When National Security Concerns Become Unjust: Preventing a Second "Yellow Peril"

Bridget Chan / May 24, 2024

May 20, 1942. Woodland, California. Individuals of Japanese ancestry boarding a special train for a detention center in Merced. Dorothea Lange - US National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain

Last month, the US President Joe Biden signed a law forcing Bytedance to divest its ownership of TikTok or face a ban of the app. The legislation came to his desk with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. While the company has already challenged the law, the incident is a significant indicator of rising tensions between the US and China as they grapple for control over a future driven by the internet and technology.

But as we enter a new age of national security concerns, we need to ensure that we do not repeat history, which has shown that racially biased policy decisions have often been justified by larger national security concerns. This is a pattern that must be stopped if the US aims to safeguard all its citizens and residents, and is particularly pertinent when it comes to ensuring equity and security for all.

A short history of profiling for national security

Exclusion for the sake of security has long been a narrative part of America’s history. As early as 1854, the New York Daily Tribune reported that ‘coolies’ (a term the British used to describe indentured laborers) working on the Transcontinental Railroad were loyal to China, “rendering our laws powerless.” Buoyed by fear and prompted by a massacre of Chinese immigrants in 1871, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed by Congress for the sake of national security and economic security, and was never repealed until 1943. During this timeframe, the 1898 annexation of Hawaii was also fraught with language suggesting Native Hawaiians were threats to the minority White settler population on the island. More well known in American history is the internment of Japanese-Americans, who were seen as “spies” for Japan during World War II, and who ultimately lost property and life for the sake of national security. Fearmongering terms like “yellow peril,” “yellow menace,” or “yellow terror” were used to describe the imagined threat of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) people to US security, and to describe this period of exclusion.

The AANHPI community is certainly not the only ethnic or racial group in the US that has been targeted under the premise of national security concerns. The espionage operation COINTELPRO specifically targeted Black organizations and activists in a broader campaign to root out communism in the 1950’s. After the September 11th attacks, the passage of the PATRIOT Act ushered in years of surveillance on the Muslim-American community, often resulting in no measurable impact on domestic terrorism but many violations of civil liberties. After the murder of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests in 2014 and 2015, several outlets leaked that the FBI targeted a number of surveillance operations on “Black identity extremists” as part of Operation Iron Fist. This is all part of the national security community’s convoluted history of policing communities of color for the sake of America’s domestic and international security.

The technology “Cold War”

The speculation of an emerging technology “cold war” with China will become a test of whether we’ve learned the lessons of the past. It is not a stretch to imagine the racial profiling resulting from the narrative of China as a national security threat. Congress recently passed legislation forcing ByteDance to sell TikTok stemming from national security concerns about possible data exfiltration and dissemination of propaganda. Colloquially known as the “TikTok Ban”, the legislation is partially built off the work of the House Select Committee on The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and momentum built up in recent years by lawmakers to address the risks of the social media platform. The legislation includes language explicitly stating that Chinese ownership of one of the largest social media platforms is a national security threat. Due in part to the lack of publicly available intelligence on whether or how the CCP has utilized TikTok in its operations, it's unknown how effective the ban will be towards limiting China’s influence as opposed to other policy solutions, like a comprehensive data privacy law. This framing is not surprising given the origins of the Select Committee.

The TikTok legislation is only one indicator of a larger strategic interest to decouple from China under the CCP. Major federal strategies, such as the White House’s National Cybersecurity Strategy, the Department of Defense’s 2023 Cyber Strategy, and the State Department’s International Cyberspace & Digital Policy Strategy, all specifically call out China as an emerging threat to US cybersecurity and technology security. In executing these strategies, the federal government has employed a number of policy levers across different policy areas in the interest of securing against China. Export controls on semiconductor manufacturing, including enhanced licensing requirements and subsidies for American chip manufacturers, were designed to decrease dependence on Chinese manufacturing. Recent movements on AI and the electronic vehicle industry are also expanding the scope of American competition on tech innovation.

Concerns about the CCP’s threat to national security are not unfounded. Cyberattacks attributed to the Chinese state or state-affiliated actors have dogged US companies and agencies as far back as 2010. The earliest instances were suspected to be motivated by economic espionage, but over time have increasingly focused on critical infrastructure targets and information operations, both of which pose greater threats to national security. More recently, the botnet Volt Typhoon attempted to infiltrate US critical infrastructure in January, and OpenAI reported shutting down state-affiliated accounts that were researching various cyberattack methods and targets. FBI Director Christopher Wray has continued to warn of the threat to US critical infrastructure, noting in April 2024 that Volt Typhoon targeted data rather than financial assets, indicating a more strategic approach to cyberattacks.

