A year after the Atlanta spa shootings, why are Asian Americans still under attack?

March 16 marks the one-year anniversary of the racist mass murder of Asian women in Atlanta. The killing of eight people in three different spas, six of whom were Asian women, shocked the country and the world, and yet the police infamously concluded that the shooter simply “had a bad day.” This incident sparked actions across the country, moving tens of thousands of Asian Americans and all those outraged by the racist massacre into the streets.

For the anniversary, rallies, vigils and marches are taking place in cities across the country. Many victims of hate crimes over the last two years are joining in the protests to speak out and demand an end to the racist violence.

This violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The anti-China propaganda in the media has fueled the flames of racist sentiments against Asian Americans, and has led to increasing numbers of violent attacks against Asian people. These attacks are being downplayed and decontextualized by politicians as random individual actions, not a growing social problem.

They are happening within a greater environment of anti-Asian hate being ratcheted up in the wake of COVID-19 and the multi-sided campaign of aggression against China.

U.S. government promotes anti-Asian discrimination

In 2018, the FBI and Department of Justice created the “China Initiative” that has been used most to persecute Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants in universities, creating a witch hunt atmosphere that affects all Asian people in the United States. Donald Trump, who called the coronavirus the “Kung Flu,” launched this program with the purpose of “countering Chinese national security threats,” particularly at research labs and universities.

The first victim of the China Initiative in 2019 is Prof. Feng Franklin Tao, who is currently still awaiting a trial that was postponed to April 18. What was his crime? Not checking off a box on a form that stated he worked a second job in China while also being employed as a professor in the University of Kansas. 

According to a Bloomberg News analysis, 50 indictments announced or unsealed since the start of the China Initiative revealed that 38% of the total cases are against academic researchers and professors. These researchers are being charged with fraud for failing to disclose affiliations with Chinese universities. But notably, none of them has been accused of spying and almost half of their cases have since been dropped. 

Bloomberg News noted on Dec. 14: “About half as many China Initiative cases concern violations of U.S. sanctions or illegal exports, and a smaller percentage involve cyber intrusions that prosecutors attributed to China. Only 20% of the cases allege economic espionage, and most of those are unresolved. Just three claim that secrets were handed over to Chinese agents.” 

Bloomberg’s analysis shows that cases that are marked as economic espionage on the China Initiative website are being misconstrued as state espionage. These are actually just cases of people stealing technology to turn a profit — a phenomenon that is quite commonplace in the corporate world throughout the whole industrial era. In one case, an individual was accused of stealing technology for a pediatric diagnostic kit from an Ohio hospital that they intended to use to set up their own company in China. These cases have not even been linked by the government to Chinese state-directed spy programs, but are widely misinterpreted as such.

Asian Americans as ‘the enemy

As Prof. Tao awaits trial, it is important to look to the past to understand the broader context of these national security programs. The China Initiative’s goals of “sniffing out” enemy foreign agents among Asian immigrants and Asian Americans echo the same witch hunts that preceded Japanese internment during World War II.

Anti-Japanese movements in the United States existed well before internment, and began shortly after Japanese immigration began. This prejudice was built on the existing anti-Chinese prejudice that arose during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. The anti-Japanese sentiments grew like wildfire as immigration grew, and exploded around 1905 when Japan won a war with Russia, which was presented as the first defeat of a “white country” by an Asian nation in modern times.

Racist organizations like the Asiatic Exclusion League grew rapidly, and legislation was introduced to attempt school segregation and prohibit Japanese ownership of land. Ultimately, the naturalization statute would be rewritten to deem Japanese and other Asian people ineligible for citizenship. Eventually, the Immigration Act of 1924 prohibited all further Japanese immigration. All the while, violent attacks against individuals and Japanese business increased in frequency. 

Skipping forward to December 7, 1941 — the day of Japan’s attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor — the Justice Department sprang into action and began mass arrests of Japanese Americans deemed “dangerous” enemy aliens. These arrests required no evidence at all. Many of the Japanese Americans arrested were community leaders who were involved in local churches and community organizations. Their bank accounts were seized and frozen, leaving their families unable to meet their basic needs. 

To explain the damage at Pearl Harbor, Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, chose the path of scapegoating. He claimed it was espionage that left the United States so unaware or as he said, “the most effective fifth column work that’s come out of this war, except in Norway.” Japanese Americans were rounded up and forced into makeshift, heavily-militarized prisons built out of a variety of structures, including horse race tracks. Families were gathered in the middle of the night, taking with them only a few bags of their belongings. Multiple families of 12 or more individuals were forced to live in a single horse stall. Many families were separated, and some were never reunited. 

Official enemy politics

Similar propaganda campaigns created terror within our communities during the wars on Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“Yellow Peril” propaganda has been at the center of anti-Asian American discrimination, racism, and oppression in the United States. Even when the United States was not at war in Asia, the same wartime stereotypes remain in popular culture, television and Hollywood. They spread distrust for Asian Americans, who are marked as the permanent “outsider.”

All this is part and parcel of the U.S. propaganda machine that will be made into a real weapon the moment the U.S. government decides to kill and invade. The ground has been laid, both in history and in the last few years, to again turn Asian Americans into the next major scapegoat if the new Cold War with China turns hot.

Since 2009 and the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” the beating of the war drum has been steadily rising. Recently, a guest appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show stating that the U.S. military needs to recruit men who want to “sit on a throne of Chinese skulls.” A local candidate for Texas political office wrote on Twitter that all Chinese students should be banned from university. Right-wing Senator Tom Cotton has been fear-mongering that Chinese spies are working to infiltrate local government offices. 

As the movement grows in the streets against anti-Asian violence, activists continue to explore the deep roots of this kind of racist rhetoric and violence, and education around this history is necessary for people of all backgrounds. To prevent more acts of terror like the Atlanta spa shootings, and to once and for all end bigotry and discrimination against Asian Americans, we need to overthrow the system of war and exploitation that lies at its root.

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