Whither the Chinese Vote?


Norman Matloff comments on Derbyshire; Derbyshire Responds

[Peter Brimelow writes: I have been trying for years to persuade some expert to write about the future political impact of Asian immigration. The conventional Republican wisdom, of course, is that because Asians tend to be economically successful, they will vote Republican. Needless to say, this is an example of why Sam Francis has immortally branded the Republicans “the Stupid Party.” Asians could turn out to be like Jews: economically successful but implacable Democrats. Aargh! (From the Republican point of view, at least). When Ed Rubenstein and I projected the effects of the shifting ethnic balance on the Presidential Election, showing that a historically good average result for the Republicans will be transformed into a loss by the end of this decade, we made the very moderate assumption that the Asian vote would split 50-50, because that`s what it did in the 1988 election, our baseline.. But the 1988 Asian vote was also too small to be considered representative. Anecdotal evidence, i.e. the number of hostile letters I get from Chinese-American academics, suggests that for this group, alienation will trump affluence. John Derbyshire, a poet and author and a rising star in American political journalism, here attempts to answer the question exclusively for VDARE.com. He focuses on Chinese immigrants, who form the bulk of the “Asian” flow. We earlier republished his thoughts on the possible security risks posed by the Chinese high-tech presence. John Derbyshire is married to a Chinese citizen and his father-in-law is a high official in the Chinese Communist Party. Which could be useful.]

Do immigrant groups bring their political traditions with them? And how long can those traditions remain an influence on American life? David Hackett Fischer, in his 1989 classic Albion`s Seed showed that four great groups of immigrant British, in the century and a half before the American Revolution, each brought a distinctive strain of political thinking to the New World, and a different notion of liberty. He went on to demonstrate how these differences are still important today; how the earnest New England liberal and the Reagan Democrat of the South owe their respective origins to the dissenters of East Anglia and the “steel bonnets” of the Scottish borders. 

There are other, even more obvious, imports, though it is considered less polite to pass comment on them. The career of Marion Barry as Mayor of Washington D.C. suggests that the African tradition of the “Big Man” is alive and well among black Americans. (Opposition canvassers in the recent Zimbabwe elections reported that one of the commonest responses to their efforts was: “When your man is President, then I`ll vote for him.”) Similarly, the mixture of world-purifying idealism with a rather casual attitude to despotism and a fierce contempt for Christianity that is characteristic of Jewish liberals is in direct line of descent from the mentality of shtetl-dwellers under the Tsarist yoke, as preserved for us in the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. And the brutish mercantilo-fascism of Spanish America can be seen, not much altered, in the machine politics of our Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican immigrant enclaves.

So it is not unreasonable to wonder: what will be the political effect of large-scale Asian immigration into the U.S.A.? An article by Tamar Jacoby in the July-August Commentary [In Asian America]offers a typical hopeful prognosis. “[Asian American] activists in San Francisco know they will have no influence except through coalition politics … [N]ot even the youngest and most radical … seem to share the oppositional attitudes and race-obsessed politics of today`s civil-rights establishment.” 

Further cause for optimism can be found in the high rates of intermarriage for Asian Americans. Pairing off between white males and Asian females is particularly marked, as VDARE`s own Steve Sailer has reported. With their slight figures, delicately tinted skin, shapely eyes and lustrous black hair, both East and South Asian women are especially attractive to non-Asian males. (As they apparently were to Rudyard Kipling:

I`ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

On the road to Mandalay …

It seems that all might be well, and that in a generation or two the descendants of today`s Asian immigrants may all be voting like Anglo-Saxons.

But there are some contrary indicators. In the first place, Asian immigrants are exceptionally bookish, and much more likely to attend college than any other American group except Jews. This is generally considered to be good news—better they should end up in boardrooms and research labs than stewing resentfully in a ghetto. However, the correlation between educational level and political good sense is considerably mysterious; it may very well be negative. If you imagine that in, say, 1930 the U.S. constitution had been amended so that only those holding a Ph.D. could vote, it is fairly certain that a Soviet America would have followed in short order, and the U.S.A. would right now be digging itself out of the same hole the unfortunate Russians find themselves in. As Paul Johnson showed in his book Intellectuals, the level of political idiocy among great writers and thinkers is distressingly high. Johnson`s book deals mainly with literary types, but mathematicians and scientists have been no better. Albert Einstein never did grasp the true nature of Stalin`s regime; the atomic-spy scandals of the 1940s and 1950s revolved around the political stupidity of nuclear physicists; and G.H. Hardy, the greatest British mathematician of his era, when asked in 1920 to list his wishful ambitions, included the following as number five: “To be proclaimed first president of the U.S.S.R. of Great Britain and Germany.”

And the fact that so many Asian-Americans go to college raises another cause for alarm. The American university is the heart of the multicultural enterprise. There has for some years been an intense and deliberate effort to radicalize and “multiculturalize” each new intake of students. A recent article by Alan Charles Kors in the March 2000 Reason magazine has documented the process in horrifying detail. 

Asian American freshmen may be particularly susceptible. While black and “Hispanic” youngsters absorb a good deal of victimological hogwash in high school and at home (and, in the case of blacks, in the common life of the streets and churches), youngsters from Asian families often have parents with little connection with American political life. In many cases, they do not have good enough English to even understand it. So Asian-American youngsters, who spent their high school careers accumulating stellar grades in math and science, come relatively innocent to the professional multi-culti evangelists. 

The resentments and confusions of early adulthood—compounded, in the case of young Asian men, by the difficulty of finding dates in a campus scene where the Asian girls are being hunted down by white guys and the white girls are being recruited to angry misandric feminism—make Asian American students even more vulnerable. A typical product of this environment of confusion, anger and sexual frustration is “Asian American activist” Eric Liu, whose book The Accidental Asian is filled with eye-stoppers like this one: “College is supposed to be where Americans of Asian descent become Asian Americans, where the consciousness is awakened.” (Oh, that`s what college is supposed to be? And there was you thinking it had something to do with education!)

There is, too, that nagging issue of the political traditions of the homeland. David Fischer has not yet written Cathay`s Seed. But such a book, if written, would offer little comfort to those who cherish the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

When China emerged fully from archeology into history- the early and middle part of the first millennium B.C.—she was a patchwork of small states not unlike medieval Europe, organized on a proto-feudal basis and with distinctly different cultural traditions—the states seem to have used different calendars, for example. All this came to an end in the third century B.C. with the unification of the Chinese culture area under a single despotic ruler. After some decades of experimentation, the unified Chinese settled on a political system that suited this new Imperial order: a vast bureaucracy recruited and promoted (at least in the lower levels) through scholarly examinations. 

Unfortunately, a pre-modern agricultural state with considerable needs for defense and large state-managed hydraulic projects could never raise enough revenue to pay this bureaucracy reliably. Low-level officials had no choice but to milk the citizenry placed in their charge. Corruption thus became institutionalized very early. Its coarsening and demoralizing effects were never quite held at bay by the austere, lofty doctrines of Confucianism, to which in theory the scholar-bureaucrats owed allegiance. Corruption in the Chinese bureaucracy was so routine that the very occasional official who would not take a bribe was remembered for generations. Sometimes he was even deified.

The political consequence of this history was an apathetic population kept in line by fear and custom. The Chinese language contains a large treasury of idioms of resignation and subjection. There is at least a score of variations on the theme: “The nail that protrudes is hammered down”, “The tree that is tallest will be the first to meet the woodman`s ax”, “The rock that juts out into the river will take the full brunt of the current” etc. etc. Attitudes to political power-holders are expressed in idioms like: “The rulers burn whole mountains, while the common people dare not light a lantern.” 

I claim no originality for these observations. They are commonplace among the Chinese themselves. “What can you expect from us Chinese, with our slave mentality?” asks a character in a recent Chinese novel (Dai Houying`s 1979 Stones of the Wall ). The “slave mentality” theme in fact goes back several decades in Chinese literature, originating with Lu Xun`s novel The True Story of Ah Q, written in 1921. . Deliberately intended to be the personification of political China, Ah Q is a dimwitted Chinese Everyman who misses the point of all the great political ideas that were swirling in the air of China at that time. At last, in consequence of his own foolishness, he is erroneously taken for a revolutionary and shot, to the general approval of the townsfolk:

“They naturally agreed that Ah Q was bad. The fact that he had been shot was proof of his badness; for if he were not bad, how could it come about that he should be shot?”

I have heard very similar comments from thoughtful and well-educated Chinese people talking about the modern dissident Wei Jing Sheng.

This is the starting-point for any discussion of immigrant-Chinese political attitudes: the appalling political backwardness of China.  It is a thing I find very difficult to convey to people who have not experienced it at first hand, in many long conversations with Chinese people and observations of the Chinese political scene. Ignorant drunks in an English pub will tell you: “It`s a free country, innit?” American high-school dropouts living in trailer parks with their 300-lb wives will say: “They cain`t tell me what to do!” I don`t say that such sentiments are unheard in China, only that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people regard them as deeply subversive. European travelers in China since Matteo Ricci`s time have tried to strike up political conversations in inns, only to be told, as Ricci was: “Such things are for the Mandarins to concern themselves with, not folk like us!” Political notions long since internalized by Anglo-Saxons seem striking, unusual and generally dangerous to Chinese people.

I possess the 1896 edition of Taswell-Langmead`s English Constitutional History. It runs to nearly 800 pages. The author of an equivalent volume titled Chinese Constitutional History, written at the same date, would be hard pressed to fill 8 pages. There is simply nothing to report. The Chinese people had at that point enjoyed no significant constitutional progress since the later Bronze Age. (There were some scattered hopeful developments in the 20th century, of which more in a minute; but they do not much alter the picture.) Politically, China is a living fossil, a coelacanth.

Thus, the shortest answer to the question: “What is the nature of China`s political traditions?” is: “There aren`t any.” Taking the Chinese people as a whole, the dominant political emotion is perfect apathy, with cynicism a close second and a sort of racist-nationalist-fascist prickliness coming up fast in third place. Politically, the Chinese are mainly nihilists: “a dish of loose sand”, Sun Yat Sen called them. Deng XiaoPing promised the peoples of Hong Kong (and his successors promise the people of Taiwan) “One country, two systems”. The Chinese—who are fast developing a nicely post-modern irony about these things—have made a joke out of this. “What we have in China,” they will tell you, “is: One country, no system.” The meaning is that China`s rulers just make things up as they go along, following whatever path will best ensure their own continuing grip on power, without any regard to principle or “system” at all, while the common people get on with their lives as best they can.

Under these circumstances one might expect the majority of Chinese immigrants to ignore politics altogether, while an ambitious minority follows the law-school route into government service with the aim of acquiring a mandarin`s hat. But this is not a completely accurate picture.

In the first place, the Chinese personality type most likely to chase after the mandarin`s hat can do so very well in China, where the system is once again organized to accommodate such strivings. But those who have been emigrating to the U.S.A. are disproportionately drawn from two groups who have rarely played much of a role in Chinese history: the mercantile entrepreneurs of the coastal cities, and the technically-educated middle classes. 

The merchant class has had its political consciousness formed in the deeply anti-mercantile ethos of Imperial China. The social ranking went, from top to bottom: shi, nong, gong, shang. Shi is the scholar-bureaucrat; nong the farmer; gong the artisan; shang the despised merchant. With no proper laws for the protection of private property, the Chinese merchant was always at the mercy of avaricious, under-paid government bureaucrats. He kept them at bay by bribery. 

At one point during the Opium Wars of the 1840s, the Emperor in Peking sent a high-ranking official to see what was going on. The merchants of the South China coast, fearful that he would report back the truth (i.e. that they were all involved up to their armpits in the opium trade) raised a collective bribe to pay him off. The bribe was so large it perceptibly raised the world price of gold. That this mentality is still very much alive can be seen from the campaign-finance scandals of the Clinton administration.

So far as the political attitudes of the Chinese-immigrant technical classes are concerned, I can speak with some precision. I belong to an e-mail discussion group called the Silicon Valley Chinese Engineers` Association (SCEA). I hardly ever contribute to the discussions, for fear they will notice I am not Chinese and kick me off; but I eavesdrop. The main point of the group is to be a bulletin board for Chinese-organized social activities in the Valley area and to advertise automobiles and apartments. The occasional political discussion breaks out, though. The dominant forms these discussions take are as follows:

Exchanges of insults between supporters of Taiwan independence and the “One China” crowd (not all of whom are mainlanders). These exchanges generally end with one side accusing the other of being spies—an accusation which, from the statistical point of view, must occasionally be true—and appeals to Chinese racial solidarity from the more irenic members of the group.

Calls for support of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-American charged with taking home secret material from his job at a U.S. government defense lab. It is an article of faith with (apparently) everyone on the list that Lee cannot possibly have done anything wrong, and is being persecuted by “racists” because he has a yellow face.

Calls for support of Chinese American politicians like Grace Hu, currently running for a state Assembly seat from a Los Angeles suburb. These appeals are stated in frankly tribalist terms: the candidate will “support our interests” (as if the interests of Chinese Americans were different in any way from those of other Americans), or “we need more Chinese Americans in politics“.

Notably absent is any reference to, or calls to support (or to condemn, or to notice in any way at all), political dissidents in China. Also absent are any constructive suggestions for the reform of mainland-Chinese public life, though there is a certain amount of bellyaching about corruption. Comments on American politics are strictly along tribalist lines. Typical have been some recent exchanges berating Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Bill Lann Lee (who is of Chinese descent) as a traitor to his race for spending too much time pandering to blacks and not enough speaking out in defense of Wen Ho Lee. 

Generally speaking—I do not see any reason to be kind about this—the level of political discussion here is infantile. These are technical people, to be sure. But they are very bright, quite articulate (most of the exchanges are in English, often of a high standard), and prosperous—contract work at $300 an hour is commonplace in the Valley. If these are the future voters of Chinese-America, I do not see much hope.

All is not dark. Over the past 50 years, while mainland China has been sinking back into the traditional pattern of imperial despotism, Taiwan has been developing a noisy democracy. The roots of that development are in the island`s history. Since being formally incorporated into the Empire in 1683, Taiwan never felt the hand of central government very heavily. It enjoyed a degree of independence unknown on the mainland. The people of Taiwan agitating for real independence by 1949, a movement ruthlessly crushed by the incoming refugees from Communism. Dissent could never be altogether suppressed, however, as the native Taiwanese constituted 85 per cent of the population. This ill-feeling generated, in effect, a rooted opposition faction in Taiwan—whose main political party won the election of March this year. 

You have a far better chance of an intelligent political discussion with an immigrant from Taiwan than with a mainlander. Mainland Chinese immigrant attitudes are shot through with the coarsest kