In the second episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman talks with Melissa Chen about how to grapple with a geopolitically rising China, and about how the country goes into this civilizational clash hobbled by domestic insecurities about our open society. Chen and Stepman also discuss the balance between individualism and community, and how many are now seeking or actively creating political identities to replace more traditional ones.

Melissa Chen is the New York editor for The Spectator USA, where she writes about the U.S.-China relationship, identity, and free speech, among other topics. She is the managing director of Ideas Beyond Borders, an organization that translates Enlightenment tracts into other languages, and on the advisory board of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism.

High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.

Tune in below:


Inez Stepman:

Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. I’m Inez Stepman, your host, and our guest this week is Melissa Chen. You can find Melissa’s columns at the Spectator USA, where she writes on subjects ranging from a relationship with China to domestic issues of free speech and identity.

She’s also the managing director of Ideas Beyond Borders, a nonprofit that translates enlightenment ideas and writings into Arabic and Farsi. She’s also on the advisory board for the fantastic new organization FAIR, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. Melissa has such a fascinating perspective that comes from comparing both philosophies and cultures from her experiences living outside and inside the United States. In this episode, I was able to ask her some questions, not only about our engagement with rising foreign powers like China, but how we can regain some sense of our own cultural mojo, to both recognize some of the limitations of enlightenment liberalism while at the same time celebrating its incredible successes. I also asked her about the artificial formation of an AAPI identity among the different peoples we call “Asian” and what seems increasingly like a politically-purposeful rhetoric in the United States. I feel like I learned a lot from this conversation with Melissa Chen. I hope you do too.

Melissa, it is wonderful to have you. Welcome to High Noon.

Melissa Chen:

Thanks, Inez, for having me.

Inez Stepman:

So tell us a little bit, just to kick it off, about how you came to be interested in subjects and that kind of intersection of free speech and open versus closed societies and how those ideas interact with cultures and regimes all around the world.

Melissa Chen:

So I actually grew up in, oh, a somewhat closed society in a sense. It fell close because we didn’t have certain freedoms that a lot of Americans take for granted. In Singapore, you do have a very paternalistic government. When the government decided that there was just too much litter, people were chewing gum and it was just being strewn all over the place, they decided to ban it. So that’s the kind of government that I grew up under.

But for the most part, it was very prosperous. It’s very easy to start a business. Fiscal conservatives would love the policies of the ruling party because it’s low taxes. It’s just a very vibrant business hub. But on the other end of it, it’s not known at all for having freedom of speech, for example, or freedom of the press, which actually Singapore ranks about 158th out of 170 countries in the world. It’s below Russia and Libya.

So I always looked to United States as the shining city on the hill. I wanted to immigrate there because, for me, those values were really important, not just at the abstract level, because I understood that if you grew up in a place where they are potentially just all these minefields of no-go zones when it comes to speech, you start self-censoring, and it affects people. It affects the kinds of conversations you have it. There’s a burden almost on your shoulder as you navigate through society. I just wanted to be able to be free.

So I moved here and it was really for me the … I went to college in 2005. That’s when I started it. Back then, before a lot of the campus shenanigans that we see started surfacing, I got the college experience I wanted. I was able to sit under oak trees and debate secular transcendentalism with other people. I remember the head of the college Democrat, he would always come to my dorm and we would argue about economics, because I was taking Econ 101 at the time. I thought I knew everything about Bush policies.

It was exactly that experience that I imagined. When things started turning later on, I was very vocal about it because for me coming to the United States was a very ideological choice, and many people that I saw agitating for a more closed society, closed especially in terms of political freedom, it was enough [inaudible 00:04:39]. It’s like you have no idea what freedoms that … You’re just taking all these freedoms for granted.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. I think a lot of times … You say you made a choice to be American, right? If you are coming in from a different culture, a different country, you have to piece together what our regime actually looks like and what being an American actually means, because it’s not obvious at all, especially given what we teach today for most of our institutions, whether that’s K-12, at your universities, or our corporations at this point, and we will get to all of that.

But I want to ask first. So China is another place where we see the split between … There’s some economic liberalization and has been, at least initially, for the last couple of decades. There’s been some economic liberalization there. It has not come along with social liberalization there. It has not come along with liberal democracy or human rights or natural rights or free speech or any of the things that we thought back in the ’90s and early 2000s. We thought, one, these things tend to go together, that if we liberalize on the economic side, or we see China liberalizing in the economic side, that inevitably social liberalization will follow. Well, that turned out to be completely false.

On the other hand, we had this … Now, with looking back, it seems like such a naive assumption that we would engage with China and we would feed a little bit of ourselves into their culture, that we would inject a certain amount of liberalism into their culture. Increasingly, what seems like it’s happening is they’re using that economic liberalization to feed authoritarian elements into our culture or into our politics, when I think of examples like the NBA flap or the way that Hollywood now avoid story lines or elements or characters that might offend the CCP.

I mean how did we get China so incredibly wrong in the ’90s and 2000s? I mean it seems like there’s still a few people who are really clinging to that notion. But how do we get them so incredibly wrong?

Melissa Chen:

Yeah. I think it was naivete for the longest time, I mean ever since Nixon opened China up. It really did seem like China was making inroads and liberalizing their markets. Deng Xiaoping, when he instituted these market reforms, I mean did an amazing job. I mean China did actually lift millions and millions of people out of poverty into the middle class.

It was a reasonable assumption at the time, I mean it was popularized by Milton Friedman, that as long as you had economic liberalization, over time, people will get more prosperous and demand for political freedoms. But that turned out to be one of the biggest miscalculations of our time.

I don’t think it’s limited to China. You do see that in other parts of Asia as well, like in some of the Gulf States, for example. They have very high GDP per capita, very high standard of living, but they still are so politically repressed in many respects. They don’t enjoy gay rights. I don’t even know if they can vote for their leaders. So they don’t really enjoy political freedoms as we expect them to given the high standard of living that they have.

I think is this a cultural misunderstanding? I always liken it to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Not everybody cares about self-actualization, or people’s conception of self-actualization is actually very different. And so, as long as basic needs are met, food and, in some of these cases, it’s even luxury goods. In China, luxury market is very huge. It’s a very materialistic way of living. But as long as those things are met and people are comfortable and people are safe, what is the need for this abstract political rights that we think that they want?

And so, America keeps trying to export these ideas, but as long as China controls information sphere, as the Chinese Communist Party does with the great firewall, we can’t reach them. So it’s not a two-way street. Their tentacles can extend beyond their borders and affect America. They can influence us through many different ways because we have an open society and it can be hacked by a closed society. We don’t have that two-way street because we can’t influence them.

And so, I think that was one of the biggest mistakes. We assumed that eventually they’ll have to tear down their wall. Bill Clinton famously said about … He laughed at the idea of Chinese censorship. He said, “Ha! The Chinese want to control the internet? That’s like trying to nail jello to the wall,” and then the audience laughs. And so, there was this idea that there was no way they could do it. But China did it and did it really well. Now that model, I think, is being exported to other parts of the world.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah, and they did it with the help of American tech companies in a large part in terms of controlling the internet. But what should we do in the United States in terms of engaging with China going forward in a less naive way? It seemed like there was this moment in the pandemic early on where we were getting a crash course on how dangerous some of this economic entanglement might actually be, that it wasn’t all to the good, it wasn’t an escalating ladder of success and prosperity that was working for everybody.

But we got a crash course in what it means not to have, for example, pharmaceutical chains at home or PPE chains at home. It seemed for a while that we were engaging with that idea, and then it just seemed to peter out. It wasn’t very much part of the discussion.

It was shocking how little China was a part of the presidential election in 2020. There weren’t a lot of questions about foreign policy. Both candidates were not pressed on what we should do with China going forward with regard to China.

Then in his recent joint session address, Biden referenced China, I noticed, only in a way that almost seemed like a throwback, like kind of my old language of economic competition and making sure that it’s a fair economic competition but without any real teeth. There are threats and then vague references to human rights and then a lot of references to climate change.

But are we slipping back into a naïve way of looking at China? If we are, how can we change that going forward? I mean what needs to happen if Melissa Chen was in charge of our foreign policy, or not just foreign policy on all the specifics but on our mindset towards engaging with China? I mean what would that look like?

Melissa Chen:

So there’s Biden’s rhetoric and then there’s Biden’s team’s rhetoric, Blinken and his other foreign policy team. Then there’s policy, like what they’re actually doing. I think you’re right about the reckoning. I think most Americans, if you look at Gallup poll, they showed that, I think in 2020, Americans started viewing China unfavorably at a rate of 80%.

It’s such a bipartisan issue. Both parties do actually believe now that China is probably the biggest global threat, even though I think Biden said something about North Korea in his speech.

