Billionaire businessman Joe Tsai told CNBC on Tuesday that Asian Americans have wrongly faced violent backlash for various challenges facing the U.S. throughout history.
In an interview on “Squawk Box,” the co-founder and executive vice chairman of China-based tech giant Alibaba offered a personal and historic reflection on the spike in racist attacks against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
“If the economy is well, the Asian Americans play by the rules, prosper together with everybody else, that’s fine,” said Tsai, who owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
“But if there’s a crisis — if there’s a pandemic, if there’s a war or if there’s an economic downturn — Asian Americans get scapegoated,” added Tsai, whose parents were from mainland China. He was born in Taiwan and came to the U.S. at age 13 to attend a New Jersey boarding school. He got his undergraduate and law degrees at Yale.
Tsai noted the restrictions on Chinese immigration that were put in place in the late 1800s and lasted well into the 20th century, as well as the U.S. forcing more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II.
He also recalled the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982, which came as Japanese car makers were expanding operations in the U.S. Chin, who was Chinese American, was attacked in Detroit by two white autoworkers, who blamed Japan for the problems the U.S. auto industry was experiencing.
“There’s a lot of that undertone of anti-Asian sentiment. When things are good, that’s fine. When things are bad for everyone, that’s when those ugly” anti-Asian attitudes surface, Tsai said.
The recent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders prompted action by U.S. lawmakers. In May, President Joe Biden signed into law a bipartisan bill that gives law enforcement additional tools to improve reporting and investigations of such incidents.
“Everybody thinks Covid came from China and, as a Chinese person, I felt it personally,” Tsai said. “There was a period of time when everyday you wake up, you see a new report of an anti-Asian hate crime,” he added.
Tsai is on the board of the recently created Asian American Foundation, which launched this year with the goal of supporting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through a broad range of philanthropic pursuits. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, KKR co-President Joseph Bae and Himalaya Capital founder Li Lu also are on the board.
Most immediately, Tsai said the group wants to begin addressing the lack of foundation and corporate giving that goes specifically to Asian Americans and Pacific Islander causes. Last month, the Asian American Foundation announced it already received more than $1 billion in commitments.
“Not all that money is going to come … to the foundation,” Tsai said. “Most of that money will be spent on other Asian-American organizations that are doing great work in anti-hate, in getting people to go out and vote, and all the great work that they’re doing.”
In Tuesday’s CNBC interview from inside the Barclays Center, Tsai also addressed recent questions about fellow Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma‘s retreat from public life. “He’s lying low right now, I talk to him every day,” said Tsai, who added that Ma is focusing on hobbies and philanthropy. Ma has had a rocky year with the Chinese government.