The Death Of Nuance In America’s Conversation About China

Simplistic anti-China rhetoric conceals the actual workings of Chinese state power, edges the U.S. closer to war, and stokes racism against Asian Americans.

Liam Warr for Noema Magazine

Joanna Chiu is a senior journalist for the Toronto Star and the author of “China Unbound: A New World Disorder.” She has reported from China for publications including The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Associated Press and The Guardian. She is the chair of NüVoices, a not-for-profit editorial collective celebrating diverse China experts.

In my decade of working as a China-focused journalist, I’ve covered the country’s crackdowns on civil society and rising harassment of international critics. When I met with jailed Chinese lawyers’ wives as tears streamed down their faces, visited the Chinese hospital ward where Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in police custody and covered the mass internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, I felt it was my duty to alert the world to the widespread abuses of Beijing’s authoritarian political system.  

But I’ve realized that the West cannot effectively counter China’s human rights abuses and its attempts to undermine democracy abroad without facing its own complicity. 

When I set out to work on a book on China’s foreign influence, I found case after case where Chinese authorities blackmailed, threatened and even kidnapped targets around the world, as Western authorities remained willfully ignorant. For example, when a Chinese international student in Quebec alerted Canadian police to harassment from Chinese police, Canadian police refused to even accept his report. 

Rather than protecting those who might be vulnerable to this targeting, then-President Donald Trump reportedly characterized nearly all Chinese students in the U.S. as spies. Then in 2020, the U.S. revoked the visas of more than a thousand Chinese students and researchers who were deemed to be a security risk, ignoring warnings from experts that the decision was made without proper consideration. The Biden administration has not reversed the move. 

That’s why my book, “China Unbound,” became just as much about Western failures as it was an investigation of Beijing’s aggressive foreign influence methods. Until recently, international organizations acted with little urgency in response to China’s deteriorating human rights situation. The mass detentions of more than a million Muslims in Xinjiang began in late 2016, but a formal statement from 22 ambassadors at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council only came in July 2019. Diplomats told Al Jazeera in an interview that no Western nation was willing to lead the charge on confronting Beijing.

“The West cannot effectively counter China’s human rights abuses and its attempts to undermine democracy abroad without facing its own complicity.”

But as Americans have started paying more attention to China in recent years, it’s no longer enough to condemn Chinese state actions. Hyperbolic and oversimplistic rhetoric about China has replaced silence. The negative effects of this became obvious when scapegoating of people of Chinese descent for the spread of COVID-19 led to a spike in horrific anti-Asian hate crimes around the world

Yet the urgent question of how to challenge Beijing on its behavior without stoking racism against people of Chinese descent is largely absent from U.S. conversations on China, in part because systemic racism within China-focused institutions keeps people with relevant lived experience and nuanced perspectives out of the organizations that should be shaping the discourse. 

These problems became particularly acute under Trump, but they haven’t gone away since he left office. 

Trump started whipping up xenophobia in speech after speech on the 2016 campaign trail, framing himself as the defender of the American way of life against an existential threat from the Chinese Communist regime. Even in 2020, as elderly Asian Americans were being attacked as coronavirus scapegoats, Trump joked about the “kung flu.”  

Trump’s toxic attitude to China persists under the Biden administration, albeit in subtler forms. Campaigning in 2020, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris tried to out-hawk Trump on China, running an attack ad with images of Chinese soldiers set to sinister music that highlighted the times Trump praised President Xi Jinping. “Trump rolled over for the Chinese,” the ad declared. 

While the Biden administration’s rhetoric is milder, it carries on the insidious trend of equating Chinese leaders with the Chinese people, as the so-called “China threat,” as the FBI refers to it, has overtaken bipartisan foreign policy priorities of the past like counterterrorism. And Biden has preserved the majority of the previous administration’s policies on China, including the controversial “China Initiative.” Ostensibly a program to prosecute economic espionage and intellectual property theft cases benefiting China, critics say the initiative casts a wide net that wrongfully sweeps in academics of Chinese descent. 

The Biden administration continually frames the need to prevent China from attaining superpower status as a moral struggle between democracy and autocracy. Biden said in his first news conference as president that he sees Beijing trying to become the leading country in the world. “That’s not going to happen on my watch,” he said. He promised: “Your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake, not just with China.” 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later told CBS that “our purpose is … to uphold this rules-based order that China is posing a challenge to. … Anyone who poses a challenge to that order, we’re going to stand up and — and defend it.” 

“The urgent question of how to challenge Beijing on its behavior without stoking racism against people of Chinese descent is largely absent.”

This rhetoric completely obscures the U.S. role in allowing China to spread its antidemocratic influence around the world. To this day, American elites, including CEOs, justify their inaction on human rights by pointing to the dominant myth that Chinese citizens would naturally benefit from economic contact with the West. U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 nurtured the idea of gradual liberalization through Western contact, as did Nixon’s influential 1967 essay, in which he wrote that the U.S. would use “creative counterpressure” to persuade Beijing that its interests could only be served through “accepting the basic rules of international civility.” In 2000, Bill Clinton said in a speech that allowing China to join the World Trade Organization “will move China in the right direction.” The former president added, “Of course, it will advance our own economic interests.” 

