Trump, Tiktok, and the Long History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States

Published on 15 July 2020 at 12:56

In an entirely unsurprising turn of events, President Trump has threatened to ban the download and use of Chinese social media apps within the United States, the most popular of which is Tiktok, an app that has amassed a massive worldwide user base over the past two years. Late last year, however, suspicions began to arise over the vulnerability of the app to malicious hacking attempts, and there were also allegations that Tiktok is essentially a mode of spyware that is actively gathering large amounts of data from users who have the app installed on their phone. This accusation against a specific app raises several questions though, why is it that the American population is still permitted to use Facebook despite its well-known abuse of user data and its refusal to censor misleading political posts, but an app with a similarly American CEO is deemed a threat to democracy due to its inception on Chinese soil? The potential for racially-motivated mistrust of Chinese products in the age of the Chinese Communist Party’s emergence as a global superpower cannot simply be cast aside, especially given the Trump Administration’s track record in regard to its handling of racialised social issues.

         In order to fully understand the danger that lies within Trump’s current brand of racism, it should not be forgotten that not only has he referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” on multiple occasions despite mass criticism, but that racism directed at Asian Americans is unfortunately nothing new, and its history dates back to the foundation of the United States as the nation that we are familiar with today. In his characteristic style of vitriolic politics that won him the election, President Trump has resorted to associating the COVID-19 pandemic with Asian people, and this also has the disastrous effect of transforming the people of an entire continent into a monolith — it should not simply be assumed that every individual who is of identifiably Asian appearance or descent is associated with either China or the coronavirus. Although this sounds like a terribly obvious assertion, this is not so when the same logic is applied to the current leadership of the Republican Party and its devoted followers. It was the Mexican people who were the targets of Trump’s racist rhetoric during the 2016 election, and it will serve as no shock to the system of anyone with the ability to think critically that shifting a unanimous blame for the flaws of society upon an ethnic minority is not only a tactic that has been utilised countless times in the past, but is also a glaring symbol of fascistic tendencies.

         This article has no intention of undermining the damage that Trump’s rise to power has caused to the Mexican community, however, there exists an undeniable link between the history of specifically Asian oppression that arose in the United States during the nineteenth century with President Trump waging war against a Chinese social media app, and his fascination with its spying capabilities, irrespective of the data that has been collected from citizens on domestic soil for almost two decades under the guise of the Patriot Act, which was passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Why is there a sudden focus upon national security when the American people will be affected no differently by their use of Tiktok than they are by owning a mobile phone and downloading any other app that is available to them within the United States? Although there is an extensive history around the subject, perhaps the single most important element of anti-Asian sentiment that has in many ways been revived through the Western reaction to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic is the concept of “Yellow Peril”; this myth encourages Western fear of East Asian people, casting them in the fictional role of potential conquerers of American civilisation if their economic success goes unchecked.

         Although it can easily be argued that Trump’s dislike of the Tiktok platform stems from its predominately teenage users organising themselves in such a way that they were able to disrupt and cause the President’s first rally since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic to be widely regarded as a failure. Certainly, if the past four years have taught us anything about the nature of Trump, it’s that he has proven himself to be consistently unable to separate his public and private personas, often resulting in ill-advised tweets and petty outbursts at press conferences — to this extent, it would not be out of the President’s realm of behaviour to react aggressively to an event that caused him personal offence. Regardless of his motivation, however, the implications of Trump’s seemingly racialised attack remain intact, and society at large should not allow itself to grow desensitised to acts of passive aggression committed by those who hold positions of power, as this mentality is a substantial contributing factor to the 45th President gaining his entry into office. On a superficial level, condemning the Chinese-founded Tiktok app and placing the blame for the coronavirus ravaging through the United States upon the Chinese people is a thinly veiled attempt to redirect public anger towards a vague common enemy, and of course, away from those in the White House itself. Sadly though, this is reminiscent of not only the consistent anti-Semitism of Europeans, who blamed Jewish people for the spread of the Black Death, but also of the United States’ well-documented historic exclusion of Asian immigrants and even Asian Americans from society at large. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, which effectively prevented Chinese people from entering the country unless they were wealthy, despite the fact that Chinese immigrants had spent the past few decades constructing the world’s first transcontinental railroad across America — an achievement for which their contribution and extensive manual labour still goes unrecognised.

         Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the model minority status of Asian Americans has been damaged by xenophobia, despite the popular prevalence of this concept for several decades at this point. Even a person who claims to be unaware of the model minority myth has definitely encountered it, whether this be through popular culture or personal experience; essentially, American society deems Asian people of specifically East Asian descent to be the epitome of a ‘good’ immigrant or minority individual due to their high likelihood to enter into further education and attain a occupation of high social status, such as a lawyer or medical professional. At first glance, this societal assumption might appear to be a positive phenomenon, however, it must be noted that the primary function of perceiving Asian Americans as a model minority is to place them in contrast to, and therefore further oppress African Americans and Latino or Hispanic people, who are commonly depicted as being poor, dirty, or lazy — unlike the hardworking Asian community, or so we are told. Not only is this stereotype damaging to Asian people themselves who are subjected to immense cultural pressure as a result of their perceived ability to excel academically and professionally, but it completely disregards the racism that Asian immigrants suffered at the hands of white Americans right up until the late twentieth century.

         Perhaps the event that most succinctly illustrates the intense distrust of Asian communities in the United States under the guise of the “Yellow Peril”, in which Asian people were deemed to be inherently untrustworthy threats to the white majority, was President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. In response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, vitriol and racism erupted against Japanese Americans as their very existence was deemed to be a potential threat to the country, so they were forcibly relocated to detention centres for the duration of the ensuring war, regardless of their citizenship or social status, anyone on the West coast with Japanese ancestry was a potential suspect, and therefore transported to a camp under the Executive Order. Despite uproar within the Japanese community in the years that followed, this authoritarian act was only deemed to be an unacceptable cruelty in 1988, when President Reagan publicly apologised to the descendants of Japanese victims of internment camps.

            All in all, it would be unwise to assume that due to the prevailing ‘good’ stereotypes surrounding the Asian community in the United States that they are immune to President Trump’s racially-charged outbursts, and in order to combat the harm that he is attempting to cause, we must allow ourselves to consider the far-reaching consequences of his actions as well as words. A threat to ban Tiktok is not just an attack upon the freedom of social media use but upon its popularity among the American youth despite its Chinese origin, a coalition that deeply bothers Trump for a multitude of reasons, the racialised aspect of which should not be underestimated. In order to survive the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and emerge as a unified community, we must question those who seek to harm or otherwise target marginalised groups of people. Indeed, the first step towards this future, is simply asking yourself, “do I enable or otherwise engage in racist or xenophobic behaviours?”, and if the answer to this question is anything other than a resounding ‘no’, then you must continue to question yourself until you begin to constructively apply the same standards to those around you, and even society at large.

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