A New Cold War Threatens Chinese Americans

The previous cold wars exacted a terrible toll on American Jews. The new cold war will do the same for Chinese Americans.

Peter Beinart
April 30, 2020
Commentator Gordon G. Chang on Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight.

IN FEBRUARY, reporters from ProPublica visited the abandoned, disheveled chemistry lab of former University of Florida professor Weihong Tan. After teaching at the Gainesville campus for 23 years, Tan had left abruptly in 2019 in the wake of a Trump administration crackdown on American academics with ties to Chinese universities. Tan had no made no secret of his overseas work; his department chair had even encouraged it. No one had accused him of espionage—only of failing to meet paperwork requirements that, until recently, were laxly enforced. He’s now working on a coronavirus test at a research center in Hunan Province.

Tan’s sudden flight is one example of the price Chinese Americans are paying for the growing hostility between Washington and Beijing. Even before Donald Trump began calling the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” his administration had adopted a strikingly confrontational stance toward the world’s other superpower. During the 2016 campaign, Trump accused China of “raping” the United States. In 2018, his administration’s National Defense Strategy labelled Beijing a “strategic competitor.” This year, Republicans running for the Senate are reportedly planning to make China the central villain of their campaigns. The two nations, declared Henry Kissinger last year, are in “the foothills of a cold war.”

History teaches that cold wars exact a terrible toll on those Americans whom other Americans associate with the enemy. They narrow definitions of national loyalty, sometimes almost overnight. And the Americans who fall outside those cramped definitions—like Weihong Tan—often see their lives destroyed.

American Jews once experienced this firsthand. Seventy years before Tan lost his job, another American scientist, Frank Oppenheimer, was forced to resign from the University of Minnesota, where he had taught physics. Oppenheimer, too, had run afoul of the loyalty tests created by a cold war. In the 1930s, with the capitalist world in depression, he had briefly joined the Communist Party. By the late 1940s—with relations between the US and Soviet Union growing bitterly hostile—that association made him unemployable in the American academy. It was not until almost a decade later, after the hysteria of the early cold war eased, that he got a job teaching physics again.

There are obvious differences between the claims of disloyalty leveled at Chinese Americans today, which center on their professional ties to their ancestral homeland, and the claims of disloyalty leveled at American Jews because of their role on the American left. But in both cases, people like Tan and Oppenheimer are only the most dramatic victims. Less noticeable are those who contort themselves in order to pass the loyalty tests that Tan and Oppenheimer failed.

In a Washington Post op-ed published earlier this month, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang suggested combatting charges that Asian Americans are disloyal through brazen displays of patriotism, including wearing red, white, and blue. “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” he urged. “We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” Days later, Gordon G. Chang—a hawkish commentator who has appeared on Fox News over 40 times since Covid-19 hit the US—offered a more menacing gloss on the same theme. “Some Chinese-Americans,” he tweeted, “show more loyalty to #China than America.” 

These exercises in cold war patriotism—which consciously or unconsciously display loyalty at other people’s expense—also have ugly precedents in American Jewish history. In 1949, a mob yelling slogans like “N— loving Jews . . . Go back to Moscow!” attacked a largely Jewish crowd returning from a concert sponsored by the Civil Rights Congress in Peekskill, New York. But because the Congress was an alleged communist front, the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, fearing the taint of disloyalty, refused to champion the victims’ cause. 

Even as the red scares of the 20th century targeted American Jews, they also made it harder for them to challenge American policies at home and abroad. In eras of hyper-nationalism and politically-induced fear, it’s hard to demonstrate allegiance to your country and challenge it at the same time. This is the dilemma Chinese Americans face now. To prove their patriotism, they face pressure to mute their opposition to the very cold war policies that threaten them. Jewish American history provides a lesson in what is lost when the targeting of a minority group during a cold war goes largely unchallenged. 

THE COLD WAR that transformed American Jewish politics came in two parts. The first followed the Russian Revolution in 1917, when Woodrow Wilson’s government—fearful of revolutionary sentiment at home—launched a campaign against those who, as Wilson had put it in a 1915 Congressional address, “have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” 

Jews—an immigrant population with leftist inclinations—were particularly vulnerable. In his introduction to Jewish Radicals: A Documentary Reader, the historian Tony Michels notes that in 1920, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won 38% of the Jewish vote—ten times his percentage among Americans at large. The Yiddish communist newspaper, Di frayhayt, boasted a higher circulation than the Daily Worker, the official publication of the Communist Party USA. 

