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Wither the Chinese Vote?

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.]


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 business").

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 (Sharpe, 1992),

[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 alliances.

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."

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