So there is a sense that something is slipping, and also because of wanting to get concessions on climate change and agree … Like what leverage do you give up to China in order to get those concessions? We all know that a lot of the Chinese rhetoric on climate change is actually just empty promises, because they want to be carbon neutral by … I think their goal was 2030, but they’re building more and more coal plants around the world. Their Belt and Road Initiative actually involves building all this infrastructure, and coal and power plants, which is even more carbon dioxide in the air. So it’s really hard to take their claims at face value.

It seems to me that what this administration is missing is that even things like climate change topics, like climate change, this is a soft power play for Beijing. They know that if they can position themselves as a leader, as a climate leader, world climate leader, they’re going to be able to get a lot of moral currency out of that because that’s what the Europeans and that’s what the west actually values. And so, they know that this is just another bargaining chip in their pocket.

I do worry about the Taiwan issue in the next … I mean the Navy had put out a report saying that China invading Taiwan is likely in the next seven years and how the Biden administration will respond to that. I was surprised, as you said, that, during the primary, this question wasn’t asked, because just think of the consequences of something like that. Just the fact that Taiwan is currently a sitting duck. We know that China’s policy is towards that. It’s a functioning democracy.

It’s hard to say, but I do agree with you that it seems like things are slipping a little in terms of rhetoric and in terms of policy. The one thing the Biden administration is pretty good about doing is framing things in terms of human rights. So I think Blinken did continue Pompeo’s initial declaration that what’s happening in Xinjiang is actually a genocide.

In terms of what we’re going to do to counter this, because I think China basically showed its cards in the last year or so especially, the world woke up to the aggressiveness of the Chinese Communist Party, not just in terms of not being a responsible world actor when it came to COVID and how, in the early days, it tried to cover everything up and it wasn’t acting responsibly but that also there’ve been quite a few expansionist military incursions, what’s going on between China and India on the border of Ladakh, what’s going on at the South China Sea, where China’s been very aggressive to the point of … They’re militarizing these islands and angering Vietnam, Philippines, and basically all the other countries.

Then what it started to do after coronavirus, in terms of hoarding PPE supply and waking America up to this, oh my gosh, it turns out that this is a national security issue. For so long, we thought outsourcing was the way to go. It was the globalization dream. But we outsourced our way into a very tough position when it came to needing some items to contain the pandemic or to prevent the spread.

So I think a lot of people were just like, “Okay, this is an issue that we need to solve.” Supply chain sovereignty is … We have to think of ways to decouple from the Chinese government. Also because they don’t have any separation between industry and government in America, we do.

So any kind of business that you have over there, somebody on the board of the company has to actually be a member of the Communist Party. And so, the influence of government on these companies is very heavy. It’s not like in the United States where you really have a separation.

I just think that we have to identify all areas in which it is dangerous to allow China or any Chinese company to participate. A good example of this is the electric grid. I think the Trump administration had passed legislation saying that any company that is involved with the Chinese government cannot actually have any parts, contribute to any parts, that play a role in our electrical grid.

So all these areas have to be identified. What are critical for our national security and where we can start decoupling and build up supply chains that are completely independent, that would leave us resilient in a world where there might be more aftershocks.

Inez Stepman:

I mean how do we go about doing that, given, as you say, that generally the United States government doesn’t sit on the boards of our corporations? We have a real problem essentially because we are a free society, because these companies are looking for profits in China, and there is that huge market and so many profits—I don’t think that’s actually the right way to say it–such a large profit to be had in that market, that they’re often willing sometimes to sell the keys to the kingdom in a certain sense.

They’re willing to do that to get access to that market. They’re willing to help the Chinese government apply its internet censorship against its own people. They’re willing to do all kinds of things. These are, of course, companies that at home are all about Black Lives Matter and are engaging on voting issues at home, and yet they are totally willing to sell the keys to the kingdom when they engage with China, because those dollar signs are just so huge, the Chinese market is so huge.

I mean how do we balance between the positives of a free market economy, which is more dynamic and prosperous? I agree with all of those traditional conservative or libertarian principles. But how do we balance it with national security, and even more particularly, how do we balance what we tell American companies what they can and cannot do with regard to China? Because it really seems like, in the last few decades, they haven’t acted as responsible or patriotic actors. They’ve acted as multinational companies, and they’re chasing their profits regardless of the consequences for the United States.

