Art by Byron Kim
In 1879, Sen. James Blaine of Maine took the Senate floor to advocate for the Fifteen Passenger Bill, a precursor to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which, together with the Page Act of 1875, comprised the United States’s first restrictive federal immigration laws and began almost a century of Asian immigrant exclusion. A former Speaker of the House, future Republican presidential candidate, and eventual Secretary of State, Blaine was a rising star in politics who secured national prominence by becoming a legislative voice for Yellow Peril rhetoric. Addressing the Senate, he summarized the case for restricting Chinese immigration through the Fifteen Passenger Bill as follows: “If as a nation we have the right to keep out infectious diseases, if we have the right to exclude the criminal classes from coming to us, we surely possess the right to exclude that immigration which reeks with impurity and which cannot come to us without plenteously sowing the seeds of moral and physical disease, destitution, and death.”
Senator Blaine’s words have found renewed purchase in the present age of pandemic. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, state, media and internet actors have produced an array of narratives racializing the disease by emphasizing similar ideas of Chinese infiltration, despotism, and deviance. Shortly after the discovery of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, theories about a Chinese bioweapon (boosted by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas in numerous instances), 5G radioactive attacks by Huawei, and USA Today, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska exhorted “China’s people are sick because the Chinese system is.” For the Washington Post, torture apologist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc. A Thiessen compared Covid-19 to the September 11 attacks, writing, “Both viruses and virulent ideologies fester in the fever swamps of totalitarianism and then emerge to kill us in our cities and our streets. Two decades ago, it was a terrorist attack; today, it is a once-in-a-generation pathogen. But in both cases, the lack of freedom in a distant land created conditions that allowed an unprecedented threat to grow, bringing death and destruction to our country.”
As Covid-19 reached the status of a pandemic and began to devastate North American and European countries, government officials ramped up their anti-Chinese rhetoric. Following the cue of earlier media reports, the Trump administration and its surrogates alternately dubbed the disease “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese virus,” and “Kung Flu” — even going as far as sabotaging an emergency G7 statement on the pandemic because of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence on using the term “Wuhan virus.” Myriad commentators and elected officials have defended the use of the phrase, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who told one reporter, “China is to blame because the culture [sic] where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that. These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the Swine Flu, and now the coronavirus.” (China was not where the first cases of MERS or Swine Flu were documented, and animal consumption of any kind has not been definitely established as the cause of Covid-19’s transmission to humans. Moreover, new evidence indicates there were cases of the novel coronavirus outside China before the disease was first documented in Wuhan).
Sen. Cornyn’s words aren’t just noteworthy for their racism or their inaccuracy; they also exemplify how eclectic discourses braid together to produce the contemporary Yellow Peril. This porousness between rumors, press polemics, and official state rhetoric was also characteristic of Sen. Blaine’s Yellow Peril 140 years ago, which united influential figures in industry, media and politics with white workers, petty bureaucrats and common gossipers—not just in the United States, but around the world. Lothrop Stoddard, an influential white supremacist thinker of the early 20th century, noted that “Nothing is more striking than the instinctive and instantaneous solidarity which binds together Australians and Afrikaners, Californians and Canadians, into a ‘sacred union’ at the mere whisper of Asiatic migration.” Then, as now, racialized notions of contamination, enemy hordes, despotism, and deviance were marshalled by a variety of actors working across sectors, classes and borders to facilitate an array of political goals, from the passage of immigration bans to the acquisition of colonies in China and throughout the Pacific.
The diversity of contemporary Yellow Peril narratives at play, whether based on ideas of cultural inferiority, authoritarianism, bioterrorism, techno-Orientalism, or economic rivalry, share a common depiction of China as responsible for “creating” the pandemic, which in turn has animated demands for “consequences” that range from trade retaliation and reparations to military brinkmanship. This charge has been repeated and remixed across a variety of mediums: from conspiracy theories and the slogan “China lied people died” to Congressional bills and invoices, think tanks, class action and state lawsuits filed in US courts, “secret” US intelligence reports, spurious DHS statements, and even a question in the final debate for the Democratic presidential nominee hosted by CNN. While the Trump administration and the GOP have issued lengthy anti-China talking points for federal employees and Republicans to use in lieu of defending the federal response, the Biden campaign has capitalized on the narrative of Chinese duplicity to reframe the election as a contest to see who can best hold China “accountable.” Politicians, media and others in Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany, and beyond have joined their US counterparts in disseminating similar narratives and demands. Like their forebears a century before, the authors of the contemporary Yellow Peril converge across boundaries of party, class, and nation to advance the interests of empire.
Writing on settler historiographies of 19th-century Paiute and Chinese interaction in the Nevada Territory, Manu Karuka describes how rumors and official records intermingled to produce the “prose of countersovereignty”—the eclectic narrative process by which settler colonial rule was inscribed over Indigenous land in opposition to existing Indigenous political systems. For Karuka, the “rumor community of countersovereignty, the colonists who naturalize their history and presence on the land,” stabilized their claims to territory through narratives that cast themselves as the successors to “disappearing natives” on one hand, and defenders of the land from “threatening aliens” on the other . This dynamic can be observed in Blaine’s speech from 1879, as he framed the stakes of restricting Chinese migration as a matter of whether “the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it [emphasis mine].” The erasure of Indigenous nations and political authority from “the Pacific slope” foregrounds the specter of “Mongolian” invasion, which in turn casts “Anglo-Saxon” possession as a form of protection rather than conquest. The Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act’s eventual formation of state power to regulate migration through detention and deportation (powers that were preceded by the Fugitive Slave Act’s creation of similar powers to be used against Black people) can thereby be understood as the development of borders as a mechanism for not only managing labor and racial purity, but also for consolidating settler sovereignty over stolen territory through border enforcement. The “threatening aliens” of US Orientalism function to stabilize settlers’ claims to the land while also facilitating the elaboration of state powers which originate in racial slavery and Indigenous disposession. The tremendous growth of national and extraterritorial military, surveillance and policing powers over the last two decades of the “War on Terror” provides a more contemporary example of this dynamic.
Approaching Yellow Peril, and Orientalism in general, as integral to the evolution of national identity and governance is instructive to understanding its contemporary function. Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, is the intellectual, rhetorical and political process of “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient . . . by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, teaching it, settling it, ruling over it.” Central to this is the idea of the “east” as a “contrasting image, idea, personality, experience,” against which the “west” is defined. Although Said limits the scope of his study of Orientalism to “the Anglo-French-American experience of Arabs and Islam,” he mentions the significance of “[western] experience of the Far Orient” and the imbrication of western “Far Eastern interests” with “the Near East, Islam, and the Arabs.” Said’s Orient thereby stretches “from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Indochina and Malaya.” Situating Yellow Peril as a variant of Orientalism elucidates its function in relation to US settler colonialism, which Iyko Day describes dialectically as operating by a “dual logic” of racial slavery and Indigenous genocide organized towards “increasing white settler property in the form of land and an enslaved labor force.”
There are various academic discourses concerning the position of Asians in US settler colonialism. Patrick Wolfe argues for a strict settler-Native binarism that permits no structural distinctions on the basis of voluntarism, a position that many authors challenge as insufficient for theorizing race, slavery, and other coerced migrations. Jared Sexton contends, “No amount of tortured logic could permit the analogy to be drawn between a former slave population and an immigrant population, no matter how low-flung the latter group.” Jodi Byrd alternately draws on the work of Kamau Brathwaite to propose the term “arrivants” to signify “people forced into the Americas through the violence of European and Anglo-American colonialism and imperialism around the globe.” In Asian Settler Colonialism, editor Candace Fujikane bases the anthology’s approach to Asians in Hawaii as settlers through the observation that “Asians have come to constitute the very political system that has taken away from Natives their rights as indigenous peoples.” Iyko Day notes the circumstances of Asians in Hawaii may not be generalizable to North America, and proposes that settler colonialism operates through an “evolving triangulation of Native, alien, and settler subject positions,” wherein “African slaves and Asian migrants” represent a heterogeneously defined alien position (a designation that does not imply parity of experience) distinguished from Natives by racializations organized around the accumulation of labor and land as a means of expanding white settler property . My purpose here is not to adjudicate the position of Asian Americans along the aforementioned schema, but to consider how the contemporary Yellow Peril deploys the Asiatic/Oriental as a figure or an idea in relationship to settler sovereignty as a practice of anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and imperial governance.
