US universities recruit Chinese graduate students to support important research in the US, not China. Photo: iStock

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned of a surge in hate crimes against Asian-Americans. According to a statement obtained by ABC News, “The FBI assesses hate-crime incidents against Asian-Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease … endangering Asian-American communities.

“The FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the US public will associate Covid-19 with China and Asian-American populations.” 

However, it is not just Asian-Americans who are targeted. Anyone who looks Asian is endangered, whether they are Americans or foreign visitors from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, or other countries in Asia, as well as nationals of European countries who happen to be of Asian heritage.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the virus of racism against ethnic Chinese and other Asians has been spreading across the US, the UK, Australia, CanadaFrance and elsewhere. 

In the United States, anti-Asian hate crimes have surged so much that during the March 27 phone call between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president emphasized his hope that the US would protect the health and lives of the many Chinese international students in the country. 

His worry was prompted by the recent racialization of the pandemic by President Trump and his administration as well as members of Congress calling the virus “Chinese.” The toxic rhetoric long promoted by China hawks in Washington, amplified by the virus crisis, subsequently helped cause a wave of anti-Asian violence.  

If the situation worsens as the FBI assesses, foreign governments may need to consider ways to protect their citizens and perhaps even evacuate them from the US. In a country that prides itself as the leader of the free world, how did it get here, where an entire race of people increasingly fear for their safety? 

Fanning the flames of racism

Unfortunately, racism has always been an endemic part of American history. It ebbs and flows throughout time, with punctuations during economic hardship and public health crisis. Whether with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 amid a recession that politicians blamed on Japan, targeting Muslim Americans after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and now Chinese-Americans and by extension all East Asians, because the average American cannot distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, or any other East Asians.

Against the backdrop of an economic cold war with China, a crescendo of anti-Chinese rhetoric from US politicians in recent years has fanned the flames of racism toward ethnic Chinese specifically and Asians generally. 

It is manifested in the involvement of US domestic intelligence agencies with economic competition in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) over fears of intellectual-property theft, and forgone profits of US high-tech and big-pharma companies. As a result, over the past years the FBI has been targeting and prosecuting, at times persecuting, Asian-American scientists, because Washington now largely classifies basic research collaboration as economic espionage.

Because of increasing monetization and commoditization of public goods such as basic research and medical science, international collaboration in science – including cancer research – is now quasi-criminalized, with FBI agents reading private e-mails, stopping Chinese scientist at airports, and visiting people’s homes to ask about their loyalty.

This has prompted American scientists to warn against state-sanctioned racism, because while there have been some legitimate cases of espionage and criminal activity, many cases have been bungled through lack of evidence, so much so that Congress has launched an investigation into the FBI over alleged racial profiling of ethnic-Chinese researchers.

Beijing was so concerned about the US government’s treatment of its citizens that in June last year, the Chinese government issued warnings to its students and academics about the risks of studying in the US, and America has seen an exodus of many talented ethnic-Chinese scientists because of increasing de facto criminalization of research collaboration.

Now after years of US politicians using incendiary language against China and blaming the Chinese for economic woes and now the pandemic crisis, much like they blamed Japan in the 1980s, a portion of the American population is targeting Asians – whether Americans or foreign nationals – for abuse and misplaced anger. 

However, in the midst of the feverish anti-Chinese sentiments, and seemingly in a sudden twist of irony, the White House currently finds itself in a position of relying on a Chinese-American scientist to lead America’s fight against Covid-19.

Bridging the Sino-US gap

Enter Dr David Ho, America’s top scientist for infectious diseases, renowned researcher for treatment of HIV/AIDS, Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 1996, and recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal from then-US president Bill Clinton. 

Dr Ho is racing against the clock and assembling a team consisting mainly of ethnic-Chinese scientists to find a generalized approach that would not only cure Covid-19, but would lay the foundation to treat future mutations of the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Americans should probably feel relieved that Dr Ho and his team were still available in the US when the virus outbreak occurred, and have not yet been decimated by years of purging ethnic-Chinese and Chinese-American scientists from US research institutions.  

Ho is an ethnic Chinese from Taiwan and key members of his team are from China, with some of his former students holding top scientific positions there. Given his reputation and network of connections, he will have access to experimental compounds from Hong Kong and Shanghai for his investigation not likely available to anyone else, and his multinational and multidisciplinary team embodies the best of what international scientific collaboration – and Sino-US cooperation – is all about.

However, in this current climate of increasing anti-Asian racism fanned by US politicians, Dr Ho and his team are likely at risk of being attacked just walking to the grocery store, even while they work to save American lives. The same applies to many health-care professionals and scientists battling the coronavirus that are Asian-Americans, who disproportionately make up these groups, and who are attacked by the very people they are trying to help. 

And when the victims turn out to be nationals of foreign countries, the diplomatic fallout between the US and various countries in the international community could potentially be disastrous.

Let’s hope that the US and Chinese leaderships can work together to stem this tide, and that Friday’s phone call between Trump and Xi vouching to battle the pandemic jointly is a good start. Because their people’s lives, and the safety of Asians in the US, hang in the balance.

Dr Christina Lin is a California-based foreign and security policy analyst. She has extensive US government experience working on national security and economic issues and her current focus is on China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.