Thus, Jews suffered disproportionately when Wilson signed the 1918 Aliens Act, which enabled the deportation of any non-citizen accused of membership in an organization that sought the violent overthrow of the US government. Hundreds of leftist immigrants were deported—among them the Jewish anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman—even though, according to historian Richard Fried’s Nightmare in Red, “most were guilty only of radical views.” 

This first cold war devastated the Jewish—and the broader American—left. In 1919, the House of Representatives refused to seat Victor Berger, a German Jewish socialist from Milwaukee. In 1921, New York expelled five socialists from the state legislature and gerrymandered Meyer London, the socialist congressman from the Lower East Side, out of his seat. In the 1920s, Michels writes, “the Socialist Party found itself in disarray, the Communist Party was stuck in near isolation, and the bulk of organized labor was pushed into retreat.” 

The Great Depression—which exposed the instability and inhumanity of unregulated capitalism—revived the American left. And between 1935 and 1939, when the Communist Party USA pursued a popular front against fascism, communists and socialists gained entry into a wide array of progressive groups. But all this set the stage for an even more brutal backlash starting in the late 1940s, when the wartime alliance between the US and USSR collapsed. 

Like the first cold war that followed World War I, this second cold war—which came after World War II—created loyalty tests that Jews, disproportionately, could not meet. In 1949, New York State barred anyone who had engaged in “treasonable or seditious acts or utterances” from teaching public school. Over 200 New York City teachers resigned or were fired. In 1951, a 56-year-old Bronx house painter named Benny Saltzman, who had immigrated from Poland almost 40 years earlier, was ordered to be deported because he had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s. In 1953, three Jewish professors at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College were fired for having joined the Party as students. In 1955, after being blacklisted in Hollywood for his alleged communist ties, the actor Philip Loeb committed suicide. 

Not everyone targeted during the Red Scare was praiseworthy, or even innocent. Some communists, including some Jewish communists, did spy for the USSR. The Communist Party USA, in its slavish devotion to the Soviet Union, often betrayed the progressive ideals it claimed to espouse. But by the late 1940s, distinctions between leftists who supported the Communist Party and those who did not mattered little. The second cold war redefined patriotism in ways that made fundamental critiques of American capitalism—even from leftists with staunch anti-Stalinist credentials—harder to voice. And since Jews had been overrepresented among the Americans inclined toward such critiques, it constrained and inhibited American Jewish political life. 

The Cold War turned red-hunting Jews—like Irving Saypol, who prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and his special assistant, Roy Cohn, who went on to work for Joseph McCarthy—into arbiters of which Jews were ideologically acceptable. And even many Jews who disliked McCarthyism grew fearful of incurring its wrath by defending the rights of accused communists. In 1953, the famed Columbia University literary critic Lionel Trilling—a former Marxist himself—co-authored a statement declaring that “membership in Communist organizations almost certainly implies a submission to an intellectual control which is entirely at variance with the principles of academic competence.” In other words, Columbia shouldn’t employ a member of the Communist Party even to teach math.

Former Marxists like Trilling didn’t just say Communist Party members had no place in America’s universities. They abandoned the search for alternatives to capitalism that had been widespread among American Jews in the 1930s. The second cold war, historian Deborah Dash Moore has observed, led to “the decline of a viable Jewish left in the United States.” As Fried comments in Nightmare in Red, it “narrowed the range of selection open to associations, utterances and ideas . . . the collective result was a significant slowing of the momentum of [progressive] changes in a number of areas of American life.” 

Most American Jews survived the second cold war—as they had survived the first—with their freedom and livelihoods intact. Collectively, Jews in the 1950s continued their climb from the immigrant ghetto into the middle class. But inclusion came at a price. By enforcing a constricted vision of patriotism, the Cold War forced Jews to temper the radical dissent that had been a defining feature of American Jewish political life.

IN RECENT YEARS, Chinese Americans have experienced a whiplash similar to the one that leftist American Jews experienced after World War II. In 2006, almost twice as many Americans felt favorably toward China as felt unfavorably. As late as 2014, the Obama administration announced that China would join a select group of countries whose citizens could visit the US for up to ten years on a single visa. Lured by Chinese talent and money, American businesses and universities took advantage of this permissive political environment to build connections across the Pacific. And, very often, the people they turned to build those connections were Chinese Americans. “If you go back five or ten years,” explains Frank H. Wu, the incoming president of Queens College, “every American university wanted a connection with a Chinese school. They turned to their own ethnic Chinese faculty to help them do this.” Stanford historian Gordon H. Chang (no relation to the Gordon G. Chang who appears frequently on Fox News) told me that “Chinese Americans were quiet but substantial beneficiaries of the US–China business relationship. They worked as cultural interpreters, dealmakers, lawyers. I can’t tell you how many Chinese Americans there are whose careers advanced because of closer US–China ties.”

