Is it impossible to locate a Chinese American politics?
In the 2017 US census, 1.5% of Americans identified as having Chinese ancestry. These 4.9 million individuals are nearly impossible to generalize: many built iconic ‘Chinatown’ enclaves within the United States’ largest cities, but distinct pockets of Chinese Americans (huaren) are visible in rural areas and Southern towns. They speak a variety of languages and dialects and have ancestors almost all parts of East Asia; some arrived directly from the contemporary People’s Republic, while others trace their origins to political entities that no longer exist.
In the year 2020, is it impossible to speak of a Chinese American politics? Among Americans of Asian descent, a group known for low levels of civic participation, Chinese Americans were the least likely to affiliate with a political party. Certainly there have been attempts at generalizing the community’s voting behaviour and ideology, but contradictions abound. In many ways Chinese American politics are defined by the same tensions that permeate any diaspora: cultural duality, generational shifts, and conflicts between the internal and external. Moreover, Covid-19 has fuelled anti-Asian racism to record levels, nearly 40 years after Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit. In the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, 73% of Chinese voters identified racism as an issue that’s ‘Extremely Important’ or ‘Very Important’ to their electoral preferences.
Racial politics and histories of Asian America
A significant difficulty in analyzing Chinese American voter behaviour lies in the crude categorization built into American racial politics. The collective term ‘Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ (AAPI) is used by most media and pollsters for comparison against Black, Latino, and White voters; in fact, it is nearly impossible to find credible sources that specifically track Chinese American voter behaviour (or any other AAPI sub-group). Too often journalists and commentators uncritically discuss the ‘Asian American vote’ with no mention of the enormous cultural, linguistics, and socioeconomic gaps within said group, rendering the category almost meaningless.
In the absence of reliable and continuously documented voting data, many are forced to rely on fixed stereotypes of the community to understand its politics. It’s easy to get lost in diaspora discourses and lose sight of the blindingly obvious: that Chinese Americans’ voting behaviours and political preferences are influenced by the same factors that divide other Americans, from wealth and income to ideological alignments. For example, Chinese Americans are often described as socially conservative, but are they any more religious or culturally traditional than others in US society? GOP advocates in the community certainly claim that Democrats who embrace social justice and LGBTQ+ rights are alienating Chinese Americans; however, the truth appears far more complex. The historically significant Asian American Movement, which emerged out of the wider American Civil Rights movement between the 1960s and the 1980s, was decidedly leftist. It emphasized pan-Asianism and solidarity among people of colour and pushed for global anti-imperialism; among its influential legacies are the creation of Asian American Studies programmes at universities. It successfully created an Asian American political identity, but according to scholars like Annita Marie Ward, slogans such as ‘Yellow Power’ struggled to gain traction because Asian communities identified more with their own cultural groups than pan-Asian political organizing.
Asian America’s leftist heritage and strong support for contemporary Democrats are no longer taken for granted in 2020, as journalists and analysts recognize a rightward swing on social media. Researchers say that conservatives won ‘the messaging game’ on WeChat by describing liberal neglect of Chinese American interests and publishing large amounts of articles on Muslims, terrorism, and unauthorized immigration. The founding of ‘Chinese Americans for Trump’ gained widespread media traction, seemingly pointing towards an increasingly polarized and conservative community. Suffice to say that ‘culture war’ issues resonate online, but it’s unclear if they actually translate to GOP votes. Only 20% of Chinese Americans polled by AAPI Data before the election were inclined to vote for Donald Trump, the lowest among all AAPI sub-groups. By contrast, 56% leaned towards Joe Biden, and 67% found Trump ‘Somewhat’ or ‘Very’ unfavourable.
Ideological, Identity, and Pragmatism
Ideological diversity isn’t only restricted to the federal level. In fact, its implications are emerging in down-ballot races as well. California’s 25th State Assembly district, where more than 50% of voters are Asian American, is solidly Democratic; this year it will be sending the first openly bisexual representative to the state house. Alex Lee, a 25-year-old born to immigrant parents from Hong Kong, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and received endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders. The ‘first Gen-Z lawmaker’ being Asian American perhaps speaks to the fact that AAPI voters are the fastest growing ethnic group in the US electorate. Lee outlines housing affordability and security as his highest legislative priorities, something that resonates intimately in the ferociously expensive Bay Area. Even if we accept that there is a cultural preference for social conservatism in the Chinese community, left-wing politicians like Lee believe that it can be overcome by impactful economic policies.
