Between Sinophobia and Sinocentrism

Flair Donglai SHI (施东来)

Chinese flag against Rhodes statue, Oriel College Oxford

“China virus! Chinks! Go back to China!”

People of East and Southeast Asian descent (henceforth PESA) in the West have encountered such verbal aggressions frequently since the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. While “China virus” was popularized by Donald Trump, the latter two phrases are nothing new for most PESA.1 As the condensed articulation of racist and xenophobic sentiments, these two phrases have been heard since the late 19th century when large-scale human exchanges between East and West began. Their proliferation and prevalence during the pandemic are important because people can no longer simply get on with their lives by dismissing anti-Asian racism as random and exceptional. Many PESA have started to realize how their own racial positions have always been conditioned by the long histories of white supremacist exploitation of people of color, not only through legislative and sociopolitical control of racial minorities in the West but also via Western imperial invasions, political subjugations, and military occupations of Asian countries. As Simeon Man points out, “More than a negative reaction, anti-Asian violence has served as a stabilizing force amidst structural inequality, producing a sense of belonging and shoring up the belief in capitalism and white supremacy from unlikely adherents, while foreclosing other modes of relationship not premised on the theft of labor and Indigenous lands.”2

Diasporic Loyalism and the Urge to Differentiate

To be sure, things have changed significantly since the Civil Rights Movements. The creation of the Asian American identity in the US in the late 1960s has provided a significant pathway for PESA there to localize themselves in the coordinated construction of a liberal multiculturalism that seems to welcome ethnic and cultural differences. It is now a social consensus that “chinks” and “Go back to China” are unspeakable or simply wrong things to say that could inflict potential legal retribution and sociopolitical harm on the person uttering them. That these racist utterances shall be condemned and rebutted is a given among PESA communities and people in their usual social circles who have received a basic level of liberal education. However, what remains unclear and contentious is exactly how such rebuttals shall be formulated and articulated. In a podcast program entitled “How Sinophobia Affects Non-Chinese Asians”, a commentator states with anger that “The right response for this kind of racist verbal attacks should just be ‘Fuck off and fuck you’, period.” His anger is directed against PESA who are often at a loss upon hearing Sinophobic abuses and opt to clarify their disassociations with China and Chineseness instead of calling racism out straightaway.

Indeed, all too often white supremacists’ Sinophobic utterances produce in many PESA a strong urge to declare their loyalty to the West, and implicitly to its white supremacist sociocultural structure as well.3 This loyalty is ranked in hierarchical terms concerning place of birth, status of citizenship, length of stay, political allegiance, and degree of sociocultural assimilation. Hence, “I was born and raised here” somehow lends a second-generation Asian American more legitimacy to rebuke racism than her immigrant parents born in Asia; “I am American” is a somewhat stronger rebuttal that implies that residents on temporary visas might as well “go back to their country”; and the immigrant who has stayed in the US for long may also declare their appreciation of “Western values” and suggest that the white supremacists should change “China virus” to “CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus”, because they hate the Party as much as anyone else. While the white supremacists conflate “Asian-looking”, “yellow”, “Oriental” and “chink” and attack indiscriminately, PESA in the diasporic communities often find it difficult to bypass the complex ethnic differentiations erased by such conflations. After all, the political correctness ushered in by multiculturalism also renders it offensive to conflate China and Japan, Singaporean Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese, Hokkien-speakers from Taiwan and those from Fujian, notwithstanding the lack of improvement in the (Western) general public’s awareness about such differences. Therefore, in the face of Sinophobic racism, the knee-jerk reaction of many PESA is to advocate differentiation despite the racist interlocutor’s total indifference to such nuance.

At the core of the lack of consensus over how to rebut Sinophobic racism is thus a dialectic of diasporic loyalism.

PESA in the West are shaped by different kinds of transnational roots and routes, which tend to be maintained by the communities’ continued cultural ties with Asia and the mainstream society’s constant interpellation of them as “forever foreigners”. This is what Claire Kim calls “civic ostracism” in her classic article “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans.” The situation has hardly improved, despite the scholarly efforts to demonstrate the harm of this exclusionary ideology in the 1990s. In the US, the fact that “Native American” exists as an ethnic category does not challenge the overarching white entitlement to the nation, and when whites bestowed upon Asian Americans the honorary title of “the model minority”, it was at first to reprimand the political demands made by African Americans during and after the Civil Rights Movements; such a designation was then manipulated to further denigrate the undesirable Hispanic immigrants from the South for their supposed lack of economic contribution to the nation. In the UK and most countries in Europe, white claims of indigeneity have further entrenched this idea of PESA as alien. The constant need for PESA in the West to declare their loyalty comes from this very alienation.

