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Rep. Judy Chu: How to talk about China's role in pandemic in racially sensitive way

You can condemn China without putting Asian Americans in danger, "and that is what is so infuriating about Republicans' insistence on using racist slurs," said Rep. Judy Chu.
Judy Chu
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., appears at a news conference on Capitol Hill on July 24, 2020, on the extension of federal unemployment benefits.Andrew Harnik / AP file

The chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif, has released a toolkit to guide her colleagues on how to avoid inciting or emboldening anti-Asian sentiment and racism tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The toolkit, which Chu disseminated to her fellow members of Congress last week, lays out language to help lawmakers push back on rising anti-Asian bias, offering suggestions on how to discuss China's role in the pandemic.

Chu said many GOP lawmakers have used terms like "China virus" while blaming China for the spread of the pandemic, putting Asian Americans in harm's way. However, they don't need to resort to such rhetoric to get their point across, she said.

"Absolutely it is possible to condemn China without putting AAPIs in danger, and that is what is so infuriating about Republicans' insistence on using racist slurs like 'kung flu' or 'China virus,'" Chu said, referring to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. "They claim they're being tough on China when, in actuality, they're just hurling insults and name-calling without articulating substantive arguments."

She added: "That's what prompted me to issue this guidance urging my colleagues in Congress to be specific in their criticisms of China rather than race-baiting simply to deflect blame. ... We need details, not diatribes."

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The toolkit recommends that lawmakers avoid associating the virus with a country, region or ethnicity and conflating the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, with all Chinese people or the broader Chinese diaspora.

The resource says using terms like "the Chinese" could prompt people to believe that those who are of Chinese descent are to blame for the virus. Instead, it advises legislators to be specific, saying exactly which "particular policy or decision and explicitly naming the CCP, or a specific CCP leader."

"Speaking about the problem in specific terms helps you to be more accurate and responsible, while simultaneously providing better clarity to constituents about your concerns with the CCP and its policies," the toolkit reads.

The guidance also warns against using "Cold War-style rhetoric" like nebulous criticisms of China. Chu said that while many members of Congress take anti-Asian hate violence seriously, too many prioritize depicting China as an enemy and don't fully weigh the impact of their words. The toolkit says the spirit of such language is the same that prompted the "shameful incarceration of innocent Japanese Americans" during World War II."

"Intentionally vague criticisms against a whole country of over 1 billion people reinforce outdated and dangerous Cold War mentalities that the entire country is an enemy," the guidance reads. "We should not repeat the mistakes of World War II and the Cold War by fomenting fear of an entire nation again today."

John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, said such guidance is particularly crucial, citing Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Cornyn of Texas as lawmakers who have done damage in perpetuating the racist association between Asians and the disease.

Cotton not only has repeatedly used terms like "China virus," but he has also perpetuated the conspiracy theory that the disease originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. Cornyn has blamed China for the pandemic, saying its people "eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that."

"We have seen senators and representatives use the 'China virus' term, and those statements are stoking misinformation and fear. Our community is struggling to cope with COVID-19 xenophobic attacks while also being one of the communities most affected by it," Yang said.

He said it's "heartbreaking" that such guidance must be issued, because lawmakers are "the very people who have sworn an oath to represent and look out for the welfare of all Americans, but it is necessary right now."

Chu said that so far, she has gotten positive feedback from her Democratic colleagues but that she hasn't heard from her Republican peers. She said that with more than 2,300 reported hate incidents having been recorded by Stop AAPI Hate as of July 15, she hopes more of her colleagues will regard their words as more than just semantics.

Chu said that as certain areas across the U.S. move toward reopening, more issues could arise for the AAPI community, making it all the more crucial that Americans take the words of public health officials seriously.

"As some states rushed to reopen and the virus spread, so did the anti-Asian bigotry," she said. "That's why it's important that we listen to the CDC's guidance, which warned not to label a virus by a region or ethnicity, like 'Wuhan flu,' for instance, because that puts people at risk."