The coronavirus crisis has spurred a sharp increase
in scapegoating, harassment, and physical attacks against Chinese and
other Asian people in the United States. This racist upsurge has been
fomented not only by white nationalists, but even more dramatically by President Trump, other government officials, and right-wing media organs such as Fox News.
But there’s more going here than knee-jerk racist scapegoating and dog-whistle rhetoric. The U.S. right has been heavily concerned with China for years, and its views on the subject are complex, involving a shifting mix of political themes and a range of positions that relate to the current pandemic but have implications far beyond it. This article explores some of these broader rightist positions on China. Specifically, I compare the geopolitical focus of America Firsters such as Donald Trump and Steve Bannon with white nationalists’ racial focus, but I also look at divisions among white nationalists themselves, with some vilifying China and others praising it.
Three themes of anti-Chinese politics
Historically, anti-Chinese politics in the U.S. has centered on three major themes: racist demonization, anticommunism, and geopolitical fear. While these themes are interconnected and often presented in combination, each of them is rooted in a distinct historical period and set of developments.
Chinese people first came to the U.S. in large numbers in the mid-19th century. By the 1870s, they formed an important but heavily exploited part of the labor force in California and other parts of the West. White workers spearheaded campaigns to drive Chinese out of jobs, called for a ban in Chinese immigration, and carried out a series of pogroms and expulsions, such as an 1885 massacre of at least 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from immigrating, and the ban was extended to all Chinese in 1884 and to immigrants from many other Asian countries in 1917. Chinese immigration was completely forbidden until 1943 and not permitted in substantial numbers until 1965.
Racist demonization of Chinese people in the 19th century sometimes equated them with blacks or Native Americans, but sometimes portrayed them in ways that resembled anti-Jewish stereotypes—as crafty schemers with mysterious powers, or as blood-sucking parasites or vampires. Like Jews, Chinese men were alternately portrayed as effeminate or as sexual predators who lured or forced white women into prostitution. Sometimes Chinese people were linked with disease. During a 1900 bubonic plague scare in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one newspaper warned that “The almond-eyed Mongolian is watching for his opportunity, waiting to assassinate you and your children with one of his many maladies.” All of these motifs have persisted in U.S. racist discourse. (The quote is borrowed from Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, p. 65. An excellent study of the 19th-century anti-Chinese movement is Alexander Saxton’s The Indispensable Enemy.)
China and people of Chinese descent became targets of anticommunism
following the 1949 Chinese Revolution and especially after the People’s
Liberation Army intervened in the Korean War in 1950 on the side of
North Korea. During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, Chinese Americans
were widely suspected of political disloyalty, and conservative and
liberal politicians alike regarded China as an expansionist threat
second only to the Soviet Union. Anticommunist fears of China
intensified in the 1960s, with the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese
government’s expressions of support for anti-imperialist and
revolutionary movements across the Global South.
The spectre of a Chinese Red Menace declined in the 1970s and 80s with improved U.S.-China relations, Mao’s death, and China’s shift toward a market economy, yet many U.S. rightists have continued to see Communist Party rule in China as inherently threatening. Since the Chinese government has effectively abandoned all pretentions to represent a force for anticapitalist revolution, American denunciations of Chinese communism have tended to focus on human rights issues. There’s no question that the Chinese government is profoundly authoritarian and has engaged in mass-scale repression against dissidents and ethnoreligious minorities, but anticommunism demonizes Chinese repression selectively as if it were qualitatively different from similar or worse practices carried out by overtly capitalist regimes.
The newest thread of U.S. anti-Chinese politics is fear of China as a geopolitical threat to the United States. This fear has emerged over the past few decades, as China has pursued dramatic and relatively uninterrupted economic growth, and particularly since it became the world’s second biggest economy about ten years ago. As its economic power has grown, China has sponsored high-profile development projects in other countries of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and has expanded its military forces and geographic military presence. While the U.S. ruling class and political elites as a whole view these developments with concern, many right-wingers view an increasingly powerful China not as one part of a global capitalist system operating according to the same basic interests as other powers, but rather in Manichean terms as a fundamentally different and malevolent force uniquely bent on world conquest.
In the years leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. rightists have tapped into all of these traditions, but they’ve done so in different ways. In broad terms, Donald Trump and many of his “America Firster” allies and supporters have been driven primarily by geopolitical fears in relation to China while making use of anti-Chinese racism to mobilize support. By contrast, race is the critical concern for alt-rightists and other white nationalists (who helped President Trump get elected but have become increasing disenchanted with his administration), and their views of China center on promoting the interests of the white race before anything else. However, white nationalists are themselves sharply divided on whether China is an ethnostate to be admired and emulated or a racial threat second only to Jews.