However, performative declarations of loyalty do not directly lead to PESA being accepted as loyalists to the West. Instead, PESA would find themselves being thrown into a liminal space of “not this but not yet that”, “not Asian but not yet Western”, or more accurately, “post-loyalist of Asia but pre-loyalist of the West”. As David Der-wei Wang points out, “While the immigrant embodies spatial transformation, the loyalist exposes fissures in time.”4 Diasporic PESA need to navigate both spatial and temporal dimensions of the politics of belonging, because the ethnicization paradigm of Western multiculturalism allows PESA to localize but often at the expense of their connections to Asia. In other words, those who wish to fully participate in this minoritization process are encouraged to renounce their loyalty to Asian nations where they could have occupied majority positions, thus becoming post-loyalists of Asia. Yet the post- in post-loyalism does not allow them to secure the desired transfer of loyalty completely. Instead, they could only become pre-loyalists of the West as it is still up to the white supremacist structure to decide whether their post-loyalism “there” could metamorphosize into full loyalism “here”, and the motivation for the racially unmarked white Americans or Europeans to acknowledge this metamorphosis is still lacking. On the contrary, suspicions against the effectiveness or possibility of this metamorphosis are much more entrenched and prevalent, which are testified by the recurring incidents of Chinese American scientists being expelled from their work due to their perceived links to Chinese institutions. Therefore, diasporic loyalism for PESA in the West is rarely a complete process but a modus operandi of identification and differentiation, the determinants of which do not even fall under their own control.

This is precisely why diasporic loyalism in the PESA communities in the West remains partial, fragmented, divisive and full of gradations and contradictions. For individual white supremacists, PESA may “all look the same”, and yet in the process of rebutting such overwhelming phenotypical racism, differences between different kinds of Asians and Asian loyalties are often asserted. For instance, while Japanese and Korean Americans may quickly declare their non-relation with China in the face of Sinophobic racism (despite the misdirection and futility of such rebuttals), Chinese Americans, especially those whose families came from mainland China after the 1980s, need to redouble their efforts in differentiating themselves from the “China Chinese” if they choose to go down the loyalist route. Similarly, while it is okay for diasporic PESA to be Taiwanese/Korean/Japanese and American, it is increasingly difficult for someone to affirm their political, social, cultural, and emotional attachments to both China and the US. This is despite the irony that among all these places of suspicious double agency linking Asia and America, the PRC is the only country that strictly enforces the ban on dual nationalities and, in this way, actually encourages Chinese immigrants to localize and be loyal to their adopted countries (效忠住在国) if they choose to be naturalized.5

It is the same force of Sinophobia that suffuses the New Cold War mentality that underlies the anti-Asian racism of white supremacism. On the one hand, PESA’s connections to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are deemed tolerable and unsuspicious because these places are more or less parasitic within the Pax Americana world order. Their political allegiance is already guaranteed by either direct military occupations/operations or lucrative arms sales, and their transnational capitalists residing in the US are part of the economic success stories maintaining the Occidentalist mysticism around US benevolence in Asia that helps conceal its imperialist and white supremacist nature. These Asian regions, therefore, have also been subject to the minoritizing logic of US liberal multiculturalism and have been turned into “model minorities” on the international stage. On the other hand, the PRC, and its generalizing and reductive designator in the English language, “Chinese”, disrupts this neat minoritizing process and supposedly implicates all PESA in the troubles they cause for the practice of diasporic loyalism. The PRC, as an economically powerful sovereign nation-state governed by a one-Party system, is thought to be qualitatively different from its East Asian neighbors. As such, the buzzword “China Threat” becomes almost a kind of pleonasm—this China is, must, and always will be a threat in the global system dominated by the US. This explains why there is still a lot of reluctance to designate incidents related to the offensive phrases presented at the beginning of this article as Sinophobic rather than a more obscure and broad kind of racism— “Asian hate” — which removes the centrality of China, or more accurately the white-supremacist hate and fear for China as a nation, from the designation, and remolds the whole struggle into a domestic minoritizing program of Western liberal multiculturalism (yet again!).

