Chinese Americans have historically been viewed as progressives. The ability to mobilize digitally using tools like WeChat may change that.
Zhenya Li doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a Donald Trump supporter. After coming to the United States from Beijing in 1992 to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry at Georgetown University, Li became a citizen in 2003. She works now reviewing scientific grants for the Department of Defense as a subcontractor, and lives in Rockville, Maryland, a heavily Democratic suburb outside of Washington, D.C.
In 2016, Li joined a group of fellow Chinese-American immigrants to stump for Trump in the presidential election; what’s more, she helped established the Maryland Chinese American Network (MD-CAN), a group that opposes any legislation that would have made Maryland a so-called sanctuary state.
“A lot of people ask us, you are immigrants, why are you anti-immigrant? And we try to explain, we are legal immigrants,” Li says. “A lot of people spend a lot of money to go through this lengthy process. It’s not fair that other people can skip this process and get the same thing, and they may even get more benefits than us.”
MD-CAN got its start on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media network, when Li reached out to fellow immigrants—many of them dentists, engineers, scientists, realtors, accountants—she had met in both her political (she campaigned for Trump) and personal life (she is involved in parent associations). In WeChat groups, they grumbled about increases in crime rates, which they believed to be driven by MS-13 gang members; and higher property taxes, the cause of which they pinned on an influx of undocumented immigrant students coming into their local schools.
Sanctuary legislation, they believed, would only drive more undocumented immigrants to move into their communities. They decided that their next fight would be to kill not only the pro-sanctuary city bill in the Maryland statehouse, but to go after city and county ordinances as well. Wearing bright yellow T-shirts, they began showing up at hearings around the state, often testifying late into the night, and sometimes in apocalyptic turns. “If this bill is passed, there will be no safe neighborhoods anymore, and Maryland will become a haven for criminals,” said one MD-CAN member, Jing Chen, at a committee hearing in the state capitol.
MD-CAN was ultimately successful: In early April, the statewide bill was withdrawn, and similar legislation in nearby Howard County was also defeated.
“We think any citizens or non-citizens who are here in the U.S. should abide by the law,” Li tells me. “And setting up a sanctuary city, you are attracting people who are criminals.”
The Washington Post described the work of MD-CAN as “an unusual burst of activism” by a group of first-generation immigrants who “otherwise have largely avoided engagement with local issues.” Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, particularly those born in the U.S., tend to skew more progressive. Various polls found that Hillary Clinton captured anywhere from 65 percent to 79 percent of the Asian-American electorate, and last year’s National Asian American Survey showed that 41 percent of Asian-American voters were registered with the Democratic Party, almost three times the number of those who were registered Republicans. But on issues ranging from affirmative action to police violence to undocumented immigration, a growing number of Chinese-American immigrants throughout the country are organizing themselves and protesting vocally in support of conservative causes, often putting them at odds with other communities of color, and other Chinese and Asian Americans. While relatively small in number, they’ve been remarkably successful in pushing their agenda.
Shifts in U.S. immigration policy have long re-shaped the Chinese-American community. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 effectively barred entry for all but a few immigrants from, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act reversed decades of exclusion and turned what had been a slow trickle of Chinese immigrants into a highly regulated flood. In 1960, there were scarcely more than 200,000 Chinese Americans in the U.S. Today, according to census figures, there are more than three million, the majority of whom are foreign-born and come from mainland China. The Chinese-American community includes some of the most well-educated Americans with above-average median incomes; half of all Chinese-American immigrants have bachelor’s degrees or higher. And it’s from this group that organizations like MD-CAN draw their members.
“I definitely think there is a segment of the Chinese community that is more conservative than people who grew up in the United States in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Bill Ong Hing, a professor at the University of San Francisco and the director of its Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic. He says that this conservative sector tends to be more middle- and upper-class immigrants. “They view America as a meritocracy, and they want America to be a meritocracy, and they think they’ve done everything to earn good things. And when they see that they work hard, and other people are getting ahead of them with favoritism, they get upset at that.”
In 2014, conservative Chinese-American groups in California successfully mounted a campaign against SCA-5, which would have reversed the state’s decades-old ban on affirmative action in public universities. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the group Chinese Americans for Trump, made up primarily of first-generation immigrants, paid for billboards and aerial banners in support of Trump and, like Li, used WeChat to organize supporters in Chinese. The Economist described their campaigning as a “coming-out party for conservative Chinese Americans.”
And in the spring of 2016, the trial of Peter Liang—the New York Police Department officer who fired the bullet that killed black Brooklyn resident Akai Gurley, who was unarmed—compelled tens of thousands of first-generation Chinese Americans across the country to protest what they viewed as an example of racial scapegoating. Liang was convicted of criminally negligent homicide, and was sentenced to perform 800 hours of community service. Li described Liang’s trial as “a wake-up call” for Chinese immigrants in the U.S.; it galvanized many who had not previously been broadly politically active, including Li and other MD-CAN members. It taught them, Li says, that “if you don’t stand up, if you don’t raise your voice, then nobody will fight for you.”
This political activity has brought to light some of the generational fault lines that exist within the Chinese-American community—political divides that not only separate immigrants like Li from younger, U.S.-born activists, but also from an older generation of Chinese- and Asian-American organizers whose work derives from an earlier civil rights era.
While conservative Chinese-American politics may seem like a bolt from the blue, conservative undercurrents have long simmered in the community. In 1992, more than half of Asian-Americans voters cast their ballots for George H.W. Bush. By 2012, however, 73 percent of voters went for Barack Obama, a shift that public policy professor and NAAS survey director Karthick Ramakrishnan attributed, in an article for The Prospect, to efforts by Bill Clinton to appeal to Asian Americans in the 1990s—courting Asian-American donors and appointing Asian Americans to key cabinet positions. Growing anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Republican Party also served to push Asian Americans toward the Democrats.
“There’s always been Asian-American conservatives,” says Timmy Lu, a long-time organizer in California who has worked on statewide get-out-the-vote efforts for progressive campaigns. “It’s not like they came out of nowhere. They’ve been part of the Democratic Party, they’ve been part of the Republican Party.” What’s new, he says, is a shift toward “particular forms of organizing, and the virulence of it.”
Alex Chen, the founder of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association, is one of those conservative activists. He came to the U.S. in 2006, and works as an engineer at a technology company in San Jose. He founded the SVCA in 2014 to mobilize other immigrants to fight efforts to re-institute affirmative action at public universities, believing the bill would have discriminated against high-achieving Chinese-American students. To him, the many Chinese immigrants who work in restaurants and other low-wage industries “are weak compared to some other races,” adding that they tend to be poorer and less educated. He sees himself as part of a new generation of “very highly skilled professionals” who “don’t rely on welfare.”
Chen has yet to become a citizen, but last year he campaigned eagerly for Trump, which took up 90 percent of his time outside of work, he says. This year, SVCA members are focusing on contacting local elected officials to oppose California’s sanctuary state bill. “We have sympathy for illegal immigrants, but we cannot sacrifice ourselves,” Chen says. “We have to care about ourselves first.”
Whether the current Chinese-American conservative movement is a new ideological group, fueled by recent populist sentiments across the country, or a simply another iteration of existing conservative leanings, academics credit our digitally connected ecosystem for the movement’s ability to coalesce.
“What we are seeing is the frontier of some kind of activism, and they are very, very Internet savvy,” says Pei-te Lien, a professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara who researches the political participation of Asian and Chinese immigrant communities. And the message has become quite clear: There is no single Chinese-American political ideology.