Trump and America Firsters
Trump’s nationalist rhetoric has been targeting China for years, with an emphasis on claims that the Beijing government uses unfair trade practices (such as stealing U.S. firms’ intellectual property) and currency manipulation. Defying neoliberal orthodoxy, in 2018 the Trump administration launched a tariff war with China, promoting it as a way to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Although the policy measures are economic, Trump has often framed the conflict in broader existential terms. At a 2015 campaign rally he referred to China as “our enemy,” and at another rally the following year he denounced China’s trade practices as “rap[ing] our country.” Trump advisor Peter Navarro, one of the strongest advocates of economic nationalism within the administration, has published a series of books that the New York Timesdescribes as “anti-China screeds.” Going far beyond economic concerns, he has warned against “the growing dangers of a heavily armed, totalitarian regime intent on regional hegemony and bent on global domination.”
America Firsters warning about China often sound like liberals and centrists warning about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This past December, Fox News commentator and informal Trump advisor Tucker Carlson got in a heated on-air debate with a former Clinton advisor over whether the United States’ biggest threat was China or Russia.
Another leading America Firster preoccupied with China has been Steve Bannon, who served as chief strategist at the beginning of the Trump administration and remains influential with the president. Bannon’s anti-Chinese ideology combines geopolitical and anticommunist themes. Bannon has praised Trump for defining China as the greatest threat facing the United States and has predicted a U.S.-China war within 5-10 years. He has referred to COVID-19 as a “CCP [Chinese Communist Party] virus” and has argued that China’s government is in league with globalist economic elites against the United States.
In March 2019, Bannon cofounded the Committee on the Present Danger: China together with neoconservative and anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney. The name “Committee on the Present Danger” has been used by three previous lobby groups since the 1950s, which have pushed for more aggressive policies in the Cold War and the War on Terrorism. This latest incarnation of the CPD has set out to “educate and inform American citizens and policymakers about the existential threats presented from the Peoples Republic of China under the misrule of the Chinese Communist Party.” The group warns that “there is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country,” that Xi Jinping has stepped up the CCP’s longstanding goal of “global hegemony,” and that “America must mobilize all instruments of national power to protect its people, territory, human freedom, vital interests and allies” against this enemy. The danger is both military and non-military, both external and internal:
“Particularly ominous has been the CCP’s success of late in undermining and subverting Western democracies from within through its: control, domination and exploitation of Chinese diaspora communities, including overseas students, professors and researchers; influence operations in the Western media and in academia; and the use of American and other corporations and even individuals invested in or doing business with China as advocates for accommodating Beijing.”
The specter of Chinese students and professors “undermining and
subverting” the United States from within evokes age-old racist motifs
of Chinese people—much like Jews—as a hidden, malevolent force operating
by deceit. Trump and other America Firsters have long interwoven
anti-Chinese racism with their geopolitical and anticommunist warnings.
For example, in 2012 Trump declared
it was “No surprise that China was caught cheating in the Olympics”
because to “Lie, Cheat & Steal in all international dealings” was
“the Chinese M.O.” Although Chinese students at U.S. universities number
in the hundreds of thousands, in 2018 the Trump administration
reportedly considered banning Chinese citizens from studying
in the United States, at the urging of Trump aide Stephen Miller, who
functions as a conduit bringing white nationalist beliefs and proposals
directly into the White House
But in Trump’s politics with regard to China, racism is a useful tool—not the driving force. As evidence, Trump only started using the racist dog whistle phrase “China virus” in mid March, after referring to it unoffensively as the coronavirus for months. As Lili Loufbourow noted in Slate,
“People familiar with Trump’s limited but effective toolbox will recognize by now that the turn to racism is a sign of Trumpian distress. It means that Trump—who hasn’t been able to hold rallies amid his adoring fans—is feeling not just insecure but trapped. He thought the coronavirus was one more narrative he could control. He couldn’t.”
Anti-China white nationalists
White nationalists (who, unlike Trump and his Republican supporters, want to dismantle the United States and establish a white ethnostate) draw on many of the same themes with regard to China, but configure and prioritize them differently. In their view, any geopolitical challenges to the United States, or ideological challenges to capitalism, are only of concern if they threaten the perceived interests of the white race. And white nationalists are themselves divided on this question when it comes to China.