Beneath such symptomatic tactics of erasing or distancing from China, there is a constant trepidation among some PESA communities that the Chinese would somehow hijack the delicate loyalist negotiations they are having with the white supremacist system, notwithstanding the fact that it is the white supremacists who have collapsed all the carefully guarded differences among PESA into Sinophobia in the first place. However, the fact is that much “Asian hate” in the West today is (albeit illogically) linked to Sinophobia, and without addressing Sinophobia, anti-racist movements can easily turn into optics of white liberalism with ethnic characteristics, leading to mere cosmetic changes in the grand maintenance of the white supremacist system until the next wave of racist attacks induced by international tensions. Therefore, diasporic loyalism for PESA in the West is not only spatial and temporal but also inherently geopolitical. As I have emphasized consistently elsewhere, there is no escape from Sinophobic racism if, as PESA, we do not envision routes of escape from the New Cold War mentality of China versus the West, “China Chinese” versus the diaspora or “the Sinophone”, authoritarianism versus democracy, and oppression versus progress; that is, if we do not look beyond the status quo of interracial relations within Western nation states.

The Limits of Anti-Centrism

Notably, the Chinese character for “loyal (忠)” is made up of the characters for “center (中) and “heart” (心)”. This interesting phenomenon of character composition can be read as a theoretical suggestion on the links between the affect of loyalism and the political ideology of self-centrism. Indeed, to be loyal means to hold something at the center of one’s heart, and loyalty cannot exist without a central object of affective investment. This explains why, apart from evading discussions on Sinophobia, the loyalist anxieties within the disparate PESA groups often manifest as an urge to pre-emptively denounce Sinocentrism. As much as Americanness (or Britishness etc.) is put forward as the major identity marker that brings together Asian Americans (e.g., à la Andrew Yang), anti-Sinocentric discourses have become a kind of badge of innocence and pride for many PESA to offset white accusations of Chinese intervention in the domestic affairs of the West. Like Americanness, anti-Sinocentrism often serves as the sine qua non of PESA movements against white supremacy, and any hints of association with the PRC will cause great unease in the legitimacy-building process of these movements, as if the “Asian” in “Anti-Asian Hate” does not include Chinese nationals residing in the West, or as if the “Sino” in “Sinophobia” has nothing to do the PRC. However, the fact is that in the context of anti-Asian racism in the West, the lines between anti-Sinocentric claims of (post-)loyalty and Sinophobic distancing from the PRC are extremely tenuous and oftentimes untenable.

Chinese nationals themselves are not immune from anxieties generated by such tenuous lines. A Chinese student who had been studying in the US for many years attended a multiracial public demonstration in her city after the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings. Well versed in theories of multiculturalism and critical race studies, she told me that she nevertheless felt troubled by the appearance of the Chinese flag in the demonstration. She worried that her fellow Chinese students who brought the flag to a protest about anti-Asian racism would sabotage the whole movement and deflect people’s attention from reflections on white supremacy toward criticisms of Chinese nationalism. Interestingly, as many of the victims of the Atlanta shootings were ethnic Koreans, the South Korean flag was also present in many of these public protests, and yet that symbol was not thought to evoke Korean nationalism, or even if it does, it is not regarded as nearly so worrying and subversive as the Chinese flag.

In this instance, the complex entanglements of anti-Sinocentric and anti-Sinophobic forces and desires have made it problematic for a liberal Chinese national to wave the flag of her country in response to racism possibly motivated by hatred toward her country. As opposed to diasporic claims of invisibility (itself a problematic formulation vis-à-vis blacks being “too visible”), Asian American claims of “minor feelings”, and Sinophone claims of marginality, the single appearance of a Chinese flag is immanently conspicuous and suspicious, as it signifies hypervisibility on the one hand—something white supremacists are more than willing to see as evidence of Sinocentric interference – and major feelings of nationalism on the other—“See? I told you that these chinks will never be true Americans!” What remains constant in these loyalist anxieties is the agential power of whiteness in determining what or who is a threat a priori. It is this constant that has driven Western media and many in the PESA communities to comment negatively on Chinese Foreign Ministry’s condemnations of anti-Asian violence in the US, as if such condemnations are not part of the universalist respect for human rights that the West has always promoted in China.

