U.S.

The Rise of the Chinese-American Right

San Francisco mayoral candidate Ellen Lee Zhou at her fundraising party in April. (Rong Xiaoqing)
New generations of Chinese immigrants hate affirmative action — and some are beginning to love Trump.

On June 13, during a nasty storm, a group of Chinese New Yorkers gathered in front of the gates of Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s residence on the Upper East Side, to protest. Inside, Mayor Bill de Blasio was meeting with two dozen or so representatives of the Asian-American community to discuss his controversial plan to reform the meritocratic admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools — the first such meeting since he announced the plan out of the blue a year ago. The protesters, crowded under umbrellas or clad in ponchos, blamed the mayor for taking so long to hold the meeting and for handpicking most invitees from government-funded entities, thereby shutting out key opponents of his plan.

The rain was pouring and the wind howling, but when a soft-spoken, skinny man made a speech in front of the crowd, the protesters paid attention. “Today there are no politicians or leaders. We are all ordinary parents,” he told them, standing in the rain without any protection. “But we should believe in our power. As long as we fight together, we are able to protect the future of our children.”

His name is Donghui Zang, a rising community leader who was little-known in the Chinese community until a year ago. Zang, the father of two teenage boys, first came out on the streets to protest on June 5, 2018, two days after the mayor announced his plan to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) to diversify the intake of the city’s top high schools, where a majority of students are Asian and very few are Black or Hispanic.

At the time, Zang wasn’t sure what he could do as an individual to change the mayor’s mind. Since he came to the U.S. to study in 1995, he had never participated in civic activities. “I didn’t even know who Cuomo was,” Zang told me, referring to the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo. With a Ph.D. from Rice University, a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon, and a job with a Wall Street firm, his life had little overlap with traditional Chinese immigrant communities.

But since the SHSAT protest, Zang has helped form New York Residents Alliance, a grassroots organization that is able to reach as many as 2,000 Chinese New Yorkers via WeChat, the social media platform popular among Chinese people around the world. Zang mobilized his followers to protest against various issues they deemed contrary to the interests of Chinese residents, such as the city’s plans to build jails and homeless shelters in Chinese neighborhoods and the opening of medical marijuana dispensaries in the center of residential neighborhoods. His organization has endorsed candidates in several elections, mostly Republicans or conservative Democrats.

Many of Zang’s followers are like him — having come to the U.S. from China in the past 30 years or so for postgraduate education. Like Zang, many have school-age children but no previous experience in activism. Many of them became new voters during the past year, including Zang, who was naturalized and registered as a voter in late August 2018. Many of them are not affiliated with any party. But their views, based on a firm belief in competition, individual accomplishment, and meritocracy, are distinctly conservative.

They are only part of the rising force of conservatism among new Chinese immigrants in the U.S., aroused by nationwide issues such as the racially conscious admissions policy of Ivy League colleges and the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Their emergence on the political horizon may herald a climate change in a community that has been considered a solid base for the Democrats for two decades.

Lucy Tan and other Chinese Trump supporters participating in a rally in midtown Manhattan in May against Congresswomen Ilhan Omar. (Rong Xiaoqing)

Asians in America, carrying the lingering wounds from historic injustices — such as the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese immigration to the U.S. from 1882 to the middle of the 20th century — may sound like natural allies of the Democrats.

Indeed, since 2000, Asians have overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates in presidential elections. But, if you look beyond the last twenty years, that loyalty fades. In 1992, the first time Asian votes were counted as an independent category, and again in 1996, more Asians voted for the Republican candidates than for the Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.

In a 2016 article in The American Prospect, Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), attributed the shift to the different approaches of the two parties toward Asians and immigrants. One of his main concerns was the lack of civic participation of Asians. “Asian American leaders repeatedly told me that the members of their community were primarily interested in ensuring their economic advancement and had neither the time nor the motivation to participate in civic life,” he wrote.

With this backdrop in place, the emergence of Chinese Trump supporters in 2016 caught many people off guard. David Wang, an independent investor in Los Angeles, founded Chinese Americans for Trump (CAFT) on WeChat during the last election season. He told me it evolved from a three-member chat group that he formed in the summer of 2015 to an 8,000-member network, spread across all states but Hawaii and Alaska one year later.

CAFT members were visible in campaign rallies, they posted and reposted pro-Trump articles on WeChat, and they showed off their support for him with flamboyant displays. In October 2016, Chinese Trump supporters across the country donated money to put on pro-Trump air shows. Small planes pulled banners bearing the words “Chinese Americans for Trump” then hovered for hours, creating a spectacle that even media in mainland China vied to cover.

