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Foreign Policy

Why Are So Many First-generation Chinese Immigrants Supporting Donald Trump?

Nov 07 , 2016

My wife, Fanfan, dislikes politics. It’s an attitude not at all uncommon among Chinese of her generation, who still remember the Cultural Revolution and have an instinctive aversion to ideological stridency in any form. By contrast, I’m fascinated by things political and will confess that as a general rule (and only to a point), the more conflict involved, the greater the fascination politics holds for me. And so as I prepared to repatriate to the U.S., as we did in June of this year after 20 years in Beijing, I was naturally excited not only to be doing so in a presidential election year, but also to be moving to a bona-fide battleground state: North Carolina. With its 15 electoral votes and important gubernatorial and Senate races this year, I was eager to plunge in.


When we were still living in Beijing, Fanfan indulged my occasional rants on American politics. But these were directed against the folly of liberal interventionism — my own party’s grave sin — as often as they were against some fresh GOP affront to decency I’d just read about online. In Beijing, we rarely socialized with Republicans. There were, after all, vanishingly few of them among my American acquaintances. For the most part, political discussions Fanfan witnessed among Americans in Beijing were marked by strenuous agreement. The few Republicans I spent any time with were genuinely decent people with whom I had, in the grand scheme of things, mere quibbles over things like school vouchers, or cap and trade, or the right Federal minimum wage.

And so I understand why she was caught off guard by the ferocity of politics once we arrived, and especially after Trump emerged in July as the inevitable GOP nominee. She had assumed that the election would be divisive, but she never would have guessed that it would impact her so personally. Sure, it’s true that from her first glimpse of him, Fanfan had a visceral dislike for Trump: the hair, the spray-on tan, the hand gestures, the lips, the whole package. And she didn’t need my encouragement to pile onto that foundation each new unimaginable outrage in a long summer of outrages. But the presidential race was still something she didn’t feel too invested in. She wouldn’t gain U.S. citizenship for years still, and besides, I was donating time and money to the Hillary campaign, as were many of my friends. Surely everyone could see what a bully, a creep, and a con man Trump was.

Little did she know that the election would divide the very community of which, by virtue of having come to America, she was now a part: Chinese immigrants.

By August, it was clear that many, if not indeed most, first-generation Chinese immigrants to the U.S. were supporting Donald Trump. Fanfan told me that she had concluded this was the case one morning while reading through posts in a WeChat group — a kind of mobile messaging chat room comprising hundreds of Chinese parents of school-age kids in North Carolina’s Triangle region. This was something she’s done with me for years — given me the rundown on the debates of the day on Chinese social media to supplement my own reading. Fanfan has long been a great source of information about what’s happening in China, and since we moved to the States, I’ve come to count on her for her uncanny knack for knowing what might be of interest to me, for dispassionately presenting the various sides on the contentious issue du jour, and for assessing which way the scales are tipping. And so when she told me that Trump was winning among first-generation Chinese immigrants, I took her very seriously. “What was the ratio of Trump to Clinton supporters on this list?” I asked. Her answer was grim: Of those engaging on politics, she reckoned, it was at least three to one pro-Trump.

I’d gotten strong inklings of a shift in the months before. Puttering around the house on weekend mornings, she liked to listen to a podcast recorded by a Chinese immigrant in Southern California — an often quite insightful guide, in Chinese, to adjusting to life in the U.S., from immigration rules to the ABCs of American schooling to driving to filing taxes. Every now and then, though, my ears would prick up at some deeply racist remark he’d casually toss out about African Americans or Latinos (or, as this particular podcaster said, blacks and Mexicans): He used “black neighborhood” and “Mexican neighborhood,” for instance, interchangeably with “high-crime neighborhood” in a way that I imagine most Chinese wouldn’t even notice. In an episode where he tackled the topic of affirmative action in university admissions, his partisan leanings became clear; he later talked about how he had gone from voting consistently Democratic to supporting the GOP. We stopped listening some time ago, and we never did learn whether he was actually supporting Trump, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were.

It wasn’t just the WeChat group for parents of school-age kids, either. Chinese Trump supporters were sharing anti-Hillary memes in another hugely popular regional WeChat group of which Fanfan is a part: a group ostensibly for people interested in buying seafood from some guy who sells it out of the back of his van in inconspicuous parking lots across the state. Then they took over another local Chinese WeChat group, this one for placing orders for group grocery runs to Flushing, Queens, where even the rarest of Chinese foodstuffs can be found. The WeChat lists were filled with pro-Trump and anti-Hillary memes, many of them familiar to me, just translated into Chinese from English originals. Encouragingly, there are a good number who initially pushed back; discouragingly, they were mostly browbeaten into silence.