In the US, the virus has thrived under conditions created by neoliberalism. Decades of racist disinvestment from social welfare and state services in favor of privatization, militarization, and incarceration have resulted in the world’s most expensive healthcare system, the planet’s largest prison state and military, stagnant wages, rampant poverty and homelessness, escalating ecological crisis, and the steady erosion of protections for workers and the poor. Faced with the potential of mass death, most US cities and states, and the federal government itself, elected to delay shutdown measures out of a stated concern for economic preservation. As the crisis escalated, little was done at any level of government to protect tens of millions of newly unemployed people, release incarcerated people, stop deportations, house the unhoused, provide hazard pay and PPE to workers, ensure access to relief for undocumented people and tribal governments, or otherwise guarantee universal access to healthcare, food, housing and clean water. Consequently, prisons, meat packing plants, and nursing homes have emerged as the country’s most common Covid-19 hotspots, with several facilities reporting infection rates in excess of 50 percent. In the midst of this, the federal government flushed close to $5 trillion into markets through largely unregulated bailout packages, and has since revoked reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, reauthorized medical discrimination against transgender people, implemented a 60-day ban on green cards, accelerated deportations, cut $400 million in funding to the World Health Organization, deployed an additional 1500 troops to the US’ northern and southern borders, directed intelligence agencies to find evidence linking Covid-19 to Chinese bioweaponry, and augmented state surveillance through an expansion of the Patriot Act. In official narratives of the pandemic, Covid-19 is simultaneously mild enough to permit “reopening,” curtail social distancing, and abandon the incarcerated and the poor, yet devastating enough to justify escalations in policing, surveillance, and global militarization. Cities and states have turned to police to enforce shelter-in-place orders through fines, arrests, and brutality, a practice that has predictably compounded anti-Black state violence as major cities across the nation have exclusively or almost exclusively arrested and ticketed Black people for social distancing violations. These practices of “organized violence and organized abandonment,” to quote Ruth Wilson Gilmore, have not only produced immense death and immiseration, but also disproportionately affected Black and Indigenous people in terms of mortality and risk at rates far exceeding most non-Black and non-Indigenous groups. Recent figures from the American Public Media Research Lab indicate Black people in the US are dying from Covid-19 at a rate nearly three times higher than whites. For Black communities, these disparities arise from what Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health . . . premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” Similar structural outcomes affect many Indigenous communities and nations, which have broadly been denied adequate funding to fight the pandemic while simultaneously facing serious infrastructural and socioeconomic challenges caused by systemic deprivation. Lisa Lowe’s formulation of racial capitalism’s dependence on “creating, preserving and reproducing the specifically racialized and gendered character of labor power” as a means to maximize profits helps address the intersection of race, migration, and labor. The overrepresentation of Black and migrant workers (including incarcerated workers) in so-called “essential” jobs speaks to how the rise of the US service economy has depended on domestic forms of racialized labor kept cheap by the incarceration of surplus populations, the exploitation of migrant labor, and the globalization of production.
“The ‘reopening’ of states and cities has been framed as an expression of fundamentally American ‘freedom’ overcoming “authoritarian” or ‘communist’ shelter-in-place orders and physical distancing measures— a description that draws on notions of Oriental despotism and passivity to construct an essentially western ‘freedom’ defined by unfettered individual consumption and market expansion enabled by the exploitation of so-called ‘human capital stock.’ Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi exemplified this connection early in the crisis. When asked on March 23 why he would not emulate China’s example by at least implementing a shelter-at-home order for his state, he replied, ‘Mississippi’s never going to be China. Mississippi’s never going to be North Korea.’”