The assumption that the U.S. has the moral high ground while pursuing its own interests also obscures America’s antidemocratic tendencies, both at home and abroad. Washington’s foreign policy decisions routinely reject the wishes of populations around the world, particularly when the people are not white: from the illegal invasion of Iraq to drone-striking a wedding party in Yemen to pardoning American war criminals, the U.S. has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not need to abide by the international rules it expects other countries to follow. 

Exceptionalist U.S. behavior is not only condemnable in itself; it also gives China and other countries license to claim exceptionalism for themselves as well.

Ideally, institutions like the Justice Department, the FBI and the State Department, as well as influential think tanks, are supposed to be the source of measured, thoughtful conversations on how to address these issues, but systemic racism keeps nuanced views out and encourages hawkish groupthink.

It’s as if nuance on China has become taboo in D.C. There is often no pushback whatsoever when leading politicians talk as if the two countries are already at war. In October, Rep. Mike Gallagher, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, warned that America could lose the “new Cold War” with China in the next decade.  

Meanwhile, in China, where there is virtually no press freedom, state media spews hyperbolic negative views on America, too, and “wolf warrior” Chinese diplomats regularly utter threats related to attacking Taiwan or asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea. If war were to actually break out between the two countries, both sides would bear responsibility for irresponsible actions and rhetoric leading up to that point.

If our conversations about China addressed Western complicity, what might be the outcome?

We might look at the Department of Justice’s China Initiative. Launched in 2018, it has drifted from its stated focus, an investigation by the MIT Technology Review found. The program increasingly brings cases against “academics accused of failing to disclose all ties to China on grant-related forms” — a significant number of which are ultimately dismissed. 

“While the Biden administration’s rhetoric is milder, it carries on the insidious trend of equating Chinese leaders with the Chinese people.”

Charges were dropped last month against American mechanical engineer Gang Chen, after he was accused of failing to disclose connections to Chinese educational programs in a grant application. “For 371 days, my family and I went through a living hell,” Chen wrote in the Boston Globe. “While I am relieved that my ordeal is over,” he said in a statement after the case was dismissed, “I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the American academic community, and other scientists still face charges.” 

Federal prosecutors ultimately admitted that the disclosures in question were not actually required by law. Chen, an MIT professor, has been more fortunate than others because his employer supported him and covered his legal costs; in contrast, the University of Tennessee fired accused Canadian scientist Anming Hu in Oct. 2020, only taking steps toward reinstating him after a judge dismissed the wire fraud charges against him in Sept. 2021.  

While disproportionate impact alone does not prove discrimination, an MIT Technology Review analysis found that nearly 90% of defendants charged under the China Initiative are of Chinese heritage. The Justice Department has failed to take the steps to address bias that would lend more credence to its statements that it is people’s behavior alone, not their ethnicity, that is landing them in court. 

Margaret Lewis, a professor of law at Seton Hall University with years of research experience in mainland China and Taiwan, is among a chorus of experts, lawmakers and civil rights groups who say it’s time to drop the program. “Under Biden, there is a continued concern that bias is leaking into the process,” she said. “I hope that there is some serious reflection going on.” 

The program has created a climate of fear in U.S. research institutions that “has already pushed some talented scientists to leave the United States and made it more difficult for others to enter or stay,” an MIT report notes. And it also keeps people with lived experience of China out of institutions that shape U.S. foreign policy.

Discrimination within both private and public institutions shuts out people with personal or family ties to China, however distant, and pressures them into embracing hawkish attitudes if they make it into the room.

“If you say anything positive about China, you are accused of being an apologist or a spy,” said Amy Chang, who has worked in policy and intelligence in Washington for the past decade. “You have to be so anti-China. I think what that translates to is a lot of Asian Americans are pushed to be vehemently anti-China, as if to say, ‘See, I’m not one of them. I’m one of you.’” 

These attitudes are so pervasive in the national security community, Chang said, that she found nonwhite people also internalized them. When she was applying for a Fulbright fellowship as an undergraduate student, she told one of her professors, who was of East Asian descent, that she would love to work in the government on U.S.-China relations. She recalled that the professor dropped her papers, looked her in the eyes and said: “Why would anyone ever trust you?” 

“If you say anything positive about China, you are accused of being an apologist or a spy.”
—Amy Chang

After commissioning as a U.S. Navy reserve intelligence officer, Chang waited months to receive a transfer of her security clearance. “Eventually, I checked with the office and they said, ‘Oh yeah, the problem is that your parents are Chinese citizens.’” But she never said they were Chinese citizens; they’d been Americans for over three decades. Chang said she was told she had to produce naturalization certificates for her parents, and their passports and social security numbers were insufficient. “My parents had to dig deep into a bank vault to find one of the certificates and had to embark on another long bureaucratic process to reproduce the other,” Chang told me in an interview. 