Melissa Chen:

I can see two ways forward. One of them is obviously legislation. Trump, during his administration, they did pass something called the National Security Innovation Base. They defined what industries were crucial. So it could be something like maybe AI, because AI is the next frontier, or, like I said, about the electrical grid. Certainly things like anything involved in military production is considered part of that. Now it’s pretty clear that pharmaceuticals, vaccine, raw materials, all of that should be included under this innovation base.

And to legislate … Like if you’re involved in these areas, well, you shouldn’t be doing business in China or you shouldn’t be having this exchange. It’s part of our national security agenda now moving forward.

The other thing we can do is probably shame or awareness. I think what you brought up about companies that virtue signal here, but then still have no qualms about filming in Xinjiang or using cotton picked by people enslaved by … The Uighur Muslims enslaved in Xinjiang. I mean I think that it’s one of the biggest hypocrisies of our time and it just lays it out just so barely what is going on.

I do think that companies are basically trying to satisfy their profit motive. The other thing that American consumers can do, if we can really muscle up that power, that collective power, is say, “You know what? I’m going to boycott Disney. I’m going to boycott Disney+,” or if we don’t let companies know that their pocketbooks can also be affected on the other end, I don’t know how we can win this.

I mean shaming works sometimes, but we need a stronger message. We need a stronger lobbying away to target these companies. Lately, I have noticed that people like Lebron James have gotten a lot of pushback, even on the Twittersphere and elsewhere, because he’s so willing to criticize what’s going on in America and about what’s going on in law enforcement, police brutality, but very slow to do it when his pocketbook is concerned, because he makes a lot of money in China when it comes to sneaker deals and contracts that the NBA has with Chinese CCTV broadcasters.

Inez Stepman:

So that’s all the negative and the difficult things that the United States will have to face in the coming years. But maybe let’s look a little more positively. What would a positive engagement with China look like? Here I’m thinking less about the CCP. It seems obvious to me that there is not really a positive engagement to be had with the CCP.

I guess my question here is more does it merely require a new regime in China, that as long as the CCP is in charge in China that we can’t expect positive engagement? I think we probably agree there. But then my other question would be is there some kind of underlying civilizational conflict between China and the west in a deeper, more broad sense that actually goes beyond the particularities of the CCP regime, or are these two civilizations that maybe have, in some ways, complementary strengths or weaknesses that balance each other, that can coexist?

As I said, leaving aside the CCP. I’m not naive about this. But on a civilizational level, do we have things to learn from each other? Is a peaceful coexistence or even a positive coexistence possible between these two huge civilizations and powerful civilizations?

Melissa Chen:

I think the answer is yes. Well, the CCP does like to point out that this is civilizational. They always draw on the fact that China is a 5,000-year-old civilization, which is interesting because they cut off, they put off that civilization. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in the 1940s.

They also rewrote their history. They got rid of a lot of things that were considered traditional during the Cultural Revolution. They got rid of a lot of intellectuals. A lot of aspects of Chinese culture, they were very selective. They kept some parts, they discarded other parts.

And so, for them to claim, for the Chinese Communist Party to claim to be like the standard bearer of Chinese civilization is misguided. But there is such a thing as values and history and philosophy that goes all the way back.

China studies us very well and they understand the West very well. They study our philosophers. They know how we think. That is one piece that is missing, because we don’t understand China, we don’t understand Chinese philosophy. How many philosophy students have learned about Sun Tzu or Lao Tzu or Confucius? Those philosophies really undergirds so much of Chinese society, Chinese philosophy, and it trickles all the way up. You can see even in just reading some of these texts that are put out by the Communist Party why there is such an alignment in terms of political ideology with this philosophy.

It’s a shame that we don’t actually study this because we’re missing out that piece. I think the first question you ask about why we missed this, I think the naivete stemmed a little bit from this lack of understanding about the cultural clashes.

However, that said, I am very optimistic. If you look at the examples of Hong Kong and Taiwan, I mean these are natural laboratories for what happens when you meld the culture with western tenets of governance. Amazing things can happen. So it’s not just a fatalistic thing. They’re bound to be different. They can’t—Chinese culture adapts, adapts very well to very politically free systems that we have.

Like in Hong Kong’s case, look, it’s been the freest city in all of Asia for decades until the Communist Party started rolling back those freedoms. Maybe 2014, that’s when it really started, and it’s ramped up throughout 2019. That’s when it reached its apex. Now you could safely say Hong Kong is lost or gone, Hong Kong as we know it. And how successful these Chinese majority systems are with western forms of government.