Could this become a case study in the conflict between ideology and pragmatism? Chinese Americans’ relationship to leftist politics is enormously complex, and it would be hugely misleading to equate opposition to the Chinese Community Party with antisocialism in the North American sense. The pervasive and racist notion that Chinese people are inherently pragmatic and apathetic to ideology is obviously misguided, but painting Chinese communities as socially conservative is also an enormous failure of imagination. The Ronald Reagan-era conservatism that wields deep influences over the GOP is inherently different from the cultural reservations Chinese immigrant communities may share, and conflating the two indiscerningly, as some on both sides of the aisle do, is dangerous.
Of course, the idea of a highly traditional and socially conservative Chinese American community has some basis in reality. Within the district Lee now represents lies Fremont, where candidate Lucy Shen received 33.23% of votes and came second in the local school board election this year. Shen is queer and nonbinary, and in a WeChat public article their mother illustrated the diverse reactions spurred by their candidacy. While some privately offered encouragement and felt that young Chinese people entering politics bodes well for the community’s future, others furiously denounced Shen as an ‘ultra-left, homosexual, bisexual, gender-confused betrayer of Chinese values’ in parent group chats. A few even called for Shen’s parents to evict them after they publicly supported defunding the police during Black Lives Matter protests.
Ad hominem attacks on candidates from minority identities are nothing new in American politics. What is interesting about the cases of Lee and Shen is the “insider-outsider” dynamic that further complicate Chinese American politics and identity: on both personal and policy levels, candidates who profess allegiance with the racial label must contend with appealing to their own communities as well as the mainstream American gaze, to say nothing of personal authenticity. Psychologists found that gay Asian Americans are perceived as ‘more American’; in online communities created by Asian diasporas in the West (such as the enormously successful Facebook group ‘subtle asian traits‘), stories of young people feeling alienated from their own cultural communities for a variety of reasons are a daily affair. Suicide is the leading cause of death among AAPI youth, yet discourses surrounding mental health stubbornly fixate over ‘pressure-cooker colleges’ and ‘tiger parents’. The generational gap is material as well as cultural: Chinese Americans have higher levels of education and income than the US median, but this privilege neither applies universally nor innoculates young people against soaring inequality and wage stagnation.
What does political community look like?
Fremont is the kind of 21st-century Chinese American community that perpetrates its own archetype: solidly middle-class, education-oriented (Shen’s alma mater is one of America’s best public high schools), and suburban. For these voters, opposition to left-wing policies is not only a cultural issue but a material one: policies like wealth distribution have limited appeal among affluent voters of any ethnicity. Silicon Valley parents share little in the way of economic priorities with undocumented sex workers in New York City or grocery store owners in the Mississippi Delta. Those anti-imperial activists that led the Asian American Movement half a century ago came out of inner-city Chinatowns and university campuses rather than the Fremonts of modern-day America. The divide is stark: 14.4% of Chinese Americans continue to live in poverty, and in 2018 Asian Americans replaced Black Americans as the country’s most economically divided group.
Perhaps very little concretely unifies Chinese Americans — the languages they speak at home are mutually unintelligible, and even the rejection of racism has very different meanings for people with increasingly divergent self-conceptions. The huaren communities that voted in 2020 took their diverse socioeconomic conditions and disparate histories to the polls, and until sufficient academic and journalistic attention is paid to diversity within the group, it is difficult to even prove that Chinese Americans as a category truly exist. Genealogy does not automatically make community; the expectation that ideological, socioeconomic, and generational differences among Chinese Americans are reconcilable through ‘Confucian values’ is crass Orientalism. One obvious starting point is challenging the category itself.
Daryl (2012). Rethinking the Asian American Movement. New York: Routledge.
Ward, Annita Marie. “Yellow Power.” Racial & Ethnic Relations in America, edited by Kibibi Mack-Shelton and Michael Shally-Jensen, Salem, 2017. Salem Online, https://online-salempress-com.libwin2k.glendale.edu
Author: Irene Zhang
Research: Jiayi Qiu
Editor: Yifan Zhao