China grows as campaign theme during pandemic

China’s relationship with the U.S. and its role in the coronavirus pandemic that’s brought the world to a standstill is growing into a central political theme for Republicans up and down the ballot in 2020.

President Trump has shifted from praising the transparency of Chinese President Xi Jinping, to blaming China for the spread of the coronavirus. He’s halted funding to the World Health Organization for being too “China-centric” and aired a campaign ad portraying Joe Biden as too cozy with China. 

The ad has been slammed by Biden’s team, Democrats and some Asian-American leaders, who were quick to point out that a montage showing Biden with Chinese government officials included former Washington Governor Gary Locke, an Asian-American. 

“President Trump and his team are fanning hatred and it needs to stop now. Asian Americans are Americans. Period,” Governor Locke tweeted. But the pro-Trump America First Action PAC persists, rolling out three #BeijingBiden ads hammering Biden over China. 

At the same time, Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign is ramping up messaging on China and the coronavirus in ads, fundraising emails and digital campaign events. 

“China has been lying and doing everything they can to cover up the spread of COVID-19 in their country. It’s absolutely disgraceful and we can’t stand by and do nothing,” one fundraising email read.

“It’s not a surprise that something like Chinese Corona was let loose in a place like China, was let loose within a society where there isn’t a lot of truth-telling,” conservative activist Matt Schlapp said in a “Catholics for Trump” livestream event.

Down-ballot Republicans are matching the tone, which Democrats and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community leaders are calling xenophobic and characterizing as an attempt to find a scapegoat for Trump’s pandemic response.

Both the House and Senate Republican campaign arms have taken the cues in their releases. In a release this week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee highlighted comments by GOP senators about making China “pay” for their role in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Arizona Senator Martha McSally, who faces a tough re-election, was one of the first to call on the WHO director to step down, accusing the organization of helping to cover up China’s suspected underreporting of  COVID-19 case numbers. 

In Texas’ 22nd District, where the AAPI community makes up almost 20% of the demographic, Republican runoff candidate Kathaleen Wall used a campaign ad to blame China, calling it a “criminal enterprise” that covered up the virus and “let it spread all over the world.” 

The ad praises Mr. Trump for his references to the “Chinese virus” and having “the courage to call it what it is,” though the president has said he’d stop using this term. Democrats, including her potential Democratic opponent, Sri Preston Kulkarni, condemned the ad as “irresponsible race-baiting” that’s dangerous to the diverse district. 

“The problems with China come from their oppressive communist party running the party, not from the people running the country. The people from China are just like us. This is all about freedom, it’s not about race politics,” Wall said in an interview with CBS News.

Texas state Representative Gene Wu’s district overlaps with the Houston suburban district Wall is running in. He called the ad “asinine,” but to him, it’s in line with Mr. Trump’s previous rhetoric and contributes to an atmosphere of fear in the Asian-American community.

“For them it’s politics,” he told CBS News. “For us, it’s physical safety and life or death.” 

In March, the FBI’s Houston office warned of a potential surge in coronavirus-related hate crimes due to an “assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations,” ABC News first reported.

In the last three weeks there have been about 1,500 incidents of verbal harassment or physical assault against Asian-Americans, according to a tracker by the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council and the Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) organization.

One such incident occurred in Midland, Texas, where an Asian-American family was stabbed inside a Sam’s Club because the assailant thought “the family was Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus,” the FBI report said.

“[Trump] has called himself the war president. And any war president needs a foreign enemy. For him, that is China,” California Congresswoman Judy Chu, a Democrat, told CBS News. “But the consequences of him doing that is that Americans who follow him are picking on anybody that they perceive to be Chinese.”

Chu, the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said she’s seen anti-China rhetoric in previous elections but this “situation is very volatile because people are so frightened and emotional.” 

“It is clear that the Chinese government did not reveal the extent of the disease early on. But on the other hand, there were things that the American government did not do well either,” she said.

AAPI voters tend to lean Democratic in California, but nationwide, 38% didn’t identify with any party, according to a AAPI Data survey. The data also shows that of the 44 congressional seats that flipped in 2018, the AAPI share of the electorate exceeded the margin of victory in 18 races. 

Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote executive director Christine Chen cautioned campaigns not to rely on a “blame game” framework.

“Scapegoating Asian Americans or Asian Immigrants for foreign issues could make an impact at the polls. We have seen that in the past,” she said. One example she pointed to was a 2012 Michigan Senate ad, in which the Republican candidate implied his Democrat opponent’s spending record resulted in China taking American jobs. 

“It’s one thing to criticize policy or a particular president or elected official in a different country. But we have to be careful in terms of how we frame it and not imply that this is actually attached to a whole generation of people,” Chen said.

Nicole Sganga, Eleanor Watson and Bo Erickson contributed reporting.

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