SAN FRANCISCO – Barack Obama’s victory, the numbers show, is in large measure thanks to the support he received from, among others, Hispanics, Blacks, and women voters.
Less credited, however, are Asian Americans, who voted 72 percent in favor of the president. While their numbers remain small, at just 5.8 percent of the population, they are one of the fastest growing segments of American society, according to a recent Pew study, having surpassed Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants. They are also highly educated, with nealry 50 percent of those 25 and older holding at least a bachelor's degree.
Such statistics help explain the steady rise in political leaders of Asian descent in states like California, home to sizable Asian American populations. And perhaps nowhere is that more clear than in the Chinese community, where rapidly growing civic engagement also coincides with the growing strength of the world’s number two superpower.
Last Sunday, the Chinese-language World Journal ran a full page spread profiling 35 Chinese American candidates running for either local or national office in the state. Names included Otto Lee and Jennifer Ong, both of whom eventually lost in their bids for Congress and the State Assembly, respectively.
But Tuesday’s results also showed a number of wins -- 15 in total -- including State Assemblyman Paul Fong and Grace Mah, elected to a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education.
In San Francisco, where the Asian American population hovers around 36 percent, and where the first-ever Chinese American mayor was recently elected, 10 Chinese American candidates vied for seats on just about every branch of city government, from the Board of Supervisors to the Board of Education and the community college Board of Trustees.
That unprecedented turnout, says Harvey Dong, who teaches Asian American and Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley, signals an awareness of the changing demographics in both the state and nationwide, which in turn is fueling a “rising confidence” among Asians, and particularly Chinese.
But it also comes following a hotly contested presidential race in which the candidates strove to outdo one another in lambasting China, which was portrayed by both as a major threat to America’s continued prosperity.
“On day one of my presidency,” promised Republican nominee Mitt Romney, “I will label China a currency manipulator.” Though he now won’t get that chance, Obama was no less strident in his denouncement of China where, as one of his campaign ads warned, “cheaters” threaten American jobs.
China bashing, says Dong, poses a particular challenge for Chinese American political hopefuls. "As Asian American candidates, whether they like it or not, they are looked at a certain way," he notes, pointing out long-held stereotypes of Asians as not entirely American. “Their loyalty would definitely be questioned and challenged as they go higher up."
As an example, Dong points to the case of former U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, who in 1996 was tapped and then later passed up by then President Bill Clinton to become the nation’s first Asian American energy secretary. Tien died in 2002. Steven Chu, Obama’s current energy secretary, became the first Chinese American to serve in this post.
Recently released FBI documents show Tien became embroiled in what the Daily Californian, which last month reported on the release of the documents, called a “fear of China that consumed the United States in the latter half of the 20th century.”
Judging from the recent campaign, that fear seems to be alive and well even in the 21st.
A 2010 ad put out by the lobbying group Citizens Against Government Waste, which ran again this past election, depicts a lecture hall 20 years into the future. A speaker addresses a room of students, explaining in Mandarin how it came to be that America now works for China. The camera pans across a room full of chuckling Asian faces.
Dong says such ads, coupled with vitriolic campaign rhetoric, only help to reaffirm the belief among non-Asians that Chinese and other Asians in the United States are “perpetual foreigners.”
And it’s that attitude, says retired business consultant George Koo, which continues to motivate Chinese Americans to enter the political arena. Pointing to the 1999 federal indictment of nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee – who was widely seen as the victim of a racially motivated witch hunt -- Koo says the event served as an “awakening” for aspiring political leaders within the Chinese American community.
Lee, originally charged with passing state secrets to China, was eventually found guilty of mishandling documents.
Koo, a member of the Committee of 100, which works to improve the political stature of Asian Americans and U.S. relations with China, agrees with Dong that political attacks on China could pose problems for Chinese American politicians seeking higher office, especially in the country’s heartland.
“It may not be as much of a problem in California,” he explains, where the Chinese community has deep roots and where voters are more exposed to dealings with China. Nor in New York, which just elected its first-ever Asian American congressperson in Grace Meng. “But in the south, and the Midwest … if opponents play the China card, it could work.”
As for this past election, Koo says the level of antagonism against China was worse than in previous races. “Candidates felt obliged to cater to popular misconceptions,” he notes.
But with election results pointing to the growing clout of minority voters, and with an emerging cohort of elected Chinese officials, Koo questions the effectiveness of such a strategy in the long run. “We are going forward toward a more pluralistic society,” he says. “The China bashing, the ethnic bashing … it won’t pay off.”
Additional reporting by Summer Chiang and Vivian Po.
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