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Some Asian Americans fear House China panel will fuel bigotry

Floor vote establishing panel was rare instance of House bipartisanship

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., says she’s concerned Republicans could use the China panel to “promote policies and language that endanger Chinese Americans and people of Asian descent living in the U.S.”
Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., says she’s concerned Republicans could use the China panel to “promote policies and language that endanger Chinese Americans and people of Asian descent living in the U.S.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The newly established bipartisan House select committee tasked with studying strategic challenges coming from the Chinese government has aroused concerns in the Asian American community that lawmakers may wind up fueling anti-Chinese bigotry and broader anti-Asian discrimination in the United States.

The new committee, officially called the “Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party,” was established earlier this month by a vote of 365-65, making it one of the first House votes of the 118th Congress under Republican leadership to receive broad bipartisan backing.

While the 16-member committee — which will be led by Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. — won’t have any legislative jurisdiction, it will be tasked with making policy recommendations by year’s end on how to respond to Beijing’s “economic, technological, and security progress and its competition with the United States.”

The committee’s membership list has not yet been announced, nor have initial topics for public hearings been described. Still, the sheer formation of the panel has sparked fresh concerns among some Democrats who voted against its establishment, as well as some within the Asian American community, about how the panel could potentially be used to spread anti-Chinese and anti-Asian paranoia and discrimination.

“I have concerns with the potential direction that Republicans could take this select committee, including using this platform to promote policies and language that endanger Chinese Americans and people of Asian descent living in the U.S.,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., who is the vice chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a statement.

In the last Congress, Meng saw her COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act become law. The measure is aimed at combating xenophobia and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Documented hate crimes against the Asian American community, as well as other individuals who were mistaken for having Asian heritage, skyrocketed during the 2020-21 peak pandemic period amid remarks by President Donald Trump and others on the far right that blamed the Chinese government for creating the deadly virus.

“Unfortunately, as we have seen in targeted attacks, some aren’t distinguishing between the CCP and Asian-Americans who are simply going about their daily lives,” said Meng, who is Taiwanese American. “Careless rhetoric can give way to dangerous assumptions which people can, and sadly, have acted upon as we witnessed in Indiana.”

Meng was referring to the incident earlier this month in which an 18-year-old Indiana University student, who is Asian, was stabbed repeatedly in her head as she rode a public bus. The student’s accused attacker reportedly told authorities she did it because it “would be one less person to blow up our country.”

“We have two years of solid evidence during the pandemic when people got really mad at random Asian Americans and even Latinos who had the misfortune of looking Asian and beat them to a pulp or shoved them into subways shouting, ‘Go back to where you came from. This virus is your fault,’” said Frank Wu, a prominent member of Chinese American civic organizations.

Rep. Andy Kim, who is Korean American and voted to establish the China select committee, said in an interview that he has heard from “many Asian Americans around this country” who have called him in recent weeks to say they are “really terrified about what direction” the new select committee might take, fearing it could lead to a new “witch hunt.”

The New Jersey Democrat, who hopes to be appointed to the committee, said he believes it is imperative for the panel to take these concerns into account, particularly by making sure Asian Americans are invited to testify before it.

Balancing act

Kim, a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees last Congress, said his own experience of ethnic discrimination when he worked at the State Department has made him particularly sensitive to the issues with which the select committee will be grappling. That includes trying to balance legitimate national security concerns with respecting fundamental American civil rights.

“I received a letter one day that notified me that I was now banned from working on issues related to Korea because of my descent — and I wasn’t even trying to work on issues in Korea,” Kim recounted from his time at Foggy Bottom. “The way it felt to me was that they couldn’t trust me 100 percent, and that was deeply frustrating. I had top-secret clearance; I had just gotten back from working in Afghanistan in a war zone for my country. That just hung over me, making me feel like I didn’t belong at the State Department.”

Still, Kim said he wants to be involved with the committee, if only to be a voice countering what he sees as the increasingly military-focused lens through which he contends Washington views Beijing.

“We as a country right now are not grasping the totality of how we should be thinking about the challenges of our relationship with China, and it’s very clearly been heavily skewed towards our military and that type of thinking,” said Kim. “People talk about the challenges with China as if conflict is inevitable, and I cannot get on board with that idea because I think that that would be so devastating to our nation and to the entire world.”

In his January floor speech arguing in favor of the committee’s establishment, Gallagher, a former Marine intelligence officer who is seen as one of the rising national security leaders in his caucus, emphasized his intention for the committee to focus on the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party — not to demonize the Chinese people.

“We need to have a united front here in Congress to counter the Chinese Communist Party, and in so doing, at every step along the way, we must make sure that we are drawing a distinction between the party and the Chinese people, with whom we have no quarrel and who are often the primary victims of CCP aggression and repression,” said Gallagher, who in addition to previously working as a Senate Foreign Relations staffer also earned a doctorate in international relations.

In a Sunday interview with Fox News, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., emphasized his desire for the committee to focus on ways to help the United States better economically compete with China.

“One hundred forty-six Democrats joined with us to create a new select committee on China, that we can bring those jobs back from China to America, that America will speak with one voice,” the freshly installed House leader said.

John Yang, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil rights organization, said given the committee’s full name and remarks made by McCarthy and others, he is cautiously optimistic that House leaders will be careful not to platform anti-Chinese xenophobia and anti-Asian bias.

“The naming of the committee, the fact that they recognize that it is the Chinese Communist Party that is a concern and not just China writ large, is a cause for hope,” said Yang. “What we are going to be watching is if they are serious about foreign relations and economic issue versus people who just want to use this as an opportunity to make speeches and grandstand.”

Wu, who in 2020 became the first Asian American to be appointed president of Queens College in New York, doesn’t think the new select committee is needed or likely to be helpful. He pointed to recent failed efforts during the Trump administration to weed out and crack down on instances of illicit Chinese government-linked economic espionage.

Those include the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” which brought criminal prosecutions against roughly two dozen scientific researchers with Chinese backgrounds. Many of those cases ending up being dismissed, or the defendants acquitted, resulting in Attorney General Merrick B. Garland last year shuttering the initiative and the department acknowledging its actions had created a “harmful” perception that it was targeting ethnic Chinese scientists.

“You could not have a better example of a total waste of taxpayer money,” Wu said.

Likewise, a “rogue” security office within the Commerce Department was revealed in 2021 by Senate investigators on the Commerce Committee to have for years conducted unauthorized surveillance and racial profiling of its own employees who had ethnic ties to China or the Middle East. That unit was subsequently shut down.

Still, Wu acknowledged there were legitimate national security concerns that the new committee could probe, such as the “overseas police service centers” that have reportedly been identified in New York City’s Chinatown and other cities outside China and are suspected of assisting Beijing in surveilling and harassing the Chinese diaspora, including dissidents.

“What’s important is to focus on the real threat and to make clear that this is not a license to suspect every random Asian-looking person of being a sleeper agent on behalf of Beijing,” he said.

Added Yang: “We are interested in engaging with the committee and engaging with responsible lawmakers to express our concerns and to work with them in how we navigate this so it doesn’t cause a backlash.”

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