Twenty years ago last month, I adopted a Chinese daughter and brought her to live in a country that is steadily creating a climate of officially sanctioned antipathy toward her homeland, if not actually her race.
The messaging from the top is clear, and it affects her daily life in ways that range from the subtle to the grotesque: having coronavirus labelled the “China virus” by President Donald Trump makes her, and other people of Chinese ethnicity in the US, feel as if they are being blamed for the pandemic.
That is ironic, given that the pandemic’s grave toll in the US can more properly be laid at the door of wishful thinking and incompetence at federal government level, coupled with a peculiarly American obsession with individualism that deems it heroic to refuse to wear a mask.
The ethnically Chinese residents of America were already dodging the verbal crossfire of a Sino-American cold war, but its tangible impact on their lives could be about to get a lot worse. For Mr Trump has now taken aim at an institution that is central to the culture of millions of Chinese living in the US, as well as Chinese-Americans: the social messaging app WeChat.
Last month, Mr Trump issued an executive order that gave American companies and individuals like me and my children, who use WeChat to keep in touch with friends in China, 45 days to halt “transactions” with WeChat, which is owned by the Chinese technology group Tencent. No one knows yet what a “transaction” is: simply downloading the app could qualify. WeChat could disappear from Apple’s app store. (A similar US order would effectively ban TikTok, the video app that has kept so many of us entertained during the pandemic, unless its Chinese parent group ByteDance sells to a US company.)
WeChat, which has more than 1bn users worldwide, has no obvious parallel internationally. Chinese use it where others might use a combination of Facebook, emails, texts, Instagram and Twitter. It’s a payment platform, too. Banning it, for Chinese in the US, would be far worse than blocking Facebook — which, of course, China has already done at home. Still, that does not make this decision right.
The Trump administration says WeChat is a national security threat because it can capture information on users, which will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who uses it. James Lau, a Chinese-American born in the US and living near Chicago’s Chinatown, who uses the app for daily group chats with family in China, says he assumes the Chinese Communist party surveils WeChat. But, “it doesn’t bother me, I’m not doing anything illegal,” he adds.
A lawsuit challenging the order, brought by a WeChat users’ alliance in the US, says users rely on it “knowing that Big Brother is watching”. The suit claims the order violates constitutional rights to free speech; religion (because it is used by some Chinese-speaking church groups); due process (because users have not been told exactly what conduct will be prohibited or given time to prepare); and civil rights.
“If my phone upgrades in the middle of the night, have I just violated the law?” asks Michael Bien, one of the lawyers bringing the legal challenge. Legal experts say the restrictions would apply to US citizens anywhere in the world, and to Chinese living in the US, whether citizens or not. There could be both civil and criminal penalties.
But Mr Bien sees it also as part of a bigger picture: “Recent anti-Chinese rhetoric has led to a dramatic increase in hate crimes, this is part of that, and that’s dangerous, bringing out that kind of — call it what it is — racism.” He adds: “It’s one thing when drunks on the street bring it up, but when the president of the United States uses that language it leads to real hatred on the street and sometimes violence.”
According to a recent Pew Research Centre report, Asian Americans (most of them Chinese) are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the US electorate. Asian-American eligible voters have more than doubled since 2000. But it may be years or even decades before they wield the kind of political power that would put a stop to China-bashing in the US. The country that naturalised my daughter as a citizen 20 years ago now appears to be turning its back on her.
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