She said she continued to face discrimination on the job. “All the time, people would call me a spy for China, said I would understand because I’m a Communist, all kinds of ‘jokes’ including making fun of Asian names. I was always singled out because of my ethnicity,” Chang said. She continues to be a Navy reservist, but left government work in 2016. 

Chang’s experience is hardly unique. Americans of Asian descent at the State Department are frequently limited from assignments related to certain countries, a practice that has been criticized as biased. (The department told Politico it does not allow discrimination on the basis of factors such as ethnicity to determine eligibility to classified information or work assignment decisions.)

A collective statement last year signed by more than 100 Asian Americans working in foreign policy said that “treating all Asian-Americans working in national security with a broad stroke of suspicion, rather than seeing us as valuable contributors, is counterproductive to the greater mission of securing the homeland.”

Last March, Blinken acknowledged at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that he has been aware of complaints of discrimination for years and would address it as part of efforts to increase diversity within the State Department. 

These institutions are also skewed when it comes to gender, and women’s perspectives are missing. In 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, found in its most comprehensive study to date that the proportion of women in the Foreign Service increased by only 2%, from 33% in 2002 to 35% in 2018. Anecdotally, observers in D.C. tell me it’s encouraging to see younger analysts with complex and well-informed views like Ashley Feng recently joining the government, but it is too soon to tell whether there is appetite for challenges to the status quo in Washington. 

“U.S. institutions should be more focused on addressing the ways that Western elites have been complicit in Beijing’s human rights abuses.”

To counteract entrenched biases, I co-founded a network of the kinds of people who are underrepresented as China specialists. NüVoices is an international editorial collective that publishes a magazine and podcast and puts on events to platform the creative and academic work of women, non-binary people and people of color working on the subject of China. We host a directory of more than 600 international experts on Greater China to help journalists and event organizers connect with women and other members of underrepresented groups. 

It’s all the more important for institutions to diversify and lead a more productive conversation on China because of the level of disinformation circulating. From Joe Rogan repeating unsubstantiated claims that COVID-19 is a “bioweapon,” to articles containing falsehoods about China’s social credit system, to claims that a significant proportion of Chinese foreign investment offers are intentional debt traps, misinformation fuels the flames of anti-Chinese racism in the U.S. And as hate incidents rise and get global coverage, it strengthens Beijing’s propaganda efforts to vilify the West. 

This dynamic complicates the work of researchers who care about holding the Chinese state accountable for its flagrant misconduct and human rights violations, leaving us torn between our commitment to criticize Beijing’s actions and our reticence about providing more ammunition for politicians who capitalize on an overhyped “China threat.” 

Instead of indulging in unproductive anti-China rhetoric, U.S. institutions should be more focused on addressing the ways that Western elites have been complicit in Beijing’s human rights abuses.

For one thing, state repression of Chinese labor movements allows global companies to reap greater profits. As Ramona Li wrote in The American Prospect, “the state-sponsored repression of Chinese worker rights over the last three decades has likely contributed to the rise in inequality in both China and the U.S.” 

The U.S. entertainment industry has also made apologies for Chinese state repression in order to maintain access to such a large market. Walt Disney Studios, for example, has defended thanking Xinjiang’s Chinese Communist party and police bureaus in the credits of the film “Mulan,” which was party filmed in Xinjiang during the ongoing crackdown on Muslim minorities. 

“The more inclusive American institutions become, the greater the odds that hawkish views will be challenged with nuance.”

“Beijing won’t permit an American company to ‘conquer’ the Chinese market without extracting a huge amount of control, official or unofficial, on the firm,” said Isaac Stone Fish, author of “America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger.”

And building up China as a two-dimensional bogeyman ironically leaves North American politicians vulnerable to Chinese influence because it obscures the actual workings of Chinese state power. The intense narrative of the U.S. being locked in a high-stakes competition with China makes Beijing’s actual efforts to co-opt people in positions of varying influence in the U.S. fly under the radar. My research has found that in many cases, lower-level municipal politicians around the world are the prime targets of Beijing’s influence efforts, since they are less likely to receive national security briefings but still hold power over land use, education and other issues of interest to Beijing.

To effectively counter China’s influence, we should start by looking at the behavior of actors in the West, who continue to enjoy limited scrutiny — including a slew of former U.S. politicians and officials who, according to a Daily Beast report by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, directly lobby for Chinese government interests.  

The Biden administration should end the China Initiative and do more to address discrimination within foreign policy institutions. American experts of Chinese descent should be seen as Americans first and not stereotyped according to their ethnic background. There should be an infusion of federal funding to support Chinese-language and China studies programs in universities, fostering the next generation of policy makers. Biden should also bring back the Fulbright program of educational exchanges between American and Chinese students, professionals and researchers. 

The more inclusive American institutions become, drawing in people with a variety of life experiences and perspectives on China, the greater the odds that hawkish views will be challenged with nuance.