Original publication date, Oct. 2014
The headlines and rhetoric are hard to ignore. A recent Washington Post editorial sounded the alarm, again, that the Chinese cyber attacks against the United States are ramping up and that as a nation, from lawmakers to citizens, we need to be much more vigilant about the cyber warfare that is posing eminent threat to our national security and way of life. Granted, China is far from the only country trying to penetrate the U.S. cyber systems, but it is believed to be leading the pack of cyber attackers, and thus considered our cyber enemy du jour.
At the same time, the Chinese online retail giant Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange. The story dominated airwaves and created quite a stir in the business world. Alibaba is like Amazon, only much bigger. Just about any major metropolitan region in the United States has an Amazon warehouse these days. For a brand that promises to compete head-on with Amazon, the Alibaba IPO’s impact on Americans jobs and way of life will only grow over time. Some believe it might one day become the Walmart of the online world—the world’s dominant retailer. While Americans are used to U.S. companies going global and becoming global household names like McDonald’s and Apple, we are not used to having Chinese companies going global to our backyard to compete with us on our soil.
Pity the Chinese Americans. Most of us watching from afar are at the mercy of such headlines and the public’s reactions to them. Being Chinese in America these days is a dubious distinction. We are proud to be affiliated with a culture and homeland that has regained its dignity and respect on the world stage for its miraculous economic prosperity and successful nation-building, but are rightfully concerned that China’s economic expansion and military muscle breeds fear and resentment abroad, both among its neighbors and the Western world, particularly the U.S. Living between two cultures, the last thing we want is for our adopted country to be at war with our country of origin, cyber or otherwise.
I often wonder, what crosses people’s minds when they know I am Chinese, and from China?
Luckily, we live at a time when Americans by and large are far more tolerant and understanding than to scapegoat a group of people or assume guilt by association, which happened to the Japanese Americans during WWII after the Pearl Harbor attacks. But still, such headlines and pervasive rhetoric are demoralizing for Chinese Americans and hurting China’s reputation abroad.
I cringe when I hear accounts of local businesses cheated by the Chinese partners over intellectual properties while trying to do business in China or Chinese companies not keeping their end of the bargain even after agreements have been signed.
I cringe when I hear stories like infant milk being tainted with industrial chemicals that make even the Chinese consumers want to buy imported milk, or inferior home construction materials sold from China to American construction companies causing respiratory distress to homeowners.
And I cringe when I hear our elected officials publicly talk about how we should fend off the “Chinese hackers” and “thieves.” I worry how such rhetoric affects the way American public perceives China and even Chinese Americans, many working in the IT fields.
True, there may be some elements of media bias in chasing the bad stories more than the good ones. But it clearly goes beyond that.
Apparently, China has recognized the need for trust-building abroad. I was glad to hear in a recent conversation with an American friend who advises the Chinese central government on economic policies that China is now looking into economic diplomacy by encouraging Chinese companies to invest abroad in projects that build good will such as infrastructure, on which China is clearly leading the world.
While international politics or happenings might be beyond our reach, those of us who are at cross-roads of two very different cultures can play a pivotal role in facilitating understanding and building trust at the local level. I am calling on the local Chinese American community to come up with constructive ideas and concrete actions. After all, our generation is the first in history armed with the best education and blessed with the greatest opportunities of integration and success that no previous generations of immigrants have ever enjoyed. It’s imperative that we turn such assets into benefits for our children’s generation and beyond. At a time like this, it’s all the more important that we are involved in local community affairs to reinforce our positive presence and impact; engage our political leaders, and become visible at all levels of civic and public life.
As cultural minorities, we are not the only community who feels frustrated or vulnerable at times. Concerned with its community image in light of escalating tension between the U.S. and “the Muslim world” in recent years, the local Muslim communities hosted public Iftars (breaking of the fast) to educate the public about their religion; organized Muslim Legislative Day in Maryland to engage legislators, and established charities to serve food and provide free healthcare for the vulnerable in the larger community. Nothing is more effective in changing people’s minds than concrete actions to show that we belong here and we care.