A new Yellow Peril?

At a moment where securing the US against China is a top priority, we are beginning to see the return of programs and policies that will target the AANHPI community on American soil. The China Initiative, a Department of Justice operation spanning between the Trump and Biden administrations, was a domestic solution to combat Chinese economic espionage. At its conclusion in 2022, the China Initiative yielded a 27% conviction rate, and this is after decreasing the severity of the original charges brought by the Justice Department. Of the 148 charges brought under the China Initiative, 90% of the plaintiffs were of Chinese heritage, even though one of the most headline-grabbing cases was that of Dr. Charles Lieber, who is not Chinese. Refunding the China Initiative was part of a proposed House spending bill in January 2024, so it’s feasible it could return again.

Bias in policymaking can also heavily influence every-day Chinese Americans and the wider AANHPI community. Anti-Asian sentiment, which saw an unprecedented uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic, was fueled not only by rhetoric used by the Trump Administration, but also by misinformation and hate mongering on social media. These attitudes continue to persist at the highest levels of government, most recently exemplified by Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-AK) xenophobic line of questioning about the TikTok CEO’s citizenship and loyalties during a Senate hearing last fall, which were unrelated to the issue at hand. Failure to prioritize tangible technology threats can also have outsized impacts on specific communities. For example, Muddling Meerkat, a hacking group linked to China that has conducted activities with the Chinese Great Firewall that could balkanize the internet into distinct domains of information and control, will have outsized impacts on AANHPI Americans, particularly those with familial ties in China, who will have to suffer the consequences of disconnecting.

The way forward is to look back

Policy solutions are rarely straightforward in execution, but what is clear is that it would be ineffective and unjust to utilize racial bias as a shortcut when addressing national security issues. US history shows there have been moments where people have depended on blanket policies to secure the nation when in fact, they’ve made some communities more insecure. These three recommendations can help avoid such unjust outcomes:

  1. Don’t be shy, specify: Policymakers, their aides, and other government officials must be deliberate in sharing potential threats with detail, specificity, and data. National security policy is particularly susceptible to threat inflation, and especially as China legislation dominates news cycles, policymakers are responsible for framing their decisions carefully. Widespread use of technology and digital platforms means that cyber threats affect private companies, governments, and individuals alike; without detail, specificity, and data to justify and reinforce policy decisions, the public will fill in the blanks with their own biases and assumptions.
  2. Regulate the product, not the competition: Rather than evaluating tech products by their country of origin or ownership, it would be far more effective to set standards for products, platforms and services to adhere to. The RESTRICT Act, a predecessor to the current TikTok ban and proposed by Sen. Mark Warren (D-NY) in 2023, was fueled by similar concerns but took a more expansive approach by proposing a set of measurable standards to evaluate tech products, platforms and services. Focusing on regulation and standards further removes AANHPI from any stigma as a result of national security decisions, as well as clarifies how companies can innovate for the US market.
  3. Engage with the AAPI community: While some may not be inclined to collaborate with the Chinese state on issues of emerging tech, policymakers should be inclined to engage with their constituencies who will be the first to be impacted by a second “yellow peril.” It’s firmly on representatives to outreach to their increasingly diversifying constituency, and to ensure there are avenues for the AAPI community to engage with government and raise community concerns, especially violence and discrimination. “AANHPI” is an umbrella term that covers an incredibly diverse group spanning 74 distinct groups according to the 2020 Census, so town halls, accessibility to non-English language information, and strengthening bonds with AANHPI community leaders will continue to be crucial touchpoints for policy leaders to understand the impacts of their decisions.

Policymakers, researchers, and practitioners can no longer be unaware of the history of yellow peril and how recent events suggest it has returned. Leaders have a responsibility to mitigate the risks of racial bias and stereotyping in order to avoid undue harms to AANHPI communities within the US.


Bridget Chan
Bridget Chan is the Program Manager at New America for the #ShareTheMicInCyber Fellowship, a program advancing equity in cybersecurity in service of a safe digital future for all. Her career has been focused on understanding policy impact, including at the Government Accountability Office and as an ...