But, this kind of zeal did not appear out of thin air — the Chinese community had been becoming more vocal for a few years.

Some say a key moment came in 2013 when comedian Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment on his tongue-in-cheek late night show on ABC, in which he seemed amused by a six-year-old boy’s proposal to solve the problem of America’s skyrocketing national debt owed to China. “Kill everyone in China,” the boy said. The segment prompted tens of thousands of Chinese-Americans to protest in more than 20 American cities, the largest such national protest of Chinese-Americans in anyone’s memory. Kimmel apologized.

Since then, such protests have almost become routine in a community that used to be known for its silence. They fought against the indictment of Peter Liang, a Chinese-American cop in New York, who accidentally shot dead an unarmed black man while patrolling a NYC housing estate. Liang’s indictment seemed unjust given that white police officers who had killed in far more cold-blooded ways had gotten off charges. The grassroots protesters also fought against bills in several states aiming to collect data about Asian subgroups. They worried that such a bill would direct government funding to less-established Asian groups. Chinese parents became vocal as well, protesting the legalization of marijuana as they sought to protect their children from being introduced to drugs.

But the issue that mobilizes almost every single person in the Chinese community is education. From the protests against the California bill, SCA-5, which would restore race as a factor for college-admission decisions in the state, to the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University for its “racially conscious” admissions policy, to Zang’s dissent against New York City’s attempt at specialized-high-school reform, Chinese-Americans are vehemently against affirmative action in education.

This dissent is being led by people like Zang, and their suddenly raised voices are not so hard to explain. After spending many years studying for their academic degrees, finding jobs, and applying for green cards, they only recently found the confidence and security to ponder social issues. To this subgroup of the Chinese-American community, affirmative action in education is a direct attack on their interests and the interests of their children.

But the way they seek fairness and justice differs sharply from that of the previous generations of Chinese-Americans, who tended to stand shoulder by shoulder with other minorities. Liz Ouyang, a veteran civil-rights lawyer and activist, said: “I see their [the new Chinese immigrants’] advocacy as being more narrowly focused. Their anger is dealing with whether or not their child would get in if they study for this test, rather than looking at whether or not this test is an accurate measure of their ability or whether or not this test discriminates against other minorities.”

The impact of this new wave of Chinese immigrants on American politics is still unfolding, but it has the potential to wield significant influence. The number of Asian voters has more than doubled from 2 million in 2001 to 5 million in 2016. It now constitutes some 3.7 percent of the total voter population, and is expected to climb. Further, according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), China has been the second largest source country for immigrants granted green cards since 2007, topped only by Mexico. The trend shows no sign of slowing down in the foreseeable future, even with the trade war between China and the U.S.

Meanwhile, between 2012 and 2016, Chinese support for affirmative action in education collapsed to just 41 percent from 78 percent, according to AAPI DATA, a partner organization of the NAAS.

This has sparked some anticipation from the right. In February, a forum was convened at the Harvard Club to discuss New York’s plan for specialized-high-school reform. John Yoo, former deputy assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, told the audience: “If you look at Asians, they are the most highly educated, the biggest small business owners, the most religious, the most entrepreneurial. . . . Why are they voting Democrat? . . . I hope this is a political awakening for Asian Americans.”

Surveys of the midterm congressional elections in 2018 showed that the majority of Asian votes still went to the Democrats. The new conservative Asian voters are still some way from dominating the Asian vote. But if Chinese Trump supporters are an indicator, conservatism is still rising.

David Wang, the founder of CAFT, said the number of members in the network dropped to 5,000 or so after the presidential election when people shifted their focus to other matters. But now it has risen close to 8,000, and his goal is to have 20,000 people in the network for the 2020 election. The group has growing chapters in cities such as Atlanta and Phoenix and continues to expand.

In the spring, I was invited to a Chinese Trump supporters’ party. It was organized by a woman named Lucy Tan, a mother with two master’s degrees and three school-aged children, at a karaoke bar in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Flushing in Queens, New York. A few dozen Chinese people showed up. Some had participated in pro-Trump activities in 2016, but quite a few were newcomers who said that their conservative stance made them lonely in a progressive city, until they found this group on WeChat.

In the dim glow of fluorescent light, over snacks like roasted sunflower seeds and boiled green soybeans, they poured their hearts out for President Trump using a karaoke microphone.

“I had never loved any politicians. But this old man, I love him to death,” exclaimed Jason Gu, who said he worked in the real estate industry. Gu then lamented about his perception of America’s deterioration since he came to this country in 1991 when he was 37 — his sense that there is a swelling welfare system that encourages laziness and punishes hard-working people.

He picked up a peanut from a plate. “Think about this, when we were kids in China, we could only afford to serve peanuts during the Lunar New Year. Why were we so poor?” asked Gu rhetorically. “I came to the U.S. because I saw the flaws of socialism. But now America is going on the old road of China.”

The very thought of socialism created its own toxic atmosphere. Almost everyone came up with a horror story about how it ruined lives in their home country, and they pledged never to let the U.S. become another Venezuela.

When I brought up the Chinese Exclusion Act, they vied to tell me that it came from the failed Fifteen Passenger Bill in 1879, introduced by a Democratic congressman, and that it was created partly because Chinese laborers were breaking the strikes called by mainstream unions. “American culture is white men’s culture. We came to this country because we like this culture,” Tan told me.

That day, they came up with a strategic plan for helping Trump win in 2020, including a goal for each participant to persuade five people around them to vote for Trump, and to support the activities led by other Chinese groups whom Tan called “allied troops,” including the fight against specialized-high-school reform.

Indeed, the collaboration has already been happening. Chinese Trump supporters attended many of the recent protests led by Chinese-Americans, and, on some occasions, they flashed their banners of “Chinese for Trump” or “Make America Great Again.” This display often caused controversy when other protesters worried that the banners would drive away their Democratic supporters. For example, during a rally before a forum held by New York State Senator John Liu to discuss the specialized high school reform in April, this reporter witnessed a MAGA banner going abreast with a banner calling to “Keep politics out of education.” Despite the visible clash between the CAFTers and the local activists, the dispute only involved tactics. Few people, at least in the activist discussion groups on WeChat, criticized Trump supporters for their doctrines or the president himself.

Some of these grassroots activists quickly became torch holders of Trumpian doctrines, such as Ellen Lee Zhou, a mayoral candidate in San Francisco. A city-employed social worker who came to the U.S. in 1986 when she was 17 from Taishan, China, Zhou first became active in 2017 when Chinese San Franciscans protested against the proliferation of marijuana shops in the city after it was legalized by a state referendum.

Last year, encouraged by her anti-marijuana-legalization friends, Zhou ran for mayor in a special election in San Francisco — as an independent. She ended up the fifth among the nine candidates, topped by four experienced politicians. This year, the mayoral race is open again, and Zhou is back. The difference is that she is now a Republican and an impassioned Trump supporter.

At a fundraising Zhou hosted in early April at Paramount, a Chinese restaurant in Richmond Hill, supporters spoke on the stage one after another. Two read a poem they wrote for her entitled “Make San Francisco Great Again.” A white man praised traditional Chinese values and identified them as the solution for the problems in California.

“The rest of California — the Hindus and all the other minorities — will see the Chinese people leading the way of moral values and economic resuscitation. And we will take the country back, and President Trump is depending on you,” he told the audience.

Talk of “cultural values” may confuse those unfamiliar with the teachings of Confucius — from which both the previous generation of left-leaning Chinese activists and their current conservative counterparts borrowed. But China’s rapid development in the past 40 years can easily explain the juxtaposition: While the values may be the same, their implications have changed dramatically.

Donghui Zang speaking at a rally to protect the Specialized High School Admissions Test. (Rong Xiaoqing)

Consider the case of Donghui Zang, the New York protest leader, who was born in a small village of Gaocheng, Hebei, in 1969. Chairman Mao Tse-tung would die seven years later. When Zang was nine years old, new Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched the “Open Door Policy,” a massive economic reform program that would lead China to affluence by allowing open markets and encouraging competition.

Zang still remembers the poverty left by Mao’s era. When he was a child, the families in his village were too poor to buy shoes for their children. He had to wear shoes handmade by his mother with torn cloth, which, during rain or snow, would soak through. But all parents tried their best to encourage their children to study. There was no electricity in the village until he entered middle school, so in the evenings, children often climbed up to their roofs so they could read in the last twilight. Zang’s father, an elementary-school teacher, always spent his day off in students’ homes tutoring them for free.

After elementary school, Zang entered the top middle school with the highest score among the tens of thousands of children in the county. From there, he went to a top high school, and then, in 1987, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, one of the top universities in China, after competing with 2.28 million students in the excruciating college entrance exams when the average nationwide admission rate to a university was 27.2 percent.

Zang said the quality of the grade schools in his hometown has declined, but he believes that the solution is to raise the pay for rural teachers rather than lowering the cut scores of college admission for rural children. “You should try to help rural children to reach a higher level, not punish city children for getting ahead,” said Zang. In China as in the U.S., Zang believes that tests are the only fair way to minimize subjective bias and backdoor manipulation in school admissions.