Taiwan, for example, is a paragon of democracy and also how it handled COVID. A lot of people give its government … Applaud it for just doing a really good, job for good governance. But for having the kind of democracy that is just … Oh, and not just democracy, but also I think Taiwan was the first country in all of Asia to legalize gay marriage.

So it’s, by all accounts, a free, prosperous … They educate their citizens. They’re very well. Actually, I think they have universal healthcare. It is a great example of what happens when you meld Chinese culture with western governance.

Inez Stepman:

So you obviously have this deep commitment, not only by actually voting with your feet as it were and coming to America where the government does have commitments, the system has commitments, to what are essentially, at least in part, enlightenment ideas. I mean, of course, I would argue that the American founding was a mix of both enlightenment ideas and tempered by other forces like Christianity and a certain sense of the classics as well as the ancients.

But one thing that the organization did, as I asked you initially, was translate some of these ideas into the Middle East, into countries in the Middle East, into Arabic or in Farsi. It’s not clear that, here at home, we are fully behind those ideas either. As I say, we always had a bit of a mixed society philosophically, but I think you have real serious critiques now from the left and the right of this liberalism that you say melds quite well in Taiwan or in Hong Kong.

We have serious critiques here at home in the west. Of course, you have this loss of confidence from the left. We have the 1619 Project, or Ibram Kendi’s critique. His first book was called Stamped from the Beginning, and it is exactly what it sounds like, that, in fact, these ideas, these liberal ideas, are just cover for a White supremacist society or an oppressive society.

Then from the right, there seemed to be more people who are questioning or critiquing the enlightenment, pointing to things like rising atomization or the disintegration of institutions like family or churches or communities on exactly that altar of either commercialization or individual fulfillment or self-actualization I think are the words that you used earlier.

I mean how do you answer those critiques at home, especially in light of the fact that we do seem to be gearing up for this big battle with a totally different authoritarian type of system, but we seem to be wobbling at home, and not just in the obvious way from the left but with more serious critiques of some of the weaknesses of our own liberal system?

Melissa Chen:

I mean I have to ask question the myself, especially today, when one of the ways that people can push back on something like critical race theory in schools is passing legislation to ban it. And so, that kind of questions about liberalism and what can we preserve in order to pushback something so illiberal, and it seems to be in conflict.

So I think the arguments against the enlightenment from the left and the right, I mean while substantially they sound the same, are actually very different. So the problem with the left is that the left refuses to acknowledge progress. They also peg all of western civilizations’ sins on liberalism. They say that slavery was a result of the enlightenment. We can draw a direct line between enlightenment values and slavery and colonialism and all of that, so on and so forth.

On the right, I think the critique of the enlightenment is that [inaudible 00:32:19], around this piece recently, he wrote that the seeds of tyranny are already sown in liberalism, that, eventually, if you let liberalism run its course, you will get what happened during the reign of terror in France.

I think both are committing a very similar mistake, which is to do this sweep of history and taint everything that happened after it as a direct result of, say, certain values. But I just don’t think we can throw the baby out with the bathwater on enlightenment values. I think when it comes to science, humanism, reason, and progress, that these values are somewhat responsible for ushering a very new age in human history that counter previous kinds of tyranny imposed by the state.

The tyranny of the Catholic Church at the time, that was a very strong overriding force that forced Voltaire to live in exile for a long period of his life. And that those principles have something to usher in in terms of hard-won rights, progress. The whole concept of natural rights came from enlightenment values and human rights as well.

So I’m reluctant to discard the whole project, but we have to acknowledge the hubris of the enlightenment as well. I think if we run the tape backwards, there are ways to argue that the enlightenment project has not delivered fully or has failed in some respects, and one of which may be the inclination to try to correct human nature or to create a utopia where human nature is totally different from what it actually is.

And so, I think it’s important to realize that a big part of this drive for equality around the world, for safeguarding minority rights, a lot of that came from Enlightenment Era philosophy, but that there are certain ways to interpret it that could lead to a very illiberal reaction to it. I think that’s how I would respond to that.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. I have a bit of the same critique, I think. I find it implausible that with all of the intervening intellectual developments and actual material developments, let’s say, between Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence and the sexual revolution in the United States in the late 1960s, that you can draw that sweeping direct line.

But I agree with you, there are antecedents. If you squint, you can see, okay, maybe some of these ideas are the evolution of these prior ideas. But hilariously enough, it almost seems like directionality of history arguments to me, like a Hegel or like a Marxist view of history, where we’re just progressing and we’re jockeying out the final serve logical conclusion of ideas.

I just think history is much more complicated than that. Even the way we live our lives within a regime is so much more complicated than that that I’m skeptical of those kinds of direct lines that you can draw over hundreds of years sometimes.

Melissa Chen:


Inez Stepman:


Melissa Chen:

[crosstalk 00:36:14].

Inez Stepman:

[crosstalk 00:36:14] something that I was thinking about very well.

Melissa Chen:

It is also not demarcated so neatly. Even if you ask somebody when the alignment period really began, when it ended, it’s not this neat package. It’s just become a useful umbrella term for a set of ideals, and like any ideals, this is very Aristotelian, too much of it can be bad. Everything in moderation.

Inez Stepman:

Yes. Speaking of things that are in moderation, because we’ve had this very individualistic society, it almost seems like people are leaping back into seeking identity … Here in the west I’m talking about for a moment … but sometimes in ways that start to raise the level of religion or ignoring the facts on the ground or historical facts.

I mean it seems to me there is an effort underway to create a kind of pan-Asian American identity, political identity, not in an individualist sense where you might draw on … I think we all do draw very heavily on our upbringing and our family traditions and maybe even going into a larger group like an ethnic tradition or a national tradition, but it seems like this is almost an attempt to construct an artificially political identity for what are really a very diverse group of people who we call Asian in the United States.

Actually, Mike Gonzales, a great guy over at the Heritage Foundation has a fantastic book on this that I really recommend to folks out there. But I mean do you feel this construction of an Asian identity? Do you think that Asian Americans of different ethnic stripes are going to buy into this political identity, or do you think that they will find it … Much like a lot of Hispanic Americans find things like Latinx, apparently. Nobody uses Latinx other than mostly White PhD students in universities. How do you think that effort to create an identity is falling on the various different peoples who we identify as Asian in the United States?

Melissa Chen:

So I did my homework and I read Mike Gonzales’ piece, as you recommended, on the invention of Hispanics. He said this is a pan-ethnic group that doesn’t even share language or really a culture or ethnicity. I was thinking about the term Asian and it’s even worse, because at least Hispanic share one or two languages. It’s either going to be Spanish or Portuguese. You cannot say the same at all for this umbrella term Asian, this pan-ethnic grouping, which includes Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, Korea. It’s so diverse.

What it is is an attempt to … It’s a bureaucratic grouping, firstly. But what it is is an attempt to plug any new immigrant into the United States into the common struggle of everything has to come back … It’s this grand narrative that everything has to go back to, okay, this is the Chinese Exclusion Act, this is the kind of oppression your people faced, this Asian oppression. It plugs everyone into a struggle that, frankly, is not shared. It creates a very convenient voting block.

As Gonzalez explains in his book, it’s a way of drumming up grievances to recruit for political ends. As you have seen, Asia now has morphed into an even bigger group called AAPI, which stands for American Asian Pacific Islander, because obviously the Japanese have a lot in common with American Samoans.

So it makes no sense at all, but it is a political movement. You can see how the forces are shaping up to make this a stronger identifier in hopes that people will choose to identify with it. I don’t actually think it’s working, to be honest, because there’s a huge gulf when it comes to Asian Americans …

I hate to use this term, but there’s a huge gulf between the activists class at the cultural elites, people you see in Hollywood, Asian American actors you see in Hollywood, who is leading the nonprofit organizations like Stop AAPI Hate, there’s huge gulf between them and the people who are not cultural elites, your recent immigrant, your Vietnamese family that owns a restaurant or a nail shop, the laundromats.

They do not share or buy into the ideology of their cultural elites. It’s really hard to get even Asians to disengage from their national origin groups. So Filipinos tend to identify with Filipino causes.

As the China issue polarizes Asians, because China’s alienated so many other regional countries in Southeast Asia … As I mentioned, the Vietnamese, the Thais, the Filipinos … they will not have an easy time trying to smooth all of that over and just say, “Oh, yeah, you’re all just Asian Americans.” No, these differences are very real.

Even Japanese versus Chinese and Koreans, there is historical baggage and current baggage there, and it’s going to be very difficult for a pan-ethnic identity to smooth over all those differences, and neither should they, because at the end of the day, these categories end up flattening almost all individuality.

