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Populist politics, nationalistic rhetoric fuelling racism

A free press, transparency, the rule of law and whistleblower protection legislation can counter the rise of racism

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The spate of anti-Asian racist incidents around the world, including the killing of the six Asian women in Atlanta, sent shivers down the spine of Asians in the Western world.

Many Asians living in the US are reluctant to venture out for fear of being targeted.

Racism is toxic. Racists are emboldened to act in the open when politicians and leaders encourage them.

Anti-China rhetoric

The recent spikes in anti-Asian attacks started after Donald Trump accused China of having stolen jobs away from Americans and of giving Covid-19 to the whole world.

Trump‘s deliberate, simplistic racist messages emboldened many whites around the world to act out their latent racist attitudes in the open. His first racist rhetoric was his anti-Muslim policies early in his administration, which sparked a backlash against Muslims in the US.

At the recently concluded China-US summit in Anchorage, Alaska, both sides were playing to their respective domestic audiences with aggressive speeches to project strength. This has not been helpful in lowering the temperature of the nationalist rhetoric against each other.

Had the issues concerned been raised behind closed doors, the anti-US sentiment in China and the anti-China sentiment in the West could have been muted. This rhetoric from both sides is potentially dangerous and can translate to anti-Chinese/anti-Asian and anti-American/anti-West sentiments.

Spikes in racism against a particular community have been linked to global geopolitics, giving racists the opportunity to act out their racist attitudes towards people who are different.

After the 9/11 New York twin towers bombing, Muslims, Sikhs and Indians were targeted. To the racists, any justification was a good enough excuse to unleash their attacks on others. In fact, they often do not even need an excuse.

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Anti-US sentiment

The anti-US sentiment in the Middle East has been linked to US policies in the region. The US has been blind to Israel’s human rights violations against the Palestinians, including its inaction in halting the expansion of Israeli settlements into the Palestinian territories and the inhumane and unfair treatment of the Palestinians in both its legal system and government policies.

Trump’s relocation of the US embassy to West Jerusalem, which is illegal under UN Security Council Resolution 446, has incensed many in the Middle East.

The US has been abstaining or outrightly vetoing many UN resolutions to Israel’s advantage. All these US policies at the international political stage have repercussions on the ground in brewing anti-US sentiments.

The EU has taken a more equitable approach towards the Middle East. It rejects the unilateral relocation of the US embassy to West Jerusalem. It also objects to the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to punish and put sanctions on Iran when the latter has fully complied with the deal.

Aggressive Chinese trade sanctions

In many other parts of the world, it is anti-China sentiment that prevails. China’s building of its airstrips, its military presence and the claiming of much of the South China Sea with no legal basis is seen as threatening many nations in the region.

China’s buying up of strategic assets in many countries through which the Belt and Road Initiative passes has also stirred anti-China sentiment because of the perceived loss of sovereignty within those countries.

Some fishermen in the Philippines and Vietnam are now banned from fishing in their traditional waters, which have now been claimed by China.

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China’s aggressive foreign policies have also left many small nations around the world feeling threatened. 

Chile was the target of a Chinese social media scare during the recent Lunar New Year, hurting its cherry exports, which account for 95% of the cherry market in China.

Some suspect this was a retaliation by China after Chilean legislators proposed tighter rules on foreign ownership of strategic assets like farmlands, power grids and mines. China’s state-owned companies had bought up an increasing number of such assets.

Despite its cherries being packed in high-tech facilities, which include a disinfection process using UV light (a common practice since the coronavirus pandemic), rumours spread over social media in China that the coronavirus was detected in cherries exported to China.

Foreign ownership of assets in Chile had come under scrutiny, as China’s state-own companies are now direct competitors to other privately owned companies in Chile in their exports to the Chinese market.

This puts financial pressure on these privately owned companies to sell out to China’s state-owned companies. Some fear that Chile could lose its independence and become an economic colony of China.

China has slapped trade sanctions against Australia, including an 80.5% tariff on Australian barley in 2020. The latest salvo was a 212% tariff on Australian wine, leading to a slump in wine exports to China.

China also imposed a trade sanction against Taiwan in February this year, by banning Taiwan’s pineapple exports to China.

The playing of populist politics in China stresses how the country was humiliated at the hands of the West in the 1800s. Then there is the sharing of many racist social media videos and messages about the Chinese having superior intelligence and touting the country’s rich 5,000-year-old cultural history. Together, these have brewed prejudices against people of other races around the world. 

In Myanmar recently, protesters targeted and torched Chinese-owned factories, resulting in the Taiwanese government urging Taiwanese factory owners to raise the Taiwanese flag to differentiate themselves from the mainland Chinese. The protesters are alleging that the Chinese government is supporting the military junta.

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Transparency needed

Without transparency, big nations can overwhelm their smaller counterparts into signing lopsided bilateral agreements.

In the early 2000s, the Australian government illegally bugged Timor Leste government offices during negotiations over a maritime boundary between the two nations. It used this unfair advantage to claim much of the oil and gas rich waters.

When a whistleblower came forward to expose the Australian government’s involvement in cheating a poor neighbour of its entitlements, Australia had no choice but to relent and renegotiate a fairer deal with Timor Leste.

Transparency, freedom of the press, rule of law and the protection of whistleblowers are all important in ensuring that big nations do not get away with inequitable contracts signed with smaller nations.

Without such legislation, many smaller nations can be trapped into signing unfair agreements, leading to the unhappiness among their people. This could trigger uprisings, resulting in geopolitical crisis.

All racist attacks should be condemned, irrespective if it is anti-Chinese/Asian or anti-American/West. People around the world should speak out when they see injustice committed by their people or their leaders against others or another country. This can provide counter-views and mute the overheated nationalist sentiments that can trigger racism.

Ch’ng Chin Yeow has an interest in many issues and subjects, including history, mineralogy and human behaviour. Based in Penang, he truly likes to be a busybody

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