Why does Donald Trump, the US president, have such deep support among Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans? Reading the Chinese/American press, and talking with American Chinese, the answer is sometimes simple and obvious. They find him businesslike, decisive, strong, consistent and straightforward. Jenny, a young Chinese university scholar we interviewed, remarked after learning that, in the midst of their meal together, Trump told Xi Jinping, China’s president, about the raid in Syria, that the American was no hypocrite. Moreover, she said, Trump likely caused the president of China to show some fear.
But what struck us – rather what was observed first by Jade, is a dimension of North American Chinese thinking that is profoundly consistent with attitudes of the classic immigrant groups of the 19th and 20th centuries. American Chinese, almost as soon as their feet touch the ground, see the world from the outward-looking perspective of their new home: they are Americans first. They are relatively unconcerned that some of Trump’s policies seem contrary to Asia’s interests. Our newest citizens-to-be see the world in terms of North American interests, and so are willing to accept that Trump is the president of the USA – he is their president. They well understand, accept, and even celebrate, that he is not the president of the entire world (and certainly not the president of China) as he himself has so starkly put it. Legal Chinese immigrants, perhaps not right away, but quite soon after they arrive, take an American point of view as they think about cross-Pacific policy debates.
Such a quick acceptance of an American identity, once standard among newcomers to the new world, has not been evident among some other 21st-century immigrants in North America Hispanics, Muslims and war refugees, especially illegal and asylum-seeking recent arrivals, often have a spiritual home elsewhere. For such holdouts, America (north and south of the Canadian border) is a cash box, a safe haven, a stopping point, and a place from which to send money home, a place within which to build a “house apart” so as to retain old loyalties. At least, this seems to be the logic of Trump’s position vis-à-vis illegal immigrants (and some refugees) as it is understood by the legal American Chinese to whom we refer below.
We looked at North American Chinese websites, and here we report and analyze interviews with Chinese who choose to live as Americans, as Canadians, settled at home on “our” side of the Pacific.
After the election, voter analysis showed a large number of people in the Chinese community checked the Trump box.
The day before Trump’s inauguration, Boston University News Service published an article that explained the reason why a Chinese American initially supported Hillary Clinton but changed later to vote for Trump. The reported story begins in 1989 when Jenny Cheung came to the Boston-area community of Brighton at age 19 with her parents and her five sisters and brothers. Six years of form-filling and document-filing went past, the process grinding along until she reached the age of 25.
Only then could she fully earn her green card. The long wait (along with his position on illegal immigration) helped her to evolve into a Trump supporter. Miss Cheung does not like queue-jumpers. She volunteers at CAFT (Chinese Americans for Trump), where she spreads the word that Trump is not a racist. She says the election was not about personalities, but policy. Her friend, Jessica Zhang, agrees. To her mind, Trump’s immigration policy, to “exile” illegal criminal immigrants, creates a safe and level competitive economic field, on which she, a legal green card holder, will get fairer treatment. Chinese also place great importance on education and undertake significant family sacrifices to obtain as much of it, quantitatively and qualitatively, as possible for their young people. Jenny does not like politically correct affirmative action programs that allow illegals to jump lines, especially when the result is to gain unearned admission to select university programs.
After the election, voter analysis showed a large number of people in the Chinese community checked the Trump box. Many of them appeared to educated to the PhD level and beyond. Chinese Trump supporters are found at the social and intellectual apex of their community.
Chinese display a natural delicacy, even a circumspect propriety in matters social and personal. The manners and mores of children, who, because their public actions are a signal to the outer world, telling about the status and condition of the entire family’s reputation and standards, are controlled and moderated by unspoken understanding and specific command. This heightened degree of rectitude is evident in behavioral rules personal and private (or at least what was once thought to be private). Consistent with this tradition, Mr X supports Trump’s reversal of Obama’s transgender school bathroom dictates. While Chinese habits in matters of sex are not burdened by Christian guilt and loathing, the Chinese also believe that action in such matters is best monitored and managed, not by schoolchildren “making their own decisions,” but by ancient rules and family guidance.
Chinese were eager to vote in this election for a candidate who would defend their right to simple safety. They did not support selective criticism of street violence.