Sometimes white nationalists sound a lot like America Firsters. Brenda Walker at VDarewarns that “Unlike Russia, Red China actually represents a long term threat to America” and “hasn’t really changed that much from the bad old Mao days.” Michelle Malkin at American Renaissancedeclares that “Chinese Communist Party agents are using our suicidal pathologies — blind worship of ‘diversity,’ naive exaltation of ‘cultural exchange’ programs, and reckless surrender of our education system — against us for economic espionage, intellectual property theft and world dominance.” But Robert Hampton at Counter-Currents, a leading alt-right “intellectual” forum, makes a more explicitly racial appeal to white nationalists:
“China doesn’t care about our cause, and the Han will never be our allies. China is developing biological weapons to specifically target whites. The Han treat all of their ethnic minorities like dirt, and they can’t wait to treat us the same way. Chinese global domination will mean the eclipse of white civilization. It will probably be worse for white people under GloboHan than globohomo. At least globohomo doesn’t put us in concentration camps.”
Over the past four years, Counter-Currents has featured one of
the most virulent and comprehensive compendiums of anti-Chinese racism
available: a series of at least eight articles by “F.C. Comtaose,” who
in 2016 described
himself as “a man of East Asian extraction currently living and working
in the neo-imperialist China.” Comtaose, who also writes under the name
“Riki Rei” and appears to be Japanese, denounces China and the Chinese
people in hardline national socialist terms, claiming
that “if the Jews … are the worst enemies white people face from
within, the most dangerous external enemy … is China: the single most
ruthless, ambitious, far-sighted, astute, disingenuous, and aggressive
adversarial power in the world today.”
Comtaose argues that the Chinese government aims not only to surpass the United States as the dominant world power, but also to conquer and enslave Americans. Thus the U.S., and the western world as a whole, should sever all contact with China. Although China has been pursuing a strategy of conquest for decades, he declares, under Xi Jinping it has ratcheted up the threat with a new “hard-line confrontational policy” against neighboring countries and the United States.
Unlike Trump or Bannon, Comtaose doesn’t just bolster his warnings about China with the occasional racist swipe, but rather puts racial demonization front and center. He argues explicitly and at length that the Chinese as a people are exceptionally evil and vicious. Expanding on themes going back to the 19th century, he draws a close and detailed parallel between Chinese people and Jews: both in his view are deceitful, cunning, disloyal, ruthless, vengeful, obsessed with money, and dangerously effective in wielding power behind the scenes. “In terms of acting as a fifth column for their homeland, the Chinese in diaspora certainly rival, and perhaps exceed, the diaspora Jews and their relationship with Israel.” In addition, “the Chinese and the Jews, both being races of shrewd and unscrupulous merchants, have long admired and felt affection for each other,” and have been working “hand-in-glove for decades in order to further their joint objective of compromising, taking down, and eventually finishing off the white race and Western civilization.”
Pro-China white nationalists
Although the details may not be obvious, for white nationalist websites such as Counter-Currents to demonize China and Chinese people in racial terms shouldn’t surprise anybody. What may be a surprise is that there are other, equally staunch white nationalists who take an almost diametrically opposite view of China—as a successful example of racial nationalism to be emulated rather than feared.
Countering claims that China is a dangerous, expansionist dictatorship with a worrisome belief in its own cultural superiority, Thomas Jackson at American Renaissanceargues that China is simply “behaving like a healthy, 19th-century world power” that is “not yet shorn of the vigorous racial nationalism that characterized Western nations until only a few generations ago.” Jonathan Peter Wilkinson at Amerikawrites admiringly that China has “a profound unifying force”—racism—“ that allows them to even survive their own Drano-drink of Full-blown, idiotic Marxism” and that represents “an awesome force multiplier” in strategic terms. Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin sees China as a threat to “ZOG” (Zionist Occupation Government) rather than to the white race, and warns that the coronavirus pandemic is actually a desperate ploy to stir up a war quickly between the U.S. and China. “[T]he Jews have realized that the jig is up and they won’t be able to act how they act now in a world that is controlled by the Chinese. So they’re staging one last hurrah.” Anglin of all people, whose supremacist rhetoric has been criticized as too harsh even by other white nationalists, even warns that the media is stirring up “aggressive race hate” against Chinese people.
