Affirmative action and rise of the Chinese-American right

Asian-Americans, in the main, have traditionally voted blue. In the 2012 election, 76% of Asian voters turned out for Barack Obama, and in 2016 two-thirds of all Asian voters supported Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Biden captured 63% of Asian voters, winning the Asian-American community in a landslide.

However, there has been a new development that has gone largely unnoticed.  Whereas 17% of Asian-Americans voted for Trump in 2016, 31% voted for Trump in 2020.  What caused this shift?

There are various factors that drove Asian-Americans to vote for Trump in 2020. But the key unifying issue is affirmative action.

Affirmative action as antiAsian

Asian-Americans, especially Chinese-Americans, hate race-based affirmative action in education that systematically discriminates against the admission of their children.  According to a July 2019 National Review article entitled “The Rise of the Chinese-American Right”, the Chinese-American community view affirmative action as “a direct attack on their interests and the interests of their children” and using race to suppress Asian achievement.

This was punctuated in 2014 when a group of Asian-American students sued Harvard University on its biased anti-Asian admission policy, and in 2018, a UCLA law professor also sued the University of California for systemic anti-Asian racism in its admissions policy.

Although they lost the lawsuit against Harvard, Asian-Americans—hitherto rather politically apathetic — began to organize and participate in civic activities.  In New York, Chinese-Americans formed the New York Residents Alliance, a grassroots organization reaching up to 2,000 Chinese New Yorkers via WeChat, to mobilize and protest against various issues they deemed contrary to the interests of Chinese residents.  This includes Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for affirmative action in schools, building jails and homeless shelters in Chinese neighborhoods, and opening of medical marijuana dispensaries in the center of residential neighborhoods when Chinese parents try so hard to keep their children away from drugs.

Chinese-Americans view these actions as an assault on their cultural values, with a firm belief in competition, individual accomplishments and meritocracy, that is distinctly conservative.  Indeed in 2017, Ellen Lee Zhou, a mayoral candidate in San Francisco, organized Chinese-American protests against the proliferation of marijuana shops in the city after it was legalized by a state referendum.  And after running as an independent, she ran again in 2019, this time as a Republican and impassioned Trump supporter.

Moreover, David Wang, an independent investor in Los Angeles, founded Chinese-Americans for Trump (CAFT) on WeChat in 2016, which grew from a three-member chat group to an 8,000-member network, and this rise of the Chinese-American right caught many people off guard.  Against the backdrop of rising conservatism among Chinese-Americans, provoked by nationwide issues such as the anti-Asian affirmative action and legalization of marijuana for recreational use, the author of the National Review article — Rong Xiaoqing — observed that “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.”

Creeping communism/socialism in Democratic Party 

In addition to the Democratic Party’s push for affirmative action, Chinese-Americans are also wary of what they perceive as creeping communist ideas in the liberal left. When they hear rhetoric about ending capitalism, it triggers past horror and trauma about growing up under communism in the ‘60s without running water, food shortages, rationing sugar, and making their own clothes.  When they hear “eat the rich” or “guillotines for billionaires”, it sparks images of the Cultural Revolution when they lost homes, livelihoods, and loved ones were murdered due to rage towards an amorphous “intellectual elite.”

Donghui Zhang, the protest leader of New York Residents Alliance, still remembers the poverty left by Mao’s era, and saw how Deng Xiaoping’s“Open Door Policy” of massive economic reform would lead China to affluence and market competition.  While Jason Gu, who works in the real estate industry, sees a role reversal in the U.S.  Gu said “I came to the U.S. because I saw the flaws of socialism”, but now laments “America is going on the old road of China” in what he senses as a swelling welfare system that encourages laziness and punishes hard-working people.

This sentiment is shared by Yukkong Zhao, founder of the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE), who noted “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.”

Underscoring their belief of equal opportunities rather than Mao’s equal results, in January 2019 AACE filed an amicus brief signed by 269 Asian community organizations to support the plaintiff in the Harvard University lawsuit.  Interestingly, Zhao, like Zhang, does not want to be identified as a supporter of a single political party.  But when asked why he was supporting the Republican Party, Zhao mentioned that his views about the GOP improved substantially due to Trump’s reversal of Obama-era race-based affirmative action, which furthers the Asians’ education-rights movement—a strong movement that is still largely ignored by the Democratic Party.

Christianity and support for Israel

The rise of Chinese-American and Asian-American right also seems to be a natural outgrowth of their religion.  Immigrants from Korea and China are among America’s most fervent evangelical Christians — who are traditionally Republicans, as well as strong supporters of Israel.

This seems an odd phenomenon given Asia is mostly stony ground for Christianity.   Nonetheless, Christianity took root in Korea from American missionaries in the 19th century, and today South Korea is leading a wave of evangelism around the world while some Korean Christians “think of Korea as the Second Jerusalem.”  Likewise, China is undergoing a spiritual revival with the Back to Jerusalem underground church movement, and in the U.S., where Chinese-Americans number 4.9 million and makeup 24% of Asian-Americans, about 1.5 million of them identify as Christians.

Immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as those who fled persecution in China, tend to be strongly anti-Communist and pro-Trump’s China policies.  Nonetheless, many Chinese-American Christians are not thinking of China at all, and their political priorities are more in line with those of conservative white evangelicals.  For example, Sau-Wing Lam, a Hong Kong-born Christian who leads a financial stewardship ministry with nationwide reach, lists the Trump administration’s policies that support his Christian beliefs, with the top three being pro-life, pro-Israel, and removing barriers (the Johnson Amendment) for pastors to speak on the pulpit.

Increasing Activism

The Chinese-American right is bound to be more vocal over time. Some say a key moment came in 2013 when comedian Jimmy Kimmel aired a segment in which he seemed amused a six-year-old boy’s proposal to solve America’s debt problem to China is to “kill everyone in China.”  Horrified and outraged that both the liberal Hollywood and media would view calling for a genocide of ethnic Chinese as an acceptable form of entertainment, the segment prompted tens of thousands of Chinese-Americans to protest in more than 25 American cities, the largest national protest by Chinese-Americans in recent history.  Jimmy Kimmel and ABC later apologized, but the chilling incident became seared in Chinese-American’s collective consciousness.

Since then, protests have become routine in an Asian community known for its silence in the past. In 2015 Chinese-Americans fought against the scapegoating and indictment of Peter Liang, a Chinese American cop in New York who accidentally shot dead an unarmed black man while on patrol, against data collection of Asian subgroups in 2017, against legalization of marijuana in 2018 and 2019, and against affirmative action in California again in 2019.  Now, with their newfound voice, it seems Chinese-Americans will no longer remain silent.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.
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