Transnational Anti-Asian Violence & the Model Minority
Liu Shaoyo was a 56-year-old Chinese national killed in his home on March 26, 2017 by police responding to a suspected domestic dispute call. While the French police claim that Mr. Liu was shot as an act of "legitimate defense" against "an assailant with scissors," Liu’s family told French media that he had done nothing more than open the door holding a pair of scissors he had been using to prepare fish. In response, France’s Asian and Chinese communities have taken to the streets in protest, leaving three police officers injured and at least 35 people detained. This most recent incident of anti-Asian violence highlights a long-existing insecurity among the French Chinese, reminiscent of the death of Zhang Chaolin--a 49-year-old tailor and father-of-two who died after being attacked by three teenagers in 2016. It also comes on the heels of the rising number of prominent hate crime cases in the United States.
France, undeniably, is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country. To address the increasing diversity, the French government utilizes a “color-blind” model of public policy that specifically bans the collection and computerized storage of race-based data. As a result, racial and ethnic censuses have been banned by the French government since 1978, resulting in a lack of data on racially-motivated hate crimes. For France’s Chinese community, the largest ethnic-Chinese diaspora in Europe, the lack of race-based data contributes to the rising frustration and anger against the state, which many claim have failed to protect them and their businesses.
France’s history with East-to-West migration may play a role in this increasing divide between more established migrant communities and ‘newer’ residents. France was the first Western country in which Vietnamese migrants settled due to French imperial rule over Indochina from 1885 to 1954. This led to the establishment of Vietnamese French and Southeast Asian communities that predate that of Chinese and other East Asian migrants. Unlike the Vietnamese diaspora in North America or Australia, the French Vietnamese and French Laotians are regarded as model minorities by media and politics due to a greater degree of assimilation as well as better cultural, historical, and linguistic knowledge of the host country. This starkly contrasts with the reported experiences of the French Chinese, who increasingly fear the looting of their businesses and brutalization of their bodies. The fear of mistreatment and outright anti-Asian violence exists among various Asian diasporic communities in other Western states like the United States and the United Kingdom. Yet, the lived experiences of ethnic-Asians drastically differ depending on the state, sometimes in such a fundamental sense that the notion of “Asian-ness” does not even refer to the same demographic.
According to the U.S Census Bureau in 2010, Asian Americans make up 5.6 percent of the total American population, with the largest ethnic groups represented being Chinese (3.79 million), Filipino (3.41 million), Indian (3.18 million), Vietnamese (1.73 million), Korean (1.7 million), and Japanese (1.3 million). Current data also indicates that Asian Americans have the highest household income and educational attainment of all minority groups.
Yet, when disaggregated, this same data also shows that “success,” as defined by the two previously mentioned indicators, is concentrated among more established East Asians, particularly Chinese, Japanese and Korean Americans. South and Southeast Asians, in contrast, are likely to face color-based discrimination and are often confused with Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans. This was the case for Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Harnish Patel, Indian nationals who were killed in March 2017 by racially-motivated hate crime shootings. Even David Dao, a 69-year-old Vietnamese American who was brutally dragged from a United Airlines flight by airport security personnel, was initially thought to be Chinese American. America’s predominantly East Asian understanding of Asia also stems from its experience with East-to-West migration, where many early Chinese immigrants worked as laborers on the First Transcontinental Railroad between 1863 and 1869. Memories from the bombing of Pearl Harbor, World War Two, and the unlawful internment of Japanese Americans have left an impressionable mark on the American psyche.
The opposite seems to be the case in the United Kingdom, where Asian identity is more closely associated to that of South Asia. Migration from Asia to Britain has roots in the East India Company, the British Raj in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947, and the subsequent independence of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka from colonial rule. For these historical reasons, 4.9 percent of the total population are South Asian (excluding other Asian groups) while the British Chinese only make up 0.7% of the population. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the word "Asian" or "British Asian" when describing people typically refers to individuals of South Asian origin. Given these historical and demographic circumstances, the British Chinese share similar fears and frustrations with the French Chinese. According to research in 2009 by Durham University professor Gary Craig, the Chinese population in the U.K. experiences "perhaps even higher levels of racial violence or harassment than those experienced by any other minority group" but that the true extent to their victimization is often overlooked because victims were unwilling to report it. In a following report published in 2013 by the British Chinese Project, almost half of 520 survey respondents stated they "did not trust the police to deal effectively with their case". All of this is exacerbated by the fact that even if all incidents were reported to police, ‘Chinese’ ethnicity is put into the category of ‘other’ in when it comes to data collection.
Because Asian communities in Western states typically make up no more than 5% of the total population, diversity within the group is often overlooked. The model minority label relies on the aggregation of racially-neutral success indicators like higher education and household income. However, in policy context, salient issues like police violence and hate crimes are rooted in ethnicity and a color-blind approach that fails to remedy the historical disadvantages faced by certain marginalized migrant and immigrant communities. Western countries with Asian diasporic communities naturally have different relations with its Asian citizens. However, the artificial pitting of established minority communities against the new migrant workers and immigrants occurs across borders and contributes to the sentiment that anti-Asian violence is trending.
The first step towards addressing these subversive issues is through data. Institutional solutions like more comprehensive data collection process and data disaggregation can help reveal how pervasive incidents involving anti-Asian sentiments are on a transnational scale. Similar to how France does not collect race-based statistics, the United States has neither a dataset nor an apparatus in place that can report national hate crime trends. While local authorities are in a much better position to document discriminatory hate crimes and violence, not all communities see such as a priority.
We must actively question and challenge the narrative that insufficient data on a particular issue indicates a non-issue, especially in the context of racially-motivated violence. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many more unarmed Black men and women, the blatant profiling of and discrimination against Muslim Americans, and the disregard of undocumented immigrants have shown that law enforcement in the United States will not make race-conscious institutional changes until public scrutiny is applied and malpractice is exposed. Most of these re-structural efforts have been led by the black and brown community, which needs to be acknowledged and contributed to by Asian communities. Asian immigrants who enjoy greater degrees of assimilation and model minority status must remember that their counterparts in other countries may not receive the same safety from police violence, and that racial-neutral success indicators will never be enough to overcome the racism and discrimination.