But since Trump took office, American attitudes toward China have dramatically soured. The percentage of Americans who view China unfavorably—which stood at 29% in 2006—is now 66%. And as in the late 1940s, this rapid deterioration in superpower relations has sparked a hunt for enemies within. 

At a private dinner in 2018, Trump mused that “almost every student that comes over to this country” from China “is a spy.” In 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that the “naïveté on the part of the academic sector” was allowing China to use “professors, scientists, students . . . across basically every discipline” as agents of espionage. The FBI has launched  investigations into Chinese government spying at American companies. And with the Bureau’s help, the National Institutes of Health—which a decade ago was establishing its own partnership with China’s National Natural Science Foundation—has begun 180 inquiries into researchers who have not disclosed their ties to China. 

Not all the subjects of these investigations are ethnically Chinese. But Chinese Americans are particularly likely to be targeted. Early this year, a former FBI official told The Intercept that Bureau leaders were sending the message that “Chinese Americans are being weaponized as a tool” by Beijing. Last year, the president of MIT reported that “faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge—because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.” The Committee of Concerned Scientists has described a “massive investigation of ethnic Chinese faculty throughout the country” that “involves searches of their email accounts, correspondence and phone calls, as well as video surveillance.”

China does, undoubtedly, spy on the US. But in many cases the FBI is not even accusing ethnically Chinese researchers of espionage. It is charging them merely with having failed to adequately disclose associations with Chinese institutions—even though, until recently, neither American universities nor the American government were vigilant about enforcing such disclosure requirements. Often, it’s not even clear that the scientists now facing prosecution were trying to hide their work in China at all. Last August, the Department of Justice indicted University of Kansas chemical engineer Franklin (Feng) Tao on fraud charges for concealing his position at Fuzhou University while doing research funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. Tao could face decades in prison. Yet, as Peter Waldman and Robert Burson of Bloomberg News have noted, Tao listed his relationship with Fuzhou University in several published articles; it’s even mentioned on his Chinese-language Wikipedia site. Last May, Emory University fired Xiao-Jiang and Shihua Li, a husband and wife team who ran a lab conducting research into Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s disease, because they, too, had allegedly failed to disclose work in China. But they, like Tao, had mentioned their Chinese affiliations in published papers. Xiao-Jiang Li claims he even listed his on his CV. 

In several high-profile cases against ethnically Chinese scientists, the Department of Justice has either dropped its charges or failed to convince a jury to convict. After the government brought a fraud charge against National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientist Chunzai Wang, a Florida judge in 2018 expressed “regret . . . that I have to adjudicate Mr. Wang” at all. A 2019 study of cases brought under the Economic Espionage Act found that the Justice Department was almost twice as likely to bring cases that did not result in a guilty verdict against Chinese Americans as it was to bring such cases against Americans with Western-sounding last names. But even when cases are dismissed, Chinese American academics often pay a terrible price. Four months after armed FBI agents took Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi from his home in handcuffs in 2015, while his wife and daughter watched, the government dropped its case after it became clear that the “secrets” Xi had disseminated to colleagues in China weren’t secrets at all; they were easily accessible on the internet. But when Teresa Watanabe of The Los Angeles Times interviewed Xi last July, she found that he still owed $220,000 in legal bills as a result of his ordeal. He had been stripped of his university chairmanship and most of his government research grants, and was finding it difficult to sleep.

FOR CHINESE AMERICANS, these government investigations are the most blatant consequences of the new cold war. As in the 1950s, however, there are more subtle consequences, too. For every Xiaoxing Xi or Chunzai Wang who sees their lives wrecked because the FBI deems them disloyal, there are other Chinese Americans who avoid being targeted—but at a cost. They downplay their opposition to Washington’s cold war posture because their ethnicity makes them vulnerable to being labeled agents of Beijing.

Chinese Americans—who emigrated to the US at different periods and from different places—are ideologically diverse. (In the 1950s, in fact, some Chinese Americans were themselves targets of the Red Scare.) Today, some Chinese Americans with close ties to Taiwan support a hardline US posture toward Beijing. Most Chinese Americans, however, vote Democratic. And although both are somewhat dated, a study of Chinese Americans in North Carolina and a study of Chinese American newspapers—both published in the 2002 edited volume, The Expanding Roles of Chinese Americans in U.S.-China Relations—suggest that most Chinese Americans support a cooperative relationship between Washington and Beijing.

But for Chinese Americans, loudly expressing that view—and thus challenging American policy—risks inviting aspersions on their patriotism. The Trump administration and its allies have already implied that Chinese Americans are more loyal to their ancestral homeland than to the US. In an April ad that depicted Joe Biden cozying up to Chinese government officials, the Trump campaign included an image of the presumptive Democratic nominee with Gary Locke, the Chinese American former Secretary of Commerce—thus implying that Locke is an agent of China too. Last year, Frank Gaffney, who has spent decades claiming that American Muslims constitute a fifth column, launched the Committee on the Present Danger (the name dates to the Red Scare of the 1950s) to alert Americans to Beijing’s influence in the US. In its statement of principles, the Committee warns that the Chinese government is “undermining and subverting Western democracies from within through its: control, domination and exploitation of Chinese diaspora communities.” Among the Committee’s board members is Steve Bannon, who has bemoaned the fact that, supposedly, “two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are . . . from Asia.” 

As in the 1950s, when Roy Cohn and other McCarthyite Jews made themselves arbiters of American Jewish patriotism, some hawkish Chinese Americans have begun questioning whether other Chinese Americans are loyal. “Some Chinese-Americans never miss an opportunity to bash America to support #China’s attacks on our society,” tweeted Fox News favorite Gordon G. Chang in April. “They don’t deserve America.” That same month, Pastor Bob Fu—one of three ethnically Chinese members on the Committee on the President Danger’s 51 member board—retweeted a video of a Chinese American woman, ostensibly in the US, boasting that “it feels so awesome to buy all the [coronavirus] masks. I didn’t leave a single mask for the Americans.” Fu called on the FBI to “investigate her” and the Department of Homeland Security to send her “back to #CCPChina.” 

These insinuations of disloyalty—which have only grown since Covid-19 sparked a wave of attacks on Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans—constitute the backdrop to Andrew Yang’s op-ed calling on Asian Americans to display their patriotism. There’s nothing wrong with asking Asian Americans—or any other group of Americans—to help out their fellow citizens in this moment of need. But at a time of mounting paranoia about the China threat, it’s difficult to fulfill Yang’s call for super-patriotism and challenge America’s bellicose posture toward Beijing at the same time. The fear of appearing soft on China, Stanford historian Gordon H. Chang told me, “has put a damper on many people.” Many Chinese Americans “are very fearful of standing out” by criticizing US policy. As in the 1920s and 1950s, hyper-nationalists are defining patriotism in ways that limit space for dissent. Kaiser Kuo, editor-at-large of the news website SupChina and the host of its Sinica podcast, explains, “For Chinese Americans, it’s not just apologia for Beijing or for the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] that arouses suspicions of disloyalty now: even saying something construed as ‘in line with the CCP narrative’ can get you in trouble.” 

Like Jews in the early and mid-20th century, Chinese Americans today enjoy advantages that will help them weather the coming cold war. Like Jews, Chinese Americans are comparatively well-educated; a majority of Chinese American adults possess at least a bachelor’s degree compared to roughly one-third of Americans overall. And like most Jews, most Chinese Americans are not black, and thus benefit from the fact that they are not white America’s quintessential other.  

But Chinese Americans deserve to do more than survive, or even economically prosper. They deserve to be able to assert their views about a geopolitical struggle that will shape the next era of American history and, if they so choose, to boldly challenge an American foreign policy course that has deep implications for their lives. That also means feeling free to speak out against the domestic racism that the geopolitical situation exacerbates. The problem with Yang’s op-ed, The Huffington Post’s Marina Fong has argued, is that it “reinforces the model minority trope” that implies Asian Americans should “NOT speak out about racism . . . when we should be doing the opposite.” 

If America’s escalating cold war with Beijing inhibits Chinese American dissent—as the cold wars of the 20th century inhibited dissent by American Jews—Chinese Americans won’t be the only ones who suffer. Jingoistic intimidation rarely produces good foreign policy. As David Halberstam detailed in The Best and the Brightest, McCarthyism silenced voices that could have warned of the disaster the US was courting in Vietnam. Today, the Trump administration is using its antagonism toward China as justification to cripple the World Health Organization, the international body tasked with fighting pandemics. If Chinese Americans don’t feel free to challenge the new cold war without having their loyalty questioned, we will all pay the price.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.