A Texas state senator, the author of a controversial bill to ban Chinese citizens from buying property in the state, made an association between her legislation and the Chinese surveillance balloon recently shot down in the U.S. And it has Asian American leaders concerned.
“This bill may prove even more significant in light of a Chinese spy balloon that traversed across the continental United States before being shot down by the US military just days ago,” Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican, said last week in response to a request for comment about her bill. “It is clear that national security concerns by everyday Texans continue to grow.”
In recent weeks, eyes have turned to Texas Senate Bill 147, which would strip citizens of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea of the right to buy land or property, including homes. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has already said he will sign it if it passes.
Asian American leaders say Kolkhorst’s attempt to tie the property bill to the surveillance balloon are not only inane, but also harmful.
“It is typical fear mongering. It is typical xenophobic behavior,” said John C. Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen this in history time and again.”
Kolkhorst did not respond to a request for an additional comment on the balloon’s relation to her Texas Senate bill.
National security has often been the guise for demonizing and censuring Asians in the U.S., Yang said.
“Whether it is World War II, whether it is 9/11, you can even go back to the Chinese Exclusion Act back in the 1860s, when the talk was around, how the nation was becoming less secure because of the so-called Yellow Peril,” he said. “In this way, Asian Americans have been particularly vulnerable targets.”
“China” in recent years has been conflated with “Chinese people” or “Asian people” in right-wing political rhetoric, he said.
“The main concern I have had with rhetoric around the spy balloon is overgeneralizing about who is of concern to the United States,” Yang said. “Certainly, the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party are of concern. We don’t disagree with that. But whenever you simply say the Chinese or the Chinese people are doing this to our country, that creates the narrative that it is a society that is the United States’ enemy.”
Asian Americans have been framed as “perpetual foreigners,” Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Manjusha Kulkarni said, and no matter how long they’ve been in the U.S., their allegiance to the country is constantly called into question. The trope reared its head with Covid-related anti-Asian violence, she said, and rhetoric around the balloon has the potential to reignite it.
“When there are issues — whether they be competition with other nation-states, economic insecurity, public health threats, or concerns about national security — then individuals in our communities get blamed and get scapegoated,” she said. “Policies then are directed at them as opposed to simply focusing on the foreign government.”
Kolkhorst making the connection between the balloon and the need for the property bill is one example of that, she said.
“It appears to be scapegoating,” Kulkarni said. “Typically, policies and legislation seek to address a problem. What I have not seen or heard is — what is the problem they are seeking to address? Has someone associated with or responsible for the balloon purchased property in the United States or specifically in Texas?”
Yang said that politicians, when denouncing the actions of the Chinese government, could mediate harm by making it clear that Asian Americans shouldn’t be targets.
“We all need to come up with a smarter way of talking about these tensions while not causing the backlash against vulnerable communities,” he said.