China in 2 minutes a day
Top news and analysis delivered to your inbox

Sinica backgrounder: Fear, identity and the rise of China

or the September 15 episode of the Sinica Podcast, which features the author and law professor Frank Wu, learn more about China’s ascendance, Chinese identity and how American society treats people of Asian heritage when a nation in East Asia is on the rise.
1 year ago
Amedeo Tumolillo
Hung Chung Chih/

In 1982, two men in Detroit beat to death Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American, days before his wedding. Why? It depends on who you ask. Some accounts of the violent episode that began in a nightclub indicate the assailants, workers in the ailing U.S. auto industry, considered Chin to be Japanese and blamed him for American car companies’ struggle to compete against the rising Asian nation. They called Chin a “chink” and a “nip,” according to the indictment. But one of the men convicted in the case said 30 years later that “it had nothing to do with the auto industry or Asians or anything else.” For him, it was a nightclub quarrel taken to a terrible extreme.

Regardless, the fact remains that an Asian-looking man was killed by another man wielding a baseball bat in a Detroit parking lot during an era when fear and anger about a rising Asian power were rampant. Is it possible that another tragedy like Vincent Chin’s could occur again, but with China’s rise as the backdrop? Could the nation’s success, much like Japan’s in the past, again threaten Chinese-Americans and Asian-Americans with the bludgeons of racism and fear?

These are extreme questions that seem alarmist, yet it’s not just Chin’s case that prompts them. There was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a response to unemployment and declining wages that effectively stopped Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. and prevented them from becoming citizens. People of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps during World War II. Scientists of Chinese heritage have had their careers destroyed and lives disrupted after enduring government espionage charges that were later dropped or reduced. The Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency has said that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese” and “China is raping this country,” not to mention other xenophobic remarks about Muslims and Mexicans.

What’s next? Are there other, less shocking ways that China’s expanding global clout — geopolitical, economic and cultural — might affect the experience of Asians in America? And while we’re at it, what does it even mean to be Chinese-American, Asian-American or Asian? Who created these terms?  

Frank Wu, an author of books and essays, law professor and chair of the Committee of 100, joined the Sinica Podcast on September 15 to answer some of these questions (and also to discuss the racial categories of Tiger Woods and Keanu Reeves). Below, you can find a bit more background material on his conversation with Kaiser and Jeremy.  

  • The case of Wen Ho Lee and other scientists highlights the upcoming conflict between white nationalism and the majority-minority future of the U.S. / Slate
  • Latinos and Muslims are the scapegoats for U.S. anxiety much like the Chinese were in 1882 / San Francisco Chronicle
  • Chinese adoptees explore the country of their birth and identity / NBC News
  • Americans and Chinese lack positive views of each other, and five other findings about the nations’ perspectives / Pew Research Center
  • A peaceful rise is possible, and five other conclusions from a comparison of the ascendance of both China and the U.S. / Chinese Journal of International Politics
  • China’s middle class is transforming global tourism / Economist
  • An overview of the Chinese diaspora / Academy for Cultural Diplomacy
By Amedeo Tumolillo
Amedeo Tumolillo is an editorial consultant with SupChina and award-winning multimedia journalist. He previously worked at The New York Times and Spectrum. Follow him on Twitter at @hellotumo.
China in 2 minutes a day
Top news and analysis delivered to your inbox