Moreover, the anti-Sinocentric push for PESA localization often takes the stance of anti-diaspora, namely blaming PESA communities themselves for their unwillingness to sever political and cultural ties with their Asian (especially mainland Chinese) motherlands and integrate fully into Western societies. In the context of addressing Sinophobic racism, such anti-Sinocentric claims simply get the order of things wrong. It is not because PESA are unwilling to integrate that they suffer from racism. Rather, it is because they suffer from racism conditioned by the constant “civic ostracism” of a white supremacist structure that they have had to rely on transnational ties for economic survival and emotional support. Again, the politics of diasporic loyalism here is survivalist and pragmatic rather than necessarily entrenched in nostalgia and ethnocentrism.

Building New Consensuses

Geopolitics concerning China lies at the heart of contemporary Sinophobia. While some diasporic loyalists erase China from the conversation generated by anti-Asian racism, anti-Sinocentric discourses, in addressing these phenomena, change the focal point of the conversation, shifting from Chinese as victim to Chinese as the nationalist victimizer. The persistence of these two sociopolitical forces in the West has made it difficult to reach a consensus over how rebuttals against Sinophobic racism shall be articulated. Having identified these obstructive elements, I wish to end this article with several points of mutual understanding that can serve as the common denominators for building new consensuses in the PESA communities’ efforts to confront racism in the US and the West more generally.

First, the white supremacist system should be the main target of PESA struggle against racism. As white supremacists ignore the multifaceted differences among the PESA communities, it is self-defeating for PESA to dwell too much on divisions of class, nationality, and culture when uttering their rebuttals against the overarching racist structure that has reduced all of them to “chinks”, “Orientals”, “yellows” or simply “Asian-looking” in the first place. It is this struggle against white supremacy that unites PESA as a coalitional front and warrants collaborations with other communities of color. Internal differences and diversity are important, but their importance is secondary to the primary struggle against white supremacy.

Second, it must be recognized that anti-Asian racism and Sinophobia are linked. No one is saying that the long history of anti-Asian racism in the West is all about China, but neither can we say that anti-Asian racism, especially in the contemporary age of economic competition and political rivalry between the US and China, is not about China at all. The demonization of China and the Chinese people constitutes a major ideological force that underlies many racist incidents, in the past and present, targeting PESA in the West. The assimilationist mechanisms of minoritization, localization, and (post-)loyalism are only effective to a very limited degree without informed sensitivity toward the geopolitical tensions behind Sinophobia per se.

Last but not least, anti-Sinocentrism should be used in a dialectical manner to facilitate criticisms of Sinophobic racism rather than the other way around. While it would be ridiculous to suggest that all criticisms against (certain policies of) the Chinese government (not a homogenous single-brain entity) are inherently racist, the opposite is also true: PESA do not need to be explicitly anti-CCP or anti-PRC to be protected from racial attacks or have the legitimacy to campaign against Sinophobic racism. After all, white supremacists who attack PESA are unlikely to have done it with the best interests of the people in Xinjiang or Hong Kong at heart, and neither do they care about the many contentious issues that different overseas Chinese groups argue about. There will be no anti-racist coalition across the PESA communities if everyone must agree on such complex political divisions within Asian politics a priori. The main struggle is against white supremacy, and we should tell racists to fuck off, period.

Flair Donglai SHI (施东来) is completing his PhD in English and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the mutations of the Yellow Peril discourses in fin de siècle England, apartheid South Africa, and the post-Mao Sinophone world. His co-edited volume, World Literature in Motion, was released by Ibidem and Columbia University Press in 2020.

  1. The use of the term PESA in this short article is both functionalist and ideological. It is based on the understanding that PESA tend to be the ones conceptualized in Western societies as “looking Asian” or “looking Chinese” and thus most directly suffer from racist abuses motivated by Sinophobia. I am aware that the actual legislative and cultural uses of “Asian” have great variations in different national contexts. One only needs to think of the different references the term carries in the UK (South Asians as “Asian”) compared to the US (East Asians as “Asian”).
  2. Simeon Man, “Anti-Asian Violence and US Imperialism,” Race & Class 62, no. 2 (2020): 24-33. p25.
  3. For a comprehensive theorization of this structure, see Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).
  4. David Der-wei Wang, “Post-Loyalism,” in Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, edited by Shu-mei Shih et al. 93-116. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). p104.
  5. Taiwan and South Korea allow dual citizenship with the US. Japan’s current nationality law requires persons who hold dual citizenship to relinquish one of them by the age of 22, but in practice a general “don’t ask and don’t tell” bureaucratic attitude is often adopted, leaving many of these dual citizens unchecked. There have also been campaigns in the country to formally allow dual citizenship with the US specifically.