During the presidential election, a popular hip-hop “artist” had described and even celebrated an act of house invasion. This “song” appeared on YouTube. It was not been withdrawn but rather defended as an example of “free speech.” According to the Chinese-language website Building Outside the Wall, Chinese people felt discriminated and angry about this decision.
The attacks on police for their supposed indifference to “rights” are inappropriate, wrote “Tiger Mom” on the site. She called for a show of Chinese unity on the question. She was happy to learn that in 40 different US cities a Chinese community peoples’ parade was held in support of a Chinese policeman, Liang Peter. In his case, unlike the treatment afforded white police who found themselves in a similar situation, he was unjustly (according to Tiger Mom) accused of second-degree manslaughter in the mistaken shooting of a black lawbreaker. The Chinese to whom we spoke see law and order as supportive of their community’s interest and welfare. In the end of the case, the second-degree murder conviction that could have resulted in 15 years’ imprisonment turned into 800 hours of community service.
Aware of the contrast between these founding ideals and the reality of affirmative action, Tiger Mom was particularly alarmed by rumors that Obama would admit tens of thousands of people from dangerous parts of the Middle East, and that Clinton would continue such a policy, passing out new green cards to as many as 65,000 Syrians. Rumor or not, such possibilities bothered Tiger Mom greatly. She says most of the Syrians are not terrorists. But she calls attention to the 2016 terrorist attack in Germany. She points out that the Orlando bar shooting and Boston marathon explosion are signs that America is not as safe as it has been in the past.
This American Chinese language source discusses the University system. The issue is an academic policy of reverse discrimination in favor of illegal immigrants and other favored groups. The Chinese-language website “Banned Book” reports that, unlike Clinton, Trump is critical of affirmative action. A Chinese man interviewed by the site says he can endure a system that declares that skin color is a reason to refuse entry to his children’s “dream university” but he worries that the policy will reduce their employment options. He wonders if the lucky individuals who get to “skip the line” are really more deserving, morally or intellectually than his high SAT-scoring kids.
The Chinese man interviewed lives in California. Does California still represent the “American idea” of reward according to merit? The upside-down logic that allows people to jump the queue is inconsistent with the “just ranking” that American culture has traditionally assigned to persons of merit and virtue.
The interviewee’s argument is an unconscious imitation of the language of Thomas Jefferson in his letter to Samuel Adams. The 1813 correspondence between those founding fathers constitutes an essay devoted to an explanation and defense of democracy’s need for an education system that discovers and builds up a leadership class of “Natural Aristocrats.” These aristos are worthy leaders distinguished for their merit and virtue. Their natural claim to lead – indeed the claim of any person who seeks the privilege of citizenship in a natural republic – is (or should be) independent of their influence or class. This Californian Chinese does not find that affirmative action serves his interest, nor does it reflect his idea of American just practice.
The Chinese-American Chinese language website Chinese in North America links acts of terror to easy/careless immigration rules: there is an implication that serious “vetting” is needed. The site says the policies of then-president Barack Obama and Clinton “sit in the same shoe.” The site wants to “Make America Great Again”! It reports the 2012 story that Obama approved the sale of weapons to Qatar. The weapons were supposed to be sent on to “friends of the West” in Libya, but rather the shipments ended up in the hands of Islamic terrorists. The implication is that Democrat foreign policy is inept at least, incompetent/dishonest at worst. In parallel with the other American/Chinese media sources we examined, Chinese in North America says that support for Trump will help the Chinese community protect their rights, and defend their well-earned place in society. The site says it hopes to light a metaphorical “fire in the heart” of its American/Chinese audience. Their belief is that safe streets, lower taxes, a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, and color-blind public policies are consistent with the interests and values of the Chinese-American community.
Despite the findings above we do still have a mystery to solve. Trump has been highly critical of China’s trade and currency valuation policies. Why doesn’t this negative attitude diminish the willingness of American Chinese to support the Trump administration? We hypothesize that it is their newly acquired identity as US citizens, or at least as serious migrants to North America. Their sense of belonging causes them to see the trade dispute from an American point of view. To test this idea, we ran a non-scientific poll among a select group of highly skilled, intellectually gifted trans-Pacific young researchers, all having Chinese roots, but now undertaking full-time study at Canada’s leading university, McGill, located in Montreal.
