I was born in China and came to the United States as a high school student after World War II. I am a U.S. citizen and have spent 70 years of my life in America. However, I am increasingly beginning to wonder – am I American enough?
I built a new life in the United States during the Cold War, when the United States and China were on opposite sides. I lived through the Red Scare and McCarthyism. I watched as my new home fought against my birthplace during the Korean War. And yet, never in my life have I felt as tense and worried in America as I do now. Despite what many people might say, the blame for this does not sit with Donald Trump alone.
The real problem comes from the U.S. intelligence community, and the way its prejudices are spreading through American society. Not long ago, the FBI director told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Chinese operatives, from students to professors, have infiltrated American universities and claimed American academics are too naïve to notice. This claim seems somewhat ironic, considering one of the most recent cases of Chinese spying involved an ex-CIA operative. Perhaps the intelligence community should prioritize cleaning up its own ranks before pointing its fingers at academia.
Never before have Chinese Americans been looked on with such suspicion in America. I remember during World War II, America and China worked together as allies to confront the Axis Powers. The United States proudly proclaimed that China was a friend to the American people. Chinese immigrants were responsible for building the majority of America’s railroads. Additionally, eight Chinese Americans have won Nobel Prizes. Chinese immigrants have helped build a strong and exceptional America.
But these contributions are being overlooked due to the behavior of a few bad eggs. As of 2016, there were 2.3 million Chinese immigrants living in America. When accounting for Chinese foreign nationals visiting America in the short term, there were a total of 2.97 million Chinese people in America in the same year. Out of these millions of people, only a tiny fraction have ever been accused – much less convicted – of spying on behalf of the Chinese government. How can you ignore the physicists, the scientists, the railroad workers, the hard-working Chinese Americans, and judge them all by the actions of a few?
America seems to have forgotten its friendship with China, and in the past two years, the situation has gotten rapidly worse. Chinese Americans are beginning to notice the effect. This problem is especially prevalent in the academic community. MIT President L. Rafael Reif recently wrote a letter to the MIT community decrying the unfair treatment of Chinese students by the U.S. government and intelligence community. He pointed out that many Chinese academics, when dealing with U.S. government agencies, “now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.”
By contrast, the Chinese government welcomes American students who want to study in China with open arms. The Chinese government wants to help Americans understand China. In order to develop a positive long-term cooperative U.S.-China relationship, students from both countries need to understand each other and begin building relationships. The Chinese government understands and supports this. The American government, apparently, does not.
What is completely absurd is that second- and third-generation Chinese Americans are suffering as well. Does the American government accuse third-generation Russian immigrants of spying for the Russian government? Of course not.
Furthermore, many of the accused spies aren’t even Chinese. They are white American government employees, yet white Americans are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and prejudice that Chinese people are. This is blatant racism, and the U.S. government isn’t ashamed of it.
We have seen this kind of racism before in America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt imprisoned masses of innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. There are people still alive today who remember being forcibly relocated to these camps. While many Americans at the time felt the policy was necessary, it is now seen as a terrible black mark on American history, one that can never be erased.
Now McCarthyism is rising from its grave to haunt Chinese Americans. The U.S. government has reverted to Cold War paradigms that are outdated and impractical. In this current political and social context, I must wonder: will Chinese Americans suffer the same fate as Japanese Americans all those years ago?
I have spent most of my life in academia, working to improve relations between the United States and China and help people better cross the cultural divide to understand one another. When the U.S. government looks at me, what does it see? Does it see me? Or does it see an imaginary spy? I have been an American for 70 years. Isn’t that enough? Or has the government decided Chinese Americans can never truly be Americans?
Why is this happening? The answer is simple: China is becoming more powerful and its rise in the international system has generated fear that America is no longer as powerful as it once was. America’s failure to contain or stop China’s rise through hawkish policies like Trump’s trade war has translated into frustration against China. This frustration is taken out on ordinary Chinese-American citizens and foreign nationals because they are an easier target than the Chinese government itself.
But America doesn’t stand to gain anything from this blatant racism. Treating Chinese Americans like second-class citizens creates further division in an already-divided country. Treating visiting Chinese foreign nationals with suspicion and hatred makes American ideals ring hollow and pushes Chinese citizens further and further toward the Chinese government and its promises of a Chinese Dream. It eliminates any desire to understand or internalize the American values that the United States is so desperately trying to export to East Asia.
The price of racial discrimination is a fractured America and a distant China, one which America can’t hope to successfully influence or contain. The American intelligence community needs to stop stoking the fires of anti-Chinese racism and the American people must see Chinese people for who they are – individuals, not government tools. After all that Chinese Americans have contributed to America, we have earned the right to be treated as the citizens that we are.
Professor Chi Wang is the president and chair of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan educational non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. He previously worked for the U.S. government for nearly 50 years, culminating his decades of service as the head of the Library of Congress Chinese and Korean Section. He also taught U.S.-China diplomatic history at Georgetown University for over 50 years.