The appeal of Trump to so many first-generation Chinese immigrants quickly became a topic I obsessed about. Fanfan and I had lunch the other day at the home of a lovely, retired Chinese-American woman (she asked that I not use her name) in Chapel Hill, and this disturbing development was almost all we could talk about. A native Beijinger and member of the Class of 1977 — the first crop of students to matriculate in universities after the Cultural Revolution — she shared our horror at Trump’s popularity among recently arrived immigrants, and confirmed that, as I had suspected, this rightward tilt was an entirely new phenomenon and was certainly not the case either four or eight years ago. The stridency among these Trump supporters, she said, reminded her of nothing so much as the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Beyond the first-generation immigrants, things look better, at least anecdotally. Her son, a lawyer in Raleigh active in Chinese-American politics, assured me that the second generation of Chinese Americans, as well as Chinese immigrants who came over relatively young as his mother had, was still overwhelmingly Democrat. But I worry that the views of the more recently arrived Trump supporters will be passed down; the jury is still out on the likelihood of political views of parents being adopted by their children, and don’t hold your breath for studies that look just at Chinese immigrants and their descendants.

Based on this conversation, and on dozens of others Fanfan or I have had with Chinese and Chinese Americans since moving here, these are, to the best of my knowledge, the chief reasons behind the popularity of Trump with first-generation immigrants from the PRC:

Affirmative action: This is a topic so ubiquitous on these threads that it’s just abbreviated as “AA” and, as it would alphabetically, has to top the list. “We came here for one reason and one reason alone, and that is to get our kids into good schools,” the reasoning goes. “Now they’re unfairly raising the bar and imposing de facto quotas on Chinese and other East Asian students, and giving the places our kids deserve to less-qualified African-American and Latino kids. Our kids work hard, and we’ve sacrificed so much. Underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students is not our fault. Why should we suffer for it?” That opposition to “AA” would be so loud on a WeChat group for parents of students perhaps isn’t surprising, but this appears to be a top issue for many Chinese immigrants supporting Trump. Resentment at preferential treatment allegedly given to other underprivileged minorities easily elides into opposition to anything labeled “politically correct,” and they come to admire Trump’s open contempt for the whole liberal agenda of social justice.

Sexual conservatism: China may have come a long way since the days when homosexuality was criminal; it’s no longer even regarded as a form of mental illness in China, and attitudes among young people in China have certainly changed. But among immigrants in the groups we’ve been interacting with — mainly people aged 35 to 55, if I had to guess — attitudes are still profoundly conservative. You could drive a truck through the gap between this group’s mores and the cultural norms among American elites and among younger Americans when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Here in North Carolina, which passed the infamous HB2 “Bathroom Bill,” requiring people to use the bathroom corresponding to their biological sex as listed on their birth certificates, many Chinese see this as simple common sense. Even some otherwise liberal Chinese I’ve spoken to in North Carolina think that making an issue of this law and fighting for its repeal is going too far.

Racism: Whatever its causes — and they are too numerous to get into here — Chinese racism is well attested, and many Americans would be shocked were they privy to conversations about race taking place in Chinese when participants think no one else is listening. The conflation of blackness with criminality among immigrant Chinese in America is appallingly commonplace. Anyone who pushes back on those assumptions is seen as simply denying the obvious, and is barraged by statistics on violent crime rates showing, of course, disproportionately high criminality among African Americans — devoid, of course, of any context. They are uninterested in hearing historical arguments: Invoking centuries of chattel slavery, or Jim Crow, or housing discrimination, or the grossly unequal sentencing standards for powder and crack cocaine makes no difference at all. All too often, there is this belief that it’s an American problem and that their only interest is to ensure the short-term safety of their own families.

Adding fuel to this is the so-called “Asian Lives Matter” movement, which focused initially on the manslaughter conviction of a Chinese-American NYPD officer named Peter Liang in the shooting death of an unarmed black man; similarly, an alleged surge in “Black-on-Asian” violence, in which African Americans are said to be deliberately targeting Asians, seeing them as cash rich and largely defenseless. A video by rapper YG for the track “Meet the Flockers,” the lyrics of which advise robbing Asian houses, has not helped the situation. It’s been a rallying cry for many Chinese Trump supporters, as was the bust, in August, of a Southern California robbery ring by Torrance, California police. The East Coast Crips-affiliated gang behind those robberies, police said, specifically targeted Asian-owned homes — discernible by the shoes left on the front porch — and was responsible for a reported 5,000 burglaries.