The exercise of state power during the pandemic can be summed up as the mass sacrifice of the disproportionately Black and otherwise racialized poor to defend profits, facilitate the looting of public coffers by capital, and entrench the state’s coercive apparatus. Yellow Peril has been deployed in this context to maintain state authority and national identity amidst crisis. The persistent characterization of Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus” has paved the way for Trump to justify mass plunder under the auspices of a “wartime” presidency against an Orientalized “invisible enemy.” The administration’s governance coheres through carceralizing and militarizing measures that obfuscate abandonment under the veneer of safety as defined by the elimination of racial specters of criminality and alienness: travel bans, sanctions, border closures, deportations, immigration and asylum restrictions, surveillance expansion, expensive military flyovers, and global military escalations. The “reopening” of states and cities has been framed as an expression of fundamentally American “freedom” overcoming “authoritarian” or “communist” shelter-in-place orders and physical distancing measures— a description that draws on notions of Oriental despotism and passivity to construct an essentially western “freedom” defined by unfettered individual consumption and market expansion enabled by the exploitation of so-called “human capital stock.” Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi exemplified this connection early in the crisis. When asked on March 23 why he would not emulate China’s example by at least implementing a shelter-at-home order for his state, he replied, “Mississippi’s never going to be China. Mississippi’s never going to be North Korea.” As of April 30, Black women made up over 40 percent of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Mississippi, and Black people comprised nearly 60 percent of statewide deaths despite being less than 40 percent of the population. Reeves aligns his decision to kill mostly Black people in defense of a few days profits with an essentialized “freedom” that coheres through the assumed disposability of Black people and the reterritorialization of (the stolen territory of) Mississippi as “never going to be [the Orient].” While some critics have described the contemporary Yellow Peril as a distraction from administrative incompetence and systemic cruelty, closer examination reveals its actual function is to authorize plunder and deprivation under the aegis of an essentially western “freedom” that subsumes settler colonial violence as resistance to an alien east. Where Orientalism stabilizes settler sovereignty, it is necessarily preceded by the effacement of Indigenous sovereignty and the relegation of Blackness to the position of what Nahum Dimitri Chandler calls “the unsovereign.”
The expansion of the war economy and developments in the US’s military strategy in the Pacific since the start of the pandemic demonstrate how contemporary Yellow Peril’s entanglements with settler sovereignty extend beyond the territory contained within its borders. Since the escalation of Covid-19 domestically, the US has continued its military operations in combat zones around the planet, deployed additional warships to the Caribbean, attempted a coup in Venezuela, imposed new sanctions on Iran while refusing to lift sanctions against 38 other countries, conducted live-fire missile exercises in the Philippine Sea, proposed $2 billion in arms sales to the Duterte government, mulled expansions to the THAAD missile-defense system in South Korea, tested new hypersonic missile technology as part of its arms race with China and Russia, sent multiple warships into the South China Sea, and conducted an “elephant walk” of B-52 bombers and other war machines in Guam as a display of force. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has openly stated his intention to divert US forces from Afghanistan and elsewhere and “reallocate them [to the Asia-Pacific region] to compete with the Chinese.” Defense manufacturers have been deemed essential businesses despite providing no tangible benefit to flattening the curve, and military officials have expedited contract awards in order to keep tax revenue flowing to the weapons industry (implicitly at the expense of the masses of abandoned poor). The Pentagon has additionally submitted a request for a $20 billion budget increase for operations in the Pacific, specifically citing heightened tensions with China post-Covid as its rationale. The budget request includes, among other measures, two new radar facilities in Palau and Hawaii, a new missile defense system in Guam, several space-based radar systems, funds for the expansion of branch capability to deploy new long-range missile technologies, unspecified new facilities in US territories and throughout Oceania and Southeast Asia, three new “fusion centers” to facilitate counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation among eight Pacific countries, and a new generation of multilateral joint exercises to add to the 90 that are already conducted in the Indo-Pacific each year. As it waits for approval on this laundry list of expansions in military capability, the Department of Defense is also refusing to cancel the upcoming biannual RIMPAC exercises in Hawaii—which are expected to involve over 25,000 soldiers from more than 25 countries.
“The contemporary Yellow Peril is not an aberration or a regression, but an integral aspect of a state that has always defined and practiced sovereignty as the administration of slavery, genocide and empire. The prospect of direct or proxy war with China, or even sustained military brinkmanship, will have disastrous consequences not only for the peoples of the Indo-Pacific, but also for Black and Indigenous peoples living within US borders, whom the military industrial complex parasitizes to sustain itself.”
