I was in a discussion just the other day with some Chinese-immigrant friends, who raised the question, “Why do so many Chinese-Americans, who are ‘natural Republicans’, vote Democratic?” Timely question, as it is one on which the New York Times has weighed in today. Not surprisingly in light of the Times‘ recent endorsement of Hillary Clinton, the article blames things on Donald Trump, for at least exacerbating if not causing an exodus of Asian-Americans from the Republican Party.
Needless to say, one of the major problems of the article is that it treats Asian-Americans as a monolithic group, which is hardly the case. Filipinos have always been a largely Democratic group, for example.
And even for the Chinese, the group I’ll discuss here, the article oversimplifies the situation, portraying them as fervently anti-communist. That was true for many of the immigrants from Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s, but most people coming from China today don’t have that view. Today, by the way, happens to be China’s National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and many Chinese immigrants will be enjoying celebrations broadcast on Chinese-language television, CCTV.
But yes, in many ways, Chinese-Americans are natural Republicans. They tend to be fiscally conservative, suspicious of social engineering, and for limited government. So why are so many of them Democrats? I’ll focus for now on the immigrants, naturalized citizens.
First of all, they are not so Republican-ish as one might think. They support giving welfare benefits to elderly immigrants; they support Minority Business programs, in which city governments give minorities preference in awarding contracts; they support giving minorities preference in cabinet appointments and the like; they support the notion of the government as having a strong role in guiding the economy; etc.
The left-wing political activists in U.S. Chinatowns have deftly exploited this, and they have largely been the cause of the shift of the Chinese community from Republican to Democratic. You might wonder, “How can some progressive activists in blue-collar Chinatowns affect the views of suburban Chinese engineers?” The answer is that the Chinatown activists have major access to the Chinese-language media, both electronic and print.
And the biggest issue the activists have been able to exploit is welfare. The issue of welfare benefits for elderly immigrants — cash, medical care, senior housing and so on for people who typically have never worked in the U.S. — has played an absolutely pivotal role in making many Chinese Democrats. This was a big issue in Congress in the early- and mid-1990s, culminating in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, some provisions of which barred green card holders from access to federal benefits. (They could access the benefits only by naturalizing.) It is important to note that this was a bipartisan action. The Democrats took the lead in 1993, tightening up on immigrant access to welfare by lengthening the waiting period from three years in the U.S. to five. The 1996 bill was Republican-sponsored, but it was signed by Democratic president Bill Clinton, and even the Democrats’ competing bill had also placed restrictions on the immigrants.
But in spite of the bipartisan nature of the restrictions, the Chinatown activists then portrayed this as “The Republicans took away our welfare,” which became a huge motivator for Chinese to become Dems. People like Yvonne Lee, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the Chinese activists’ direct line to the White House, presented the matter as one in which Clinton “reluctantly” accepted the immigrant provisions in the bill. This was at best a half-truth, since as I said there was a bipartisan consensus that immigrant usage of welfare had gotten way out of hand, but the Chinese-language media presented the Republicans as the culprits.
This created its own momentum. There are many Chinese-Americans today who are unaware of this history (as are many DC insiders, for that matter), but become Democrats after hearing a pro-Democratic drumbeat in the community that had its roots in the 1990s.
What about the “ABCs” — American-born Chinese? They of course tend to be more liberal than their parents — they are far more supportive of Affirmative Action programs than are their parents, for instance — so they are “natural Democrats.”
Concerning Trump, contrary to the claim made in the article, I very much doubt that many Chinese-Americans are put off by his tough stance on China trade. I do believe that many dislike some of his antics, which they may consider undignified. But there are certainly many Chinese Trump supporters, even among Democrats, I find. And they support him for the same reason that other Americans do: They believe the government has lost touch with the people.