In late spring 1989, when Zang was a college sophomore, the Tiananmen students’ democracy movement erupted. On May 13 of that year, Zang, limping because he injured his leg two days earlier in a basketball game, marched with thousands of students for miles. “I fervently longed for democracy and freedom then, and couldn’t tolerate the fact that other countries could have more than one party and that people could vote and we couldn’t,” he said.

When the movement was destroyed by Beijing in a bloody crackdown, Zang cried. That was the first time he had participated in any political activity. Six years later he left China to study for his Ph.D. in the U.S. He had stayed away from politics, until now.

His experience is not just his own but also that of his generation. “We Chinese believe in equal opportunities. They (American liberals) pursue equal outcomes. That is like in Mao’s era, you received the same pay whether you worked hard or not,” Yukong Zhao, the founder of the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE), told me. The AACE filed an amicus brief signed by 269 Asian community organizations to support the plaintiff in the Harvard lawsuit in January.

Zhao, like Zang, doesn’t want to be identified as a supporter of a single political party. But, he told me his views about the Republican Party have improved a lot because of Trump’s actions on education, including Trump’s reversal of the Obama-era guideline that encouraged colleges to consider race in admissions. “I support the new administration because of its support for the Asians’ education-rights movement,” Zhao said.

To Wan Yanhai, a renowned activist in China who was barred from going back after he came to the U.S. in 2010, the political trend among Chinese people in the U.S. is both understandable and confusing.

“These are mainly people who witnessed or participated in the Tiananmen movement in 1989. They believe in democracy and have basic rights awareness. But they had no opportunities to learn the process of democracy or accumulate experience in social activism,” Wan, who himself was on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, told me. “They are easy to be instigated.”

But Wan, a registered Democrat, admitted that although the Democrats showed great sympathy for his work in China, he realized when he came to the U.S. that American liberalism is not as perfect as he imagined. Aizhixing Institute of Health Education, a nonprofit organization he led in China, helped all sorts of underserved people from Uighurs and AIDS patients to drug users and released prisoners. “But we only advocate for some very basic services for them, and we never asked for more than that,” said Wan.

Democrats, too, are ratcheting up their interactions with the Chinese community. “One reason why I want to get involved with the DNC is that I felt in the 2016 election, in some cases, Republicans paid more attention to the Chinese community than Democrats did. I want to help (the DNC) communicate better,” said Grace Meng, a New York Congresswoman who was elected the Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017.

Yet, it may not be easy for a liberal, American-born Chinese such as Meng to communicate with her compatriots from China. “China is a society based on vicious competition. There is no room for compassion and charity. People are encouraged to take care of themselves,” said Haipei Shue, president of the Washington D.C.-based United Chinese Americans. “The values of liberalism are indeed what immigrants from China lack and badly need to espouse.” One Chinese-American scholar who called for Asian-American activists to embrace arrivals from China dealt with backlash from new immigrants who mistook it as portraying U.S.-born Asians as superior to the newcomers.

In any event, the New York protests are perhaps the epicenter of the new generation of Chinese activism. In April, Zang and eight other parents from the Residents Alliance went to meet John Liu, the state senator who chairs the New York City Education Committee, which plays a key role in approving or disapproving the mayor’s reform plan. During Liu’s election last year, the parents supported his opponent: Liu had published an op-ed article in the Huffington Post years ago proposing holistic admission of specialized high schools rather than the current test-based standard. But during and after the election, Liu has continued to emphasize his opposition to the mayor’s plan. He has even called it “racist” for deliberately avoiding Asians’ input. The parents said they felt they can work together with him.

The night before meeting Liu, they had gathered together to rehearse what each of them would say during the meeting, staying awake until 2 a.m. — as they normally did over the past year, passionately trying to navigate the civic engagement system in the U.S.

Zang, who often reminds his followers that the purpose of all battles is to achieve peace, was assigned to thank Liu for his support of the test as an icebreaker. But coming from work, he was a little late. The icebreaker was omitted. The meeting started in a rather awkward way with a sense of old grudges still hanging in the air.

But in the end, everyone was happy. Veto Kwan, an IT engineer, put on the table two T-shirts he had designed that bore the words: “Keep SHSAT.” “We brought some gifts for you and your staff,” he said to Liu. “I love the color. It’s blue,” quipped Liu, a die-hard Democrat. “But we also have red ones,” Kwan said matter-of-factly.

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