The allure of Oriental territories and trade has shadowed EuroAmerican colonial expansion since its inception. Europe’s global empire emerged through the control of intercontinental territory and networks of trade and enslavement that connected the ports of Manila and Kozhikode with Lagos, Zanzibar, and the mines and plantations of the Americas. Since its inception, the United States has pursued trade dominance in Asia as a key strategy of imperial expansion, seeking hegemony in the Western hemisphere through Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine in part to assure its ability to compete with European powers for Indo-Pacific influence. US merchants began operations in the Asia-Pacific almost immediately after independence, and the use of military force to secure trade dates back to the Nuku Hiva Campaign of 1813 and the First Sumatran Expedition of 1832. The conquests of Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines which rapidly followed westward expansion were all crucial to the development of US empire, not only through the capture of resources, markets, and labor, but as coaling stations and ports essential to transoceanic trade and the global projection of military force. US military preeminence in the Indo-Pacific remains a vital cornerstone for imperialism. According to the Department of Defense, “America’s annual two-way trade with the [Asia-Pacific] region is $2.3 trillion, with U.S. foreign direct investment of $1.3 trillion in the region—more than China’s, Japan’s, and South Korea’s combined.” USINDOPACOM, the oldest and largest of the US’s unified combatant commands, administers 375,000 military personnel across 200 bases from the eastern Pacific to the Maldives and Antarctica—an area encompassing more than 50 percent of the earth’s surface and population. Apart from Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Alaska and Hawaii, the US retains eight additional Pacific territories, and holds limited military authority over Palau, Marshall Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia as freely associated states. US military bases in Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Diego Garcia, Australia, Djibouti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait and beyond form an additional ring of military outposts encircling the Indo-Pacific and entrenching US military power in every continent on earth. While the US inflates its military capacity in preparation for conflict with China, it has also furthered its investment in outer space as a new field of military engagement and occupation—extending sovereignty past the bounds of the planet itself in its war against “aliens.” Whether in internal, extraterritorial or extraplanetary terms, the rearticulation of Yellow Peril facilitates the entrenchment and expansion of settler colonial and imperial rule.
The contemporary Yellow Peril is not an aberration or a regression, but an integral aspect of a state that has always defined and practiced sovereignty as the administration of slavery, genocide and empire. The spike in violence against East and Southeast Asian people (or anyone perceived to be Chinese), which reached 100 reported US cases a day in late February and over 1100 reported cases in a two-week period in March, should be understood as a domestic vigilante correlate to the state’s global efforts to sustain the coherence of the nation and the imperialist system amidst crisis. The prospect of direct or proxy war with China, or even sustained military brinkmanship, will have disastrous consequences not only for the peoples of the Indo-Pacific, but also for Black and Indigenous peoples living within US borders, whom the military industrial complex parasitizes to sustain itself. Under these circumstances, there is no choice but to turn away from the settler state as the arbiter of justice and reject Americanness as the signifier of belonging.
We will not resolve the contradictions we face through elections. Our only hope for a livable future lies beyond the settler state and racial capitalism, beyond the protocols of dispossession and enslavement that structure our present. As the state abdicates more and more responsibility in favor of expanding brutality, it also cedes space to build power by providing what is denied, seizing what is withheld, and otherwise transforming abandonment into abundance. This sort of mutual aid work and resistance to militarization and incarceration has been happening for a very long time in communities that were already targeted for “organized violence and organized abandonment” long before Covid-19. Christina Sharpe, whose work elaborates on care as a “problem for thought” for Black people “in the wake of slavery, in slavery’s afterlives, to survive (and more) the afterlife of property,” emphasized the significance of an ethic of care to me as an undergraduate. Saidiya Hartman’s response to Sharpe’s work offers an important directive: “care is the antidote to violence.” The task for those of us who have yet to participate is to make whatever skills or resources (including time) we have available for the work of feeding, housing, freeing, and caring for one another not only as a means of survival but for the development of counter-infrastructure to challenge the reign of capital and the state. America is only an idea, one we can overcome by building alternatives in the now. With Washington building towards a new Pacific war, the choice we face is not between Democrat and Republican or normalcy and pandemic, but between life itself and planetary devastation, between the endless expansion of settler colonial coercions and enclosures, and the possibility of a world born from the obsolescence of poverty and war, the abolition of all forms of policing and carcerality, and the decolonization and stewardship of lands, skies, and waters.