Chinese-Americans held a protest in Washington on Wednesday with plans for a larger one Saturday over comments by a Tennessee senator that China has a 5,000 year history of dishonesty and theft.
The pushback comes amid years of record US-China tension and a devastating global pandemic that has left Chinese-Americans on the front lines of racial discrimination, physical and verbal attacks, presidential scapegoating and FBI campaigns that critics say heap suspicion unfairly on Asian-Americans.
Members of the community said the level of hostility and vitriol they have been experiencing has reached a boiling point.
“More and more Chinese-Americans see we are in a state of crisis,” said Cai Jinliang, chairman of United Chinese Americans (UCA), which helped organise the Washington rally and a second planned in Nashville, Tennessee this weekend.
“We felt safe, always the model minority. They used us to say “look at Chinese, how well they’ve done,” he said. “Now we’ve become a target because of these difficult bilateral relations. All of a sudden we become collateral damage.”
The catalyst for this latest outpouring, at a time of mounting anger among Chinese-Americans and Asian-Americans more broadly – was a tweet last week by Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn saying that “China has a 5,000 year history of cheating and stealing. Some things will never change …”
Her comments went viral, sparking anger among Chinese netizens and the global diaspora. More fuel was poured on the social media fires when Chen Weihua, the Brussels bureau chief for state-run China Daily, fired off a sexist response, calling her a “b***h” and a “lifetime b***h” in tweets.
Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global Times, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, then added the Twitter equivalent of rocket fuel, accusing Americans of still being monkey-like at the dawn of Chinese civilisation.
Blackburn’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But on Monday she took to the floor of the US Senate, accusing Chen of offending women and being a de facto Chinese propaganda minister for a regime that represses religion, eschews free speech and has overseen crackdowns in Hong Kong and internment camps in Xinjiang.
“He was just mirroring the tactics used by his government,” she said. “Beijing is all too happy to prey on the ignorance of their massive online audience and encourage accusations of racism and xenophobia as the only acceptable response to evidence documenting their own racist, repressive policies.”
Blackburn, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, cosponsored a bill in May to deny visas to all Chinese graduate students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Protesters at Wednesday’s demonstration said it is one thing to criticise China’s policies and quite another to denigrate an entire civilisation.
“I was shocked by Blackburn’s statement on Chinese culture,” said Ming Li, a government engineer, holding a sign that read “Blackburn Take History 101”.
Li said the aura of suspicion surrounding any Chinese-American working in STEM fields and growing requirements on reporting all ties to China has forced him to sever connections with his family in Shandong province.
“I came to the US in 1997 as a STEM student, got a PhD in engineering, stayed here and advanced the technology of the US,” he added. “It’s completely baseless.”
Wednesday’s protest was attended by a couple of dozen demonstrators on a grey day in Washington. Speakers decried racism and led attendees in a chant of “Hey hey, ho ho, Blackburn must go”.
Members of the mostly middle-aged crowd waved American flags and held home-made signs that read “Equality For All”, “Facts Not Fear” and “Blackburn Shame On You”. At one point, three policemen sauntered over to the decidedly tame crowd and told the group they either had to lose the megaphone or cull themselves down to 20 people.
Cliff Zhonggang Li, founder of the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, told a few people to walk a some yards away to meet the requirement.
“We have to follow the rules, as we all do as the so-called model minority,” he narrated through the megaphone. “We have gathered to participate, so long as our voice gets out.”
Li said he was a staunch conservative, but Trump has set an infectious, destructive tone.
The Stop AAPI Hate initiative reported 2,100 hostile incidents against community members since the pandemic started.
Demonstrators said Wednesday that Chinese-Americans are traditionally reluctant to protest, but events have forced their hand. One demonstrator said they had not taken such a public stance since the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and were out of practice.
But getting out there is often the best way to get noticed in the American political context, participants said. Organisers said they hope to draw about 200 socially distanced participants to the Nashville demonstration on Saturday from Tennessee and neighbouring states.
“As they say, in Rome do as the Romans. We’re in America, we have to do as the Americans do, we are Americans,” said Cai. “It’s our entitlement to defend this country’s values.”
UCA president Haipei Shue, who helped gain passage of a congressional apology for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, said the tendency to avoid speaking out is partly cultural.
“We have a saying: ‘You gather a large crowd and it will lead to unrest’,” he said. “We’re very uncomfortable with it. And the Chinese government, not only the Communist Party but the Guomindang, the warlords, have always been uncomfortable with gatherings of over 50 people.”
As the speakers wound down, two white people heading toward the congressional offices approached protester Paul Zhu, a technology investor, and asked him why he was not protesting what Beijing was doing.
“We’re here, we’re American and we are offended,” he told them. “Well, let’s agree to disagree,” one of them responded.
Qi Xu, 55, a software engineer from nearby northern Virginia wearing a hat that read “Math”, said she was disturbed over Blackburn’s comments.
“She’s talking about Chinese history rather than the Chinese government, which is only 70 years old,” she said. “First Trump attacked Mexicans, then Muslims, now Chinese. I don’t want little bits of racism to grow, like a tree to a forest.”