The legal Canadian Chinese immigrants with whom we spoke were almost all female, with outstanding academic records, already skilled in the technical intricacies of academic research, well on their way to advanced degrees, raised by Tiger moms and Lion dads, all “graduates” of piano lessons, Saturday tutor classes and after-school language training. The odds that any of them will ever spend a night in jail, take a penny’s worth of welfare or bring dishonor to their family are zero. Over a lifetime, they will pay hundreds of times more in taxes than they ever take in public benefits, and their marriages will produce a generation of “natural born” American/Canadian citizens, any one of whom could run for the highest office in the land. In short, they are ideal constituents for Trump and his party.
Perhaps because Chinese students are well aware that “back home” on the other side of the Pacific social decay and distrust are the inevitable consequence of political corruption, Clinton’s maledictions and evasions over the scandals concerning Benghazi, her private server, and the Clinton Foundation cause young Chinese to distrust her. For all his bluster, Trump does not appear to them to be untrustworthy – rather the opposite. To investigate this phenomenon, we decided to conduct our own survey.
We did encounter one Chinese student who saw things from a Chinese point of view. She too admired Trump for his strengths. But she worried that Trump and the spirit that he represents can be problematic for China. Not because he threatens China’s economic or political culture, but because he represents the strength of America’s culture and ideology. She concludes that China will be cautious but not antagonistic as it develops its relationship with Trump’s administration.
Two Chinese legal immigrants, now working in America, who planned to and likely will remain there shared their opinions. The first of them (“Chris”) shared his disappointment with Trump. Chris likes Trump’s politics but he hasn’t yet seen any policies that are positive for Chris. Trump has not yet shown as much effort to support campaigning promises as he has devoted to “the Wall.” He also says Trump’s North Korean military strategy is too aggressive. Chris’ multinational American employer helps him to understand that Chinese/American trade is beneficial for both parties. He also thinks that a closer,
He also says Trump’s North Korean military strategy is too aggressive. Chris’s multinational American employer helps him to understand that Chinese-American trade is beneficial for both parties. He also thinks that a closer, more cooperative cross-Pacific business relationship is inevitable, given China’s destiny. “Stephanie” supports Trump because of her view on illegal immigrants. But she thinks his business practices are perhaps too innovative for a president.
The young social scientists said they were not neutral on Trump’s criticism of China, they did not support his views on US trade with China, and they sometimes quoted President Xi’s speeches, especially when the Chinese leader emphasized the positive potential for mutual gains obtainable via East-West partnership and co-operation. Almost everyone with whom we spoke admired Trump’s “business mind,” and said they thought he was unlikely to renegotiate Nafta or other trade deals in a mutually destructive way.
Indeed, they thought his trade changes will prove to be minor. They even revived (with a change in meaning, perhaps without a sense of the history of the word) the phrase “co-prosperity” when they discussed his theory of the purpose of future trade negotiations. In an example of the way these students felt themselves part of the western world, they expressed concern that limiting American “outsourcing” to take advantage of low-wage manufacturing platforms would raise prices paid by American consumers.
Responders to our poll said Trump was “provocative” and “a disrupter,” but there was never any expression of the kind of negative passion, even hate, that is so common among Western critics of Trump’s policies. The students, many of whose families have significant asset holdings on both sides of the Pacific, said they worried that the RMB value of their portfolios could suffer from some of the Trump policy proposals. But they also said the net impact on their family wealth would be neutral. Again, their appraisals of Trump administration policy were calm and measured, totally without the anger and vehemence found on both sides of Western debates concerning the American president. Respondents seemed to believe that the Trump White house team conducted significant internal debates before final actions were undertaken.
On balance, we say the positive Chinese position on the “Trump question” is a result of the complete absence of the violent Trump dislike seen among some Westerners. We heard frequent expressions of admiration for the clarity and consistency in Trump’s policy statements. Our responders admired the decisive nature of his recent policy actions. Finally, there was polite silence from the persons questioned, when we asked about the foregone Clinton alternative to the current Trump reality. In the hard-headed world of political reality occupied by our scholarly young responders, the silence was deafening.
By TOM VELK
Jade Xiao, a McGill University Graduate student, also contributed to this article.