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Rep. Chu warns anti-China rhetoric could open the door to xenophobia


Look, the Democratic and Republican parties are so far apart on most issues, it can often feel like they're speaking different languages. That's why it's so striking to hear bipartisan consensus on one particular topic.


TIM RYAN: China - it's definitely China.

One word - China.

It is us versus China.

MIKE GALLAGHER: It's not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle.

SETH MOULTON: We're standing firm and standing strong and making it clear to China and the Chinese Communist Party that they're not just going to roll over Taiwan as they seemed intend to do.

CHANG: That was Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan in a political ad last year, Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher in a committee hearing in February and Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton on NBC last week. Now, some politicians of both parties have been clear that their rhetoric is directed at the Chinese government. But Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu of California is concerned that the language of geopolitical competition can open the door to xenophobia against Asian Americans.

JUDY CHU: I have always emphasized to my colleagues that they distinguish between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party. Because, I tell you, when it just becomes the Chinese people, then it becomes, in American's minds, everybody.

CHANG: I wanted to talk to Judy Chu about this issue because she has a unique perspective. She is Chinese American herself. And earlier this year, one of her colleagues, Texas Congressman Lance Gooden, accused her of disloyalty in an interview with Fox News.


JESSE WATTERS: Do you think Congresswoman Chu should be looked into?

LANCE GOODEN: I think everyone that is standing up for Chinese Communist Party should be looked into, yes. I question her either loyalty or competence if she doesn't realize what's going on.

CHANG: Gooden said if Chu were serving on the House Intelligence Committee, the speaker would force her off.


GOODEN: I'm really disappointed and shocked that someone like Judy Chu would have a security clearance and be entitled to confidential intelligence briefings until this is figured out.

CHANG: This attack from Gooden, these insinuations that Chu could have ties to the Chinese Communist Party, this all came after Chu had publicly defended a Chinese American man named Dominic Ng, a businessman whom President Biden had appointed to an economic advisory council. Gooden and other Republicans had accused Ng of belonging to organizations that were front groups for the Chinese Communist Party, allegations that Ng and his supporters have refuted. I asked Chu about Gooden's attack on her.

When a fellow House member questioned whether you had personal loyalties to the Chinese Communist Party, what went through your mind?

CHU: I was outraged. I was disgusted. And most of all, I was angry because it was so racist. It was based on a centuries-long stereotype that Chinese Americans and Asian Americans more broadly are forever foreigners in their own land, no matter how much they've contributed to this country, no matter whether they're someone like me, born in America. My father fought for the U.S. in World War II in the Army. I've been an elected official for 37 years in this country. How much more American do I have to be to prove that I am an American?

CHANG: When we reached out to Congressman Gooden's office, he replied with a statement that accused Judy Chu of, quote, "race baiting." Chu says Gooden's attacks are only part of a larger disturbing trend that she has sensed - a new McCarthyism, as she put it, in the Republican Party.

To be fair, do you think only Republicans are speaking about China and Chinese people in a troubling way? Like, is it a strictly partisan problem?

CHU: When you listen to what the members of the select committee said, most of the Democrats portrayed the tension between U.S. and China as one of competition, where the U.S. must regain its leadership in the world in innovation and technology. However, I would say that most of the Republicans characterized it as conflict, and I felt that they were headed towards a new Cold War. So the select committee could take the issue and try to deal with it in a rational manner, or it could turn into xenophobic rhetoric.

CHANG: Well, if I may just speak for myself as a woman of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, I have noticed a shift in the anti-Asian rhetoric used by certain leaders in the U.S. During the pandemic, former President Trump was using blatantly racist phrases like the China virus or like kung flu. And what's troubling now is it seems like there's a subtler conversation now, one that's still centered on hostility and suspicion towards China but a conversation that uses the language of national security, of geopolitics. Do you feel similarly that anti-Asian rhetoric seems to have entered a different phase?

CHU: Yes, we have to take the issues between U.S. and China seriously. Certainly, there is a need for the U.S. to maintain its ability to have things like semiconductors. That's why we passed the CHIPS and Science Act. But at the same time, we have to be careful about crossing the line. And this is what I have been talking about with my colleagues on the Democratic side.

CHANG: Oh, so you have specifically advised, counselled your Democratic colleagues to watch their tone when talking about China.

CHU: Yeah. And in fact, we in the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus sent out messaging guidance to our Democratic colleagues about how to talk about China.

CHANG: Your district contains large portions of the San Gabriel Valley where a lot of Asian immigrants live, people from mainland China and from Taiwan and elsewhere. Do your constituents tell you that they are worried about the rhetoric on China that they hear from Washington?

CHU: They are incredibly worried, down to their very core. We started seeing this when there was the racial profiling of Chinese scientists and engineers starting with the Trump administration.

CHANG: The so-called China initiative.

CHU: The China initiative, exactly that, where Chinese scientists and researchers were accused of being spies for China on the flimsiest of evidence. Eventually, most of them were exonerated, but their lives were ruined because of this. So as a result, Chinese Americans are indeed very concerned about being the next ones to be accused.

CHANG: Let me ask you, then, how do leaders here address concerns about national security and economic tensions between the U.S. and China without letting the conversation backslide into xenophobia or just straight up racism?

CHU: The China initiative is a good example of overreach. I mean, obviously, we want to make sure that our national secrets are protected. But what Trump did was to make this a focus on one country. He didn't have a Russia initiative. He didn't have an Iran initiative. No. And in the discussions that I've been on national security, I always remind everybody, the lawmakers as well as the intelligence officials, that there is tremendous consequence to the xenophobia they could cause if they make this a racial issue. We only have to look at the Japanese American internment to see that 120,000 Japanese Americans lost everything that they had based on suspicions that there were spies amongst them. But to this day, not a single case of espionage has been proven.

CHANG: Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu of California, thank you very, very much for joining us today.

CHU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.