One of the strongest pro-China voices among U.S. white nationalists is Brad Griffin, who runs the alt-right and neo-Confederate blog Occidental Dissent under the name “Hunter Wallace.” It’s not just that Griffin as a rule writes favorably about China; he directly reverses the polarity on all three traditional anti-Chinese themes of the U.S. political right. His writings on China exemplify far rightists’ knack for incorporating leftist ideas and insights into a fundamentally oppressive and anti-egalitarian framework:
- On geopolitics, Griffin draws heavily on right-wing anti-interventionist themes to argue that China’s conflict is with liberalism and U.S. expansionism, both of which white nationalists reject. “We have no desire to ‘police the world’ as the US Empire has done in the Western Pacific for generations now. We certainly don’t support encircling China with military bases and hostile alliances. We don’t support interfering in China’s internal affairs.” In addition, “We don’t believe in ‘American exceptionalism’ or forcing the American culture on China. We admire and respect China which is one of the world’s ancient civilizations. We think China has been smart to shield itself from the degenerating effects of Western culture.” And unlike the United States, he writes, “China’s foreign policy isn’t controlled by Israel.”
- On race, Griffin applauds the Chinese people as “ranked high among the world’s top races” and hopes whites can create “an ethnostate for our people not unlike China.” Further, “we don’t mind at all if the Chinese decide to colonize and civilize the negroes [sic] of Africa.”
- On anticommunism, Griffin argues that China’s state-directed economy is just plain better than U.S. neoliberalism. “The life expectancy of White people in the United States is dropping” and “what used to be the American middle class is now descending into poverty thanks to our current economic model!” In contrast, “the Chinese have lifted half a billion people out of poverty” and are “building high speed rail and investing in deep learning to beat the United States in the race to a 21st century economy.” Unlike the U.S., “the Chinese aren’t being overrun by Third World immigrants…” Explicitly rejecting claims by Steve Bannon that China’s unfair trade practices have gutted U.S. manufacturing, Griffin counters that “China is a convenient scapegoat and a way to distract attention from the fact that it is automation that is devastating the working class.”
With regard to COVID-19, Griffin writes
that “undoubtedly, China shares a lot of the blame,” such as allowing
unsanitary wet markets and “stumbl[ing] in its own initial response to
the virus in December,” but that “Once the Chinese state swung into
action, it was highly competent in suppressing the virus.” By contrast,
Donald Trump “ignored the threat, dismissed and downplayed the virus,”
and “said the virus was going to just go away like a miracle.” As a
result, “Instead of having one Wuhan, the virus has been allowed to
establish itself and metastasize in nearly every county in the [United
States] in just under two weeks.”
Some of Brad Griffin’s views on China dovetail with those of the Lyndon LaRouche network, which espouses a multicultural version of fascist ideology. The LaRouchites have for years celebrated Xi Jinping’s combination of political authoritarianism and massive, centralized infrastructure projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. This month, for example, Helga Zepp-LaRouche (Lyndon’s widow and successor as head of the network) denounced “the vicious anti-China campaign being promulgated in the West” as an attempt to deflect blame for western governments’ own shortcomings in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. She also declared “China is not an aggressive force. But naturally, it does threaten the idea of a unipolar world order, which some neo-con and British elements had tried to impose in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, through interventionist wars.”
* * *
The range of positions on China I’ve outlined shows us once again that the U.S. right—and even the white nationalist right—is not monolithic in its views. This is significant for several reasons. Racist portrayals of Chinese people—like anti-Jewish stereotyping—can sometimes take an ostensibly positive form while still carrying a dehumanizing message. Rightists can also avoid racist portrayals altogether while still promoting other anti-Chinese themes. And as we’ve seen, not all rightists vilify China, and even direct criticisms of anti-Chinese racism may come from far right sources.
The fact that a significant subset of white nationalists take a friendly view of China raises the possibility that some of them may seek to forge ties with the Chinese government, much as some far rightists in the U.S. and other western countries have received support from Putin’s government in Russia. And as different factions of the U.S. ruling class debate how to respond to China geopolitically, rightists won’t necessarily all line up on the same side of the debate.
Addicted04, China on the globe (China centered), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Matthew N. Lyons has been writing about right-wing politics for over 25 years. His work focuses on the interplay between right-wing movements and systems of oppression, and responses to these movements by leftists, liberals, and the state. He writes regularly for Three Way Fight, a radical antifascist blog, and his work has also appeared in the Guardian, New Politics, Socialism and Democracy, teleSUR, Upping the Anti, and other publications.
Lyons contributed the title essay to the book Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right (Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2017). He is coauthor with Chip Berlet of Right-Wing Populism in America (Guilford Press, 2000) and author of Arier, Patriarchen, Übermenschen: die extreme Rechte in den USA (Aryans, Patriarchs, Supermen: The Far Right in the USA [Unrast Verlag, 2015]).
Lyons is cotrustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, which stewards the literary legacy of the late playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry.