A new era of McCarthyism

March 10, 2023 09:36
Photo: Reuters

A spectre haunts the state of international geopolitics.

It is a spectre that has nought to do with military confrontations, nuclear weapons, or the most advanced of gadgets that states are resorting to in order to prevail in tightly fought battles; indeed, it also has very little of an overlap with the technological, semiconductor, and other forms of capital-intensive competitions that are emerging between great powers, and powers that are yet to be great. The spectre I am speaking of here concerns the politicisation and weaponisation of individuals’ lives and wellbeing to score political points.

More specifically, we are now well and truly in an era of neo-McCarthyism, except the campaign against those suspected to be affiliated with the Soviet Communists in the 1950s, has now been replaced by an incessant, irrational, and fundamentally impetuous campaign of harassment towards any and all ethnic Chinese perceived to bear ties with the Chinese state, on American soil.

I’ve had friends from three-generation ethnic Chinese families living in the Deep South confiding in me that they no longer recognise the environs in which they live – despite having voted for and backed Republicans at each and every one of their races since the 1990s, they have been made to feel like they are little more than aliens at the mercy of an administration that would, as they are mooting in Texas, seek to revoke abilities of any and all of their fellow kinship (non-American resident, Chinese migrants in the country) to purchase land in the area. The defamiliarisation and cognitive dissonance go hand-in-hand with the thinly veiled ethnonationalistic rhetoric targetting those who are persons of colour – specifically East Asians – in white-majority areas in the country.

I’ve had friends who cut their teeth practising law and medicine in the United Kingdom, relaying their concerns in private to me over the casualisation and regularisation of racism under the double whammy of COVID-19 and the broader geopolitical tectonic shifts in which they have been embroiled. A decade ago, Britain had pursued a so-called ‘Golden Era’ of relations with China – in ways and with mechanisms that many have retrospectively dubbed naïve in face of the radical transformations that have taken to China; yet at the very least, ten years ago ethnic Chinese individuals did not have to fear for their lives as they strolled on the streets of Camden, Salford, or, indeed, the rural suburbs of Wales. The times we now live have provided ample excuses – plentiful reasons – for opportunists to prance on vulnerable Chinese migrants, with the aims of castigating and stripping them of their bare dignity in an increasingly hostile space.

We come to hear of teachers, researchers, and academics who identify and view themselves as firmly planted within the Western academe, only to be told – at some point over the past few years – that their research is too “sensitive”, too “dangerous”, and too “intertwined” with particular foreign forces to be accepted and tolerated. In America, some of them were prosecuted under the ominously named and all-encompassing ‘China Initiative’; in other states, the form of social ostracisation and cancelling takes a more subdued and subtle form – whether it in the withdrawal of funding, slandering of one as purportedly in bed with particular hostile forces (I wonder where this trick is often pulled as a rhetorical device, I do wonder…), or broader allegations that impugn upon one’s social standing and ability to work with one’s colleagues, these are very much visceral and demonstrative means by which a new Witch Hunt against ethnic or culturally Chinese individuals has taken root.

In watching Representative Judy Chu’s testifying on television and beyond her devotion to the US – in face of allegations that she was subserviently serving a foreign state in America – I am reminded of the poignant yet perhaps precipitously truthful proposition: that one could never fit or blend in, not because of the way one acts or speaks or thinks, but because of the way one looks. Make no mistake here: McCarthyism is politically motivated racism – and it’s high time we called a spade a spade. Guard against foreign interference, we must; yet let’s not resort to lazy tropes and bizarre conjectures on racial lines in our attempting, and failing, to do so.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Assistant Professor, HKU