You can’t even understand … So when you look at statistics, like who voted for Trump, for example, in 2020 and you look at Asian Americans as a group, I don’t know what that tells you, but when you break it down into Vietnamese Americans, into Chinese Americans, some picture actually emerges. Well, it turns out the Vietnamese Americans voted for Trump in droves, and the reason for that was That trump took a very hawkish stance on China.

And so, you understand things better when you break them down into a more granular level. These larger categories are really meaningless except for trying to pursue some sort of political objectives.

And so, recent narrative that the media has been trying to inflame is that the Asian Americans are a target because of Trump’s rhetoric, especially when it came to China virus, Wuhan flu, that a lot of hate has been drummed up and, therefore, a lot of hate crimes against Asian Americans have been perpetrated.

All this is somehow tied into White supremacy. It’s blamed on White supremacy, even though people who have eyes can see that that’s not what’s happening. We see them on social media with videos coming out that go viral, but we also see that in the data. That’s actually reflected in the data.

And so, I think it’s really hard to gaslight people, but if the media keeps promoting this narrative, then it will be able to drum up these kinds of grievances, and more and more Asian immigrants could identify as Asian Americans and feel the oppression, internalize it, and vote in a way that will be very convenient to the progressives.

Inez Stepman:

So you actually led the question I was going to go with next, which is exactly about the claims about AAPI violence and hate crimes. I mean what is the truth about what’s going on? Because we see one narrative, as you mentioned, in the media about blaming this on White supremacy. You tell me because I don’t know how to dig out, or I haven’t had the time to dig out, what’s actually a fact about these supposed hate crimes and what is just the media narrative on these things.

I mean is there a real documented increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans? If so, does it have anything to do with the pandemic coming out of China, or does it have to do with, as the left says, Donald Trump’s rhetoric? I mean what are the facts on the ground about the supposed surge in hate crimes?

Melissa Chen:

One of the problems with the media narrative is because it looks racist, it is. And so, they run with that because it’s a person of a different race attacking an Asian, therefore, this is a racist attack. But to really adjudicate whether something’s a hate crime, you have to dig a lot more. You have to understand the motivation of the person perpetrating the crime.

And so, many of the DAs so far have not brought hate crime charges upon a lot of the viral videos that we’ve seen, because is this something that was motivated racially or does it have something to do with many of these places like Chinatowns are actually located in urban centers? We’ve seen statistics in the last year that in so many cities across America, crime has increased a thousand percent-fold, violent crime, murders, homicides, assaults, burglaries.

And how much of that is you have a very vulnerable population, older Asian folks, living in these Chinatowns. They don’t speak English, they’re meek. Many of them are known to not even use banks. They stuff money in their mattresses.

So are these crimes of opportunity or are these crimes of racial prejudice? I think it’s very important to delineate this because the media simply isn’t. And so, they’re running away with the narrative that this has something to do with just pure racial prejudice. Maybe it’s more complex, maybe it’s hard to entangle both of them, but we won’t really know until hate crime statistics are officially released by the FBI in November, because that’s when the FBI compiles everything and publishes it for the previous year, so in 2020.

A lot of what we’re reacting to is actually self-reported incidents or data that is collected by a nonprofit called Stop AAPI Hate. I don’t think that’s reliable because many of the self-reported data includes things like verbal shunning. This person gave me a bad look, and people feel judged. And so, they’re like, “Oh, I think that was a racist incident.” It gets logged as a racist incident. So I think we have to be careful when we try to evaluate what’s going on.

But from what we see on social media, it’s heinous and it drums up a lot of emotional outrage. I think it’s plausible. It’s plausible that anti-Asian hate crimes are really rising, but I don’t think we’ve done a good job delineating whether this is part of ambient rising crime levels or whether this is purely motivated by racial hate.

The White supremacy narrative, to me, seems the most implausible narrative. The reason being that it’s really unlikely that people who live in these mostly Democrat, progressive-run cities, urban centers are listening or even find Donald Trump’s words to be influenceable.

So I don’t think that that’s actually what’s happening here. It doesn’t seem like it. And so, to peg this as some sort of rising White supremacy is … It seems like a totally false media constructive narrative.

Inez Stepman:

But to your earlier point, it does serve a political purpose of forging this pan-Asian identity in victimhood in the United States as a way to make people, as you said, from vastly different backgrounds, many of them are either immigrants or have in their family recent immigration, most of them … A lot of people came well after the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example. It is a way of forging this connection, this collective connection, between very, very different peoples under the banner of victimhood.

