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Fears of a Return to Chinese Exclusion Act as US-China Tensions Rise

By Rong Xiaoqing Feb 13, 2023

Chinese living in the US are watching the deterioration of US-China relations with a mix of fear and, for some, cautious optimism.

On the morning of Feb 3, Charlotte Zhang turned on the news, part of a regular routine she shares with her seven-year-old daughter, Lydia to count the minutes before school. But that morning’s headlines would serve as more than a timekeeper for the pair.

That was the day news broke of the Chinese spy balloon over US skies.

“These days the news is full of wars and gunshots. Lydia is used to it,” said Zhang. “But when she heard the word ‘China’, she raised her head to look at me. I said, ‘Uh-oh, your grandparents may not be able to come any more,’ and she screamed, ‘Oh, no!’”  

Zhang’s parents live in Beijing and were planning to come to New York to visit the family in April. While the Covid pandemic put a halt to direct flights between the two countries, the family had hoped that a pending visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing would change that.

News of the balloon—and the subsequent cancelation of Blinken’s trip—quickly dashed those hopes.

“For seniors who don’t speak English, transferring is very difficult,” said Zhang, who hasn’t seen her parents for more than three years. “We finally saw some hope for direct flights, and who’d have thought a balloon could smash it overnight?”

‘It could be very dangerous’

The Chinese surveillance balloon, which had been traversing U.S. airspace for about a week until it was shot down on Feb. 4, has brought already frosty U.S.-China relations to a new low. With the House of Representatives’ passage of a resolution condemning China over the incident last Thursday and Beijing responding in a harsher tone, the tensions don’t seem to be easing any time soon.

Chinese immigrants in New York, meanwhile, are bracing themselves for an even bumpier future. 

Shaohua Yu is a craft vendor in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Recalling the wave of anti-Chinese hostility sparked by the rhetoric of former President Trump—who routinely referred to Covid as “the China virus”—he said he’s yet to see the same kind of public response to the balloon incident.

“No one mentioned the balloon just yet,” Yu said, adding that during the pandemic he had been subjected on several occasions to verbal insults from passengers on the subway. Combined with news of attacks targeting Asian Americans, it was enough to keep him indoors and out of harm’s way. So far, he says, the tourists frequenting his stand have been friendly.

But with tensions between the world’s two superpowers rising, many in the community fear a reversion to policies from a century earlier, when Chinese immigration to the US was curtailed in what many now agree was an act of xenophobia and racism directed at Chinese immigrants.

At the federal level the Biden administration has taken dramatic steps to limit Chinese companies’ access to critical technology. In states like Texas, lawmakers are considering bills to limit the ability of Chinese nationals to purchase property in the U.S. on national security grounds. All of this is happening amid the backdrop of intensifying anti-espionage operations targeting Chinese in the US.

Users on WeChat, a social media platform popular among Chinese, warn that a new Chinese Exclusion Act could soon be enacted.

“So far, the balloon thing and the real estate bills are only soundbites from American politicians. But once the fervent nationalism among ordinary Americans is awakened, it could be very dangerous,” said Yu. “Ordinary people cannot do anything to the Chinese government, but they can vent their anger on Chinese Americans like us.” 

On Taiwan and bilateral trade ties

For some, the ramifications of US-China tensions are already being felt.

“Do I worry about the balloon incident? Yes. But I worry more about House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s trip to Taiwan,” said Ronggang Bao, who works for the United States Postal Service and is also a senior advisor to a Chinese community organization. 

McCarthy has vowed to visit Taiwan and is expected to fulfill the promise soon, although a date hasn’t been set. Bao believes the reaction from China will be significantly stronger than the response following former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last year to the island, which Beijing considers its own.

“That would set off a new round of animosity between the two countries and make the lives of Chinese in the U.S. tougher,” Bao said, adding many are already living in fear.

In recent years, Bao has helped international students from China file reports to the police after they lost large amounts of money to scammers who pretended to represent U.S. authorities.

“I asked the students why they fell into such obvious traps so easily,” said Bao. “They told me that the China-U.S. relationship is so bad that they worried they could be deported for any reason before finishing their studies, so they’d preferred to pay the money to resolve a problem that didn’t exist.”  

While the picture appears grim, some see signs for optimism in bi-lateral trade ties, which reached a record high of $690 billion in 2022.

“The two countries both know economic decoupling is impossible,” said David Lin, a realtor. Lin, who focuses on properties in affluent neighborhoods on Long Island, said the number of his clients from China has not dropped compared to before the pandemic. “What you hear in the news is all political rhetoric,” said Lin. “The bill in Texas won’t pass, and even if it does, believe me, Chinese citizens can still find loopholes to buy houses.” 

But even from an economic perspective, the frequent bickering between China and the U.S. has hit some people hard. “When I learned about the balloon incident, my first reaction was: My stocks!” said Yiping Wu, who works in financial services. The Chinese stocks Wu owned dropped on the news of the balloon.

Wu said he still thinks Chinese stocks have potential, but he is wary of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the two countries. “Investors hate uncertainties,” said Wu. “Now we think the China-U.S. relationship will be uncertain, or getting worse, in the next five or maybe ten years at least.”

Maintaining Chinese identity

Even if the situation continues to deteriorate, Yu, the vendor, said there is nothing he can do but endure the situation. “I’ve been in the U.S. for more than 20 years. My house in China was demolished and my parents have passed away,” said Yu, 60. “I have nowhere else to go.”

And for Zhang, among all the uncertainties, there is one thing she has determined. “I have no control of whether the future will be brighter,” said Zhang. “But no matter how prevalent anti-China sentiment is, I want my daughter to be proud of her Chinese identity and maintain her Chinese roots.”

Image via Flickr

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