Schadenfreude: It’s astonishing to me how many Trump supporters among the first-generation immigrants acknowledge that a Trump presidency would actually do significant damage to the American economy, to the image of the U.S. abroad, or to democracy itself — and still either dismiss that damage as “not my problem” or even take some pleasure in the prospect of America being knocked down a peg or two. I would hope that these are the exception, and that most Chinese immigrants come to the U.S. and place the interests of their new country at least on a par with the one they’ve left. Regrettably, though, a distressingly high number understand that a Trump victory would take the wind out of America’s sanctimonious sails when it comes to pushing liberal democracy and would cherish just such an outcome.

Hillary’s hawkishness: This is related, of course, to the schadenfreude described above. The kind of blustering anti-trade talk coming out of Trump sounds, to the Chinese ear, like what they’ve heard from every American presidential candidate for the last 20 years or more. They’re accustomed to a quadrennial bout of China bashing that ends in early November and is followed, come late January, by business as usual. But among Chinese with very few exceptions, it’s an article of faith that Hillary Clinton is not only a liberal interventionist who is hawkish on China, but also someone entirely likely to aggressively pursue the so-called Rebalancing (née “Pivot”) — a policy that many if not indeed most Chinese see as a species of containment.

Zhen xiaoren and wei junzi: Chinese speak of their preference for “the genuine petty person” (真小人, zhēn xiaǒrén) over “the hypocritical gentleman” (伪君子, weí jūnzi). Not only do they see these two types reflected in the presidential candidates — Trump seeming to revel in his pettiness and in the willful ignorance of so many of his supporters, Clinton supposedly an unalloyed elite intoning moralistic homilies, as their leaders back home do, and feigning disgust with Trump’s conspicuous moral failings despite her own — but more than that, they feel free to give rein to their own pettiness, and to own it. Several first-generation immigrants supporting Trump on local WeChat groups have been totally up-front about their self-interest, whether in voting for lower taxes, or to abolish “AA,” or to reduce competition by curtailing immigration. Can’t imagine where this zero-sum, hypercompetitive, amoral, and assertively selfish attitude could have come from!

Taxation: This one is relatively straightforward. No one actually likes paying higher taxes, but many pro-Trump Chinese immigrants don’t feel any obligation to contribute, and feel no long-term stake in America — despite their stated desire to give their children the benefit of an American university education.

Legal vs. illegal immigration: While the irony that members of a non-white immigrant community should be falling over one another to praise Donald “Build-a-Wall, Ban-the-Muslims” Trump might not be lost on most folks, it’s entirely so on many Trump-supporting first-generation Chinese immigrants. “We waited in line and did everything legally. Why should they get to jump the queue?” they ask, as yet more irony sails overhead.

Personality: Lastly, there’s the factor that Fanfan believes to be the real underlying reason that anti-Trump or pro-Clinton people in these groups haven’t been able to gain any share of voice: Personality. The pro-Trump Chinese immigrant is a type familiar to her. They’re the same shrill, obnoxious busybodies who would, were they back in China, be wearing the red armbands of the Neighborhood Party Committee and acting the petty tyrant on their own little plot of dirt.

There are other factors, too: Some predictably admire Trump’s supposed business acumen; others like his stance on “radical Islam” and vows to annihilate ISIS; perhaps others are even drawn, if only subconsciously, to the strongman authoritarianism he exudes, reminding them of a more familiar leader.

Fanfan has her theories as to why the Chinese Democrats, most of whom were earlier immigrants, aren’t fighting back. They’re successful intellectuals: professors and professionals who have deeper ties to the community and a better understanding for how politics actually works in America. They aren’t in that zone of insecurity, where so many immigrants exist. They know America by experience, and not the movie version in the minds of so many recent Chinese immigrants — the version in which any scene shot in a convenience store means a stickup is about to go down, where a woman walking alone in a parking garage is inevitably sexually assaulted, and where people of color are usually the perps in those scenes. Their kids are already done with school, and they aren’t personally affected by affirmative action. They’re not accustomed to the rough-and tumble of Weibo or WeChat, whereas the generally younger and newer immigrants are inured to the nastiness, to the ubiquity of ad hominem attack. They’d rather put their ideas down in essays, or talk things over in person. They won’t condescend to explain what’s so ridiculous and shortsighted about Trump support.

It’s hard to gauge how worrisome this all should be. How many of these people, after all, are actually citizens and not Green Card holders? How many will actually vote? How likely are they to have contributed significantly to the Trump campaign? And is this support going to outlive the results of the election? None of this is at all clear. But what is certain is that a growing number of immigrants from China feel passionately enough about Trump to take to the streets in support of him in New York and attend rallies in Southern California.

Organizations that have long called for more participation in American political life by Chinese Americans — groups like the 80-20 Initiative, founded by former Delaware lieutenant governor S. B. Woo — have traditionally assumed that such participation would strengthen the Democrats, even if they’re nominally nonpartisan. Now, in the age of Trump, they might want to be careful what they wish for.

This article was originally published on SupChina 

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