But one thing that I wonder might shatter that a little bit, that attempt anyway, might be some of the questions surrounding discrimination. I would say the one real collective modern discrimination that is increasingly suffered by people in the AAPI category is largely in college admissions, where we have seen elite colleges essentially peg a …

They will not admit to doing this, but this is what the data show that they do, peg a certain percentage of the student body that ends up being accepted, they have a certain kind of soft quota. None of this is what they admit to doing, but there is a lot of evidence in the data that there is a soft quota for accepted Asian applicants in our universities.

I mean how does that issue play into this attempt to form a political identity for Asian Americans? I mean this seems like an aspect of victimization that the people who are generally on the team of trying to form this kind of identity probably don’t want to talk about, but it does seem to me that I’ve seen more Asian American groups speaking out about this.

Melissa Chen:

So this is one of those issues that I mentioned to you before, that there’s a big delta, there’s a very big gulf between what the average Asian American person believes and what the cultural elites believe, and that is cultural elites, Asian American cultural elites, support affirmative action. They think that this model minority is just a myth that was created by the right to put a wedge between groups. But the average Asian American is actually opposed to affirmative action. I mean Prop 16 couldn’t even pass in California, in one of the most progressive states.

So it’s increasingly becoming a wedge issue, and also ironic because the people that say stop AAPI hate, we are against Asian American discrimination, ignores this almost systematic form of discrimination that’s going on, not just in colleges but now also spreading to K-12. It shows up in different ways.

One way that’s showing up in K-12 is you have a lot of these tests like … Stuyvesant, for example, in New York City, they want to abolish these entrance tests. And so, when you have a single test that allows admissions to a school, what happens is when there’s overrepresentation of Asians, then the test is invalid and they want to cancel it, or they’re removing, for example, gifted classes. I think the state of Virginia is deciding to roll back on gifted math classes.

And so, there’s a whole host of admissions policies now, reactions to testing that the country is basically waging a war on merit. The reason for doing that is because of this overrepresentation of Asians in education and in academic settings. It flies in the face of fairness to do something like this. It just reeks of discrimination to have these racial quotas.

I definitely agree with you because I am seeing more Asian Americans and Asian immigrants push back on this narrative, because their success as a minority group is throwing a wrench into the whole narrative of critical race theory, that pretty much all disparities that you see between groups have to do with systematic discrimination [inaudible 00:53:26], and the performance of Asian Americans speak otherwise.

And so, more and more people, especially those with kids in school, are organizing. And so, I’m really happy to see groups come out of the woodwork, parents saying this is a really bad direction for us to go into. One school in Washington State actually started labeling Asian students as White, just so that the way that diversity is considered would not count the Asian American kids. And so, a lot of noise was made and the school decided to unpublish that report.

And so, pressure like that works, awareness like that works. The drive to paint things like academic success, the values that Asian American families really hold onto as White supremacist culture values is very dangerous. We are starting to see that with the critical race advocates.

I think it is going to do not just our kids a really disservice, but the future of the country. I mean to our previous conversation, we’re not just competing with ourselves here. We’re in competition, global competition, with China. If our students are not prepared for the future, our entire country is at stake.

Inez Stepman:

I couldn’t agree more with that last statement, both internally and externally. Internally because we are a large multi-ethnic liberal democracy and there has to be a sense of fairness, as I think you said. They pointed to among our diverse population or we are going to be constantly at each other’s throats domestically. Then, as you say, it’s not just us in the world. If we are futzing around with this stuff and at each other’s throats, then we’re going to definitely lose out in some of these global competitions, and potentially, not even worse, into a real open conflict.

Well, Melissa, it’s been so wonderful to have you here at High Noon and to get your insights. Where can people find you, your work, and learn more about what you do?

Melissa Chen:

You can find me on Twitter. I’m not as active as most people are, but my Twitter handle is @MsMelChen. In terms of writing, just find me on Spectator. There’s an author page. You can see all my articles there. I am starting to write more for the New York Post as well recently.

As for the advocacy stuff that I do on the side, Ideas Beyond Borders is one. That’s the one that Inez referenced. The other one is FAIR, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism.

Inez Stepman:

And thank you to all of our listeners. New episodes come out every Wednesday, so please join us next week for an upliftingly practical and energized discussion about critical race theory with Christopher Rufo. Until then, you can find High Noon anywhere you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or Smash that subscribe button or, even better, leave us a review. You can send your comments or your questions for the show to [email protected] as well. Until then, be brave, and see you next time on High Noon.