Wither the Chinese
Matloff comments on
Derbyshire; Derbyshire responds.
[Norm Matloff, Professor of Computer
Science at University of California-Davis, is the leading
critic of Silicon Valley's campaign to import cheap foreign
labor - see his website, "Debunking The Myth of a Desperate
Software Labor Shortage," http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/itaa.html.
He is himself married to a Chinese immigrant software engineer
and their daughter is being brought up bilingual.]
BY NORM MATLOFF:
It has been a pleasure engaging in
this exchange with John, with whom I find much more common
ground than disagreement. I would like to reply to his
commentary regarding the Chinese student protests in 1989,
which I had argued have interesting implications in
speculating the possible political attitudes of Chinese
immigrants to the U.S. in the coming years. (By the way, I
must apologize for mistakenly attributing to John the
projection that Asian immigrants might follow in the political
footsteps of the Jews, voting Democratic in spite of being
relatively affluent; that speculation had actually been made
by Peter in his introduction to John's essay.)
I had argued that the student protestors in 1989,
reflecting a Chinese cultural tradition in which benevolent
dictatorship, rather than democracy, is the ideal, were just
as opposed to holding free elections as was Deng Xiaoping.
John then conceded that many student leaders at the time were
"rogues," and more of them became rogues after they attained
asylum in the U.S., but on the other hand many of the students
protestors were "genuine idealists."
Where were those "genuine idealists" earlier during that
same year, when the world was appalled by the actions of the
Chinese government in Tibet? There wasn't a peep out of the
Chinese students at the time, either in Beijing or among
Chinese foreign students in the U.S. And why not? Because
they were only interested in their own well-being.
The rise of private enterprise had brought on inflation,
which was ruining the civil service class that the students
were on track for. Plus the government had reneged on its
promise to let the students choose their own jobs. Those
threats to the students' own personal well-being are what
produced those "idealistic" students in Tiananmen Square,
whereas Tibet was "bu guan women de shi" ("none of our
I followed the whole mess very closely, both from the press
and from personal contacts. I am not aware of even one
student leader who was in favor of free popular elections.
Some of them publicly said that they were opposed (the irony
of seeing a student carrying a placard saying "Democracy"
while telling CNN "No, China should not have elections" was
exquisite), and almost everyone else said it privately. As
noted in Unger's The Pro-Democracy Protests in China
[those in the movement projected] a vague vision of what
they wanted, and it was summed up in the word "Democracy,"
the word blazoned on a multitude of banners. But by
"Democracy," as more than one contributor to this book
notes, very few of the protestors meant one person, one
vote. Certainly, most students and intellectuals did not
want that; they had no desire to see the decision on who
would be the nation's leaders determined by the majority of
the Chinese who are peasants.
A few months later, a bunch of the most prominent exiles
held a conference at Stanford University and made it official,
calling for benevolent dictatorship in China. Some may well be
idealists, yes, but they are not democrats.
Rather than making a value judgement on such attitudes, I
had argued that they comprised a natural reaction to the
Confucian tradition in China, in two ways. First, that
tradition views government as the "father" and the populace as
the "children"; the latter should obey the former, and the
former in turn has a responsibility to care for the latter.
Hence, benevolent dictatorship.
Second, the Confucian emphasis on the need for people to
provide first and foremost for their families has resulted in
a very low degree of altruism. The viewpoint is that any
effort expended on behalf of society as a whole represents an
opportunity cost, i.e. a reduction in effort expended on
behalf of the family, and thus altruistic activity is
"disloyal" to one's family. I cited, for example, the fact
that Asian-Americans have the lowest rate of volunteerism of
all major racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. John replied
by citing a couple of statements from Confucious' Analects,
such as one advocating the Golden Rule, but that falls well
short of active altruism.
I believe that this has real implications for the future of
the nature of political activity by Chinese immigrants to the
U.S. So far, the Chinese political activists have claimed to
make alliances with other groups, but have often stumbled
politically, by placing exclusive emphasis on their own group
(perceived as "family" here, with the other groups then being
"nonfamily") in practice.
An excellent example is Affirmative Action. The Chinese
Democratic Club in San Francisco (which by the way is about
evenly mixed between immigrants and natives), for example, has
opposed Affirmative Action in school admissions (the part of
Affirmative Action which they perceive as hurting Chinese
people), yet has been strongly supportive of Affirmative
Action in the city government's Minority Business Contract
program (the part of Affirmative Action which they perceive as
helping Chinese people). This selfish insistence on having it
both ways has caused much resentment from both white and
minority groups with whom the Chinese have putative
And again, another good example is welfare. After years of
being frustrated by the utter disinterest in politics among
most Chinese immigrants, the Chinese political activists found
an issue which fired up their community--the actions taken by
Congress, starting in 1993, to clamp down on rampant abuses of
the SSI welfare program by middle-class immigrants, especially
by Chinese (and Koreans). The activists were able to leverage
this issue to promote hugely successful naturalization and
voter registration drives in the Chinese communities.
The point is that only an issue with the most direct
personal impact was able to motivate the Chinese to become
politically involved. Thus the barriers to active Chinese
voting on general issues are formidable.
And, characteristically, the Chinese activists did not live
up to the alliances they made with other groups to campaign
for rolling back the immigrant provisions in the 1996 welfare
reform act. The Chinese actively pushed for restoration of
SSI, the "Chinese" form of welfare, but did not push much
concerning forms of welfare used less often by Chinese, such
as food stamps.
Still, I am very hopeful that as the Chinese immigrant
community becomes better acquainted with American cultural
traditions, they will take a broader view toward the society
as a whole. San Francisco, with about a third of its
population Chinese, has become a fascinating crucible to
watch. Recently we have seen the beginnings of a significant
degree of political pluralism in the Chinese community. And
those who are active in the Chinese community (including me)
are hopeful that the next mayor will be Chinese, which could
have a very positive effect. The Chinese, instead of viewing
society as "them," could well begin perceiving it--all
segments of it--as "us."