By Queenie Wong
As politicians from around the world arrive in San Francisco this week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, Asian Americans expressed mixed feelings about the summit and Wednesday’s highly anticipated meeting between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Whatever happens in other countries has an impact on Chinese Americans, Asian Americans, Chinese immigrants and how we are being treated in this country,” said Joyce Lam, political director of the Chinese Progressive Assn., a group aimed at empowering low-income and working-class Chinese immigrants.
With rising tensions between the U.S. and China since the COVID-19 pandemic and disputes over trade and human rights, some Asian Americans said mending the fraught relationship between the two countries could help dial down rhetoric fueling anti-Asian hate. At the same time, Asian Americans say they worry that opening up more trade between the two countries could lead to more low-wage workers being exploited and harm the environment. Other Asian Americans, who still travel to China, raised concerns about the Communist Party’s control over banks and the media.
In Chinatown, some Chinese Americans who grew up in China were hesitant to provide their names because of fears their critical remarks could affect travel to the country. One resident said he thinks the Communist Party exerts too much control over China’s financial sector and media, making it tough to criticize the government. Another said he thought the tensions between China and the U.S. really stemmed from competition between the two countries.
But for Ed Chew, a 73-year-old San Francisco native who is Chinese American, Biden’s meeting with Xi is loaded with positive potential.
“Under the Trump administration, we developed a kind of adversarial trade position with China,” he said while walking his dog in Chinatown. “Any face-to-face meeting is a chance to defuse these trade wars.”
About 52% of Asian Americans have an unfavorable view of China, according to a survey published this year by the Pew Research Center. Roughly 20% of Asian adults have a favorable opinion of China while 26% don’t have a favorable or unfavorable view about the country.
Chinese Americans who are born in the U.S. are less likely to see China in a positive light compared with those born abroad, the survey shows. About 35% of Chinese Americans have an unfavorable view of China while 41% of that group see the country positively. About 22% of Chinese Americans don’t have a favorable or unfavorable view about China.
Brandon Lee, a Chinese American human rights activist who was born and raised in San Francisco, is concerned about the U.S. increasing its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. expanded access to military bases in the Philippines this year, prompting criticism from Chinese officials that the U.S. is “endangering regional peace.” China has clashed with the Philippines, Taiwan and other neighbors over control of the South China Sea.
“They’re engaging with China, and I don’t think that should be the issue,” said Lee, 41, who was shot outside his home in the Philippines in 2019 in a suspected assassination attempt that left him paralyzed. “The issue should be supporting the people on the ground, the people in Taiwan, in the Philippines, but not to encircle China.”
Lee is part of the No to APEC coalition, which is made up of more than 100 grassroots groups that held a massive protest on Sunday that touched upon a variety of issues, including climate change and the Israel-Hamas war. More protests are scheduled throughout the week, including on Wednesday when Biden is scheduled to meet with Xi on the sidelines of the conference and business executives are gathering with California Gov. Gavin Newsom at the main event.
Jose W. Fernandez, who leads the U.S. State Department’s efforts on economic growth, energy and the environment, said the Biden administration‘s priorities for the summit include progress on climate change and labor rights.
“Improving working conditions around the world and improving employment for American workers is essential to what we’re trying to do in the region,” he said.
California Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who is Chinese American, said if rhetoric against China becomes more inflamed, he’s worried it could fuel more anti-Asian hate. During the COVID-19 pandemic when then-President Trump used anti-China rhetoric, Asian Americans experienced an uptick in violence and racism.
“The stakes are very large because should China become the next enemy of the United States, I think it will become a very tough place for Asian Americans to live,” Ting said.
There are more than 22 million Asians living in the U.S. and roughly one-third live in California, according to U.S. census data. Asians make up about 16% of California’s population.
Tensions between China and the U.S. heightened during the Trump administration, escalating a trade war between two of the world’s most powerful countries. Trump started to impose a series of tariffs on goods imported from China in 2018 to punish the country for allegedly stealing U.S. technologies and intellectual property. China hit back with tariffs on U.S. goods.
The U.S. tax rate on Chinese imports is more than 19% while China’s import tax rate on U.S. goods is 21%, according to data from Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Ahead of Biden’s meeting with Xi, some Asian Americans are still having a tough time wrapping their heads around how the gathering will affect them, said Lam, of the Chinese Progressive Assn.
“It’s not like President Xi is coming to have dim sum in Chinatown with everyone,” Lam said. “It continues to feel as if they’re removed and distant to everyday people.”