary Locke at a ceremony in Beijing, implying that Locke is a Chinese official. Locke, who was born in Seattle, was appalled. “Asian Americans are Americans,” he wrote in a statement. “Period.”
While Democrats have generally used tamer rhetoric, strategy documents from both parties outline an election-year tactic of blaming China. The memos lay out talking points that are apparently designed to blunt charges of racism, but such nuances have generally been lost on politicians. In March, Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, got flak for saying that the coronavirus outbreak was due to “a culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”
“That suggests to me that these talking points get abused in a way that harms the Asian American community,” said Yang.
Trump, who was elected on a xenophobic platform in 2016, appears hell-bent on referring to Covid-19 by anything other than the name given to it by the World Health Organization. His determination was underscored when a Washington Post photographer captured his printed notes for a speech in March. Where the script read “coronavirus,” he had crossed out “corona” and written, in bold letters, “CHINESE.”
Hate crimes and hate speech against Asian Americans flared up soon after the first U.S. case of the new coronavirus was reported in Washington state in January. While figures are hard to pin down because of underreporting, an effort called Stop AAPI Hate recorded nearly 1,500 incidents in the United States in its first month of counting, despite the fact that stay-at-home orders were in place in many states. Women reported harassment twice as often as did men. New York City’s Commission on Human Rights has separately documented 113 anti-Asian bias incidents since the outbreak of Covid-19, and the FBI warned in March that hate crimes against Asian Americans would “likely surge.” On May 1, 16 Democratic senators — including Cory Booker, Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren — called on the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to craft a clear plan to combat hate crimes.
In one account collected by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, activists who organized a video call to discuss discrimination were Zoom-bombed by trolls who flooded the message board with comments like “CHING CHONG EAT BATS.” In the most extreme cases, people have been physically harmed. At a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas, in March, an enraged man stabbed an Asian American family — including children ages 2 and 6. The victims survived after an off-duty Customs and Border Patrol agent intervened, but suffered wounds that required hospitalization. The children’s faces are now scarred with knife wounds.
Released against that backdrop, the Biden ad angered progressives. “We refuse to be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency,” said Tobita Chow, director of Justice Is Global, a progressive organization in Chicago. “We think that the Biden campaign, and Democrats more generally, would do better with a response that it is focused on our urgent public health need, the coronavirus crisis, and Trump’s failures.” He and other community organizers have been in communication with the Biden campaign about the ad, which they say undermines Biden’s efforts to call out Trump’s bigotry. They are asking the likely Democratic nominee to take the ad down. They also would like to see Biden run a more inclusive campaign by building a multiracial coalition of supporters and reaching out to younger voters.
But the Biden ad was not created in a vacuum. It follows a strategy laid out in a recent Democratic National Committee memo prepared by the committee’s War Room, which was established in 2017 to fight Trump. The memo accuses Trump of “offering absurd flattery of China” in an effort to reach a trade deal. It also blasts the Trump administration for sending medical equipment to China in the early stages of the outbreak, when hospitals in Wuhan were overstretched.
Similarly, a detailed 57-page guide issued by the National Republican Senatorial Committee around the same time walks candidates through the GOP’s China strategy, suggesting that they blame China for taking American jobs, exporting faulty medical supplies, and flooding the United States with fentanyl. “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China,” the memo reads.
That document, which was published by Politico, anticipates criticism. A Q&A section contains the question: “Aren’t you being racist by blaming China and causing racist attacks against Chinese Americans?”
“No one is blaming Chinese Americans,” the memo suggests candidates respond. “This is the fault of the Chinese Communist Party for covering up the virus and lying about it’s [sic] danger.”
A combination of brash xenophobia and ignorance of the facts is showing up in down-ballot races as well. In Texas, Republican Congressional candidate Kathaleen Wall recently released an ad that shows arrows labeled “CHINESE VIRUS” flying toward the United States. “China poisoned our people,” the ad claims. A map of China used in the video includes Taiwan, inadvertently reinforcing Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is a part of China. Wall is locked in a runoff for a congressional seat in the Houston suburbs, in a district where nearly 20 of the population is Asian American.
In response to a request for comment, a Republican National Committee spokesperson pointed The Intercept to a statement by committee chair Ronna McDaniel. “The Chinese government is doing their best to wage a dishonesty campaign; they don’t need any more help from members of the media,” the statement reads. “We support the people of China and we are grateful for our own Chinese American neighbors and friends, especially Asian Pacific American doctors, nurses and medical professionals for their selfless services and sacrifices to combat the virus on the frontlines.”
The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment. In early April, Biden issued a statement denouncing incidents of racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The current political climate carries a historical echo. During World War II, as politicians lambasted Japan, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans — most of them U.S. citizens — were rounded up and sent to internment camps. “I’d been thinking that this story about the 1940s was an old story, and why do we have to keep talking about it?” said Kazuya Sato, president of the Japanese American Citizen League’s Cincinnati chapter. In the past few months, he added, “I started feeling that no, this has started again.” (Within China, leaders have fueled their own version of xenophobia by emphasizing that recent cases of the coronavirus have been brought in by travelers, even though the bulk of these were in fact infected Chinese nationals returning home from overseas. The African immigrant population has been especially hard-hit, with reports of a number of Africans being evicted from their homes in southern China.)
Some see a cautionary tale in the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Highland Park, Michigan. The killing came as politicians blamed Japan for the American auto industry’s suffering. Chin was Chinese American, but the two autoworkers who killed him mistook him for a person of Japanese descent. “We see this link between dangerous and extreme political rhetoric and acts of violence throughout history,” said Grace K. Pai, director of organizing with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago.
In a few instances, candidates have fought xenophobia with pluralism. Instead of stooping to match Wall’s tactics in the Texas congressional race, Democratic contender Sri Preston Kulkarni has homed in on his district’s diversity, dispatching campaign workers to make calls in voters’ native languages — and in some cases, making the calls himself. (A former foreign service officer, Kulkarni speaks Hebrew, Hindi, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish.) His campaign manager, Allen Chen, told The Intercept, “Thanks to relationship-building with immigrant communities over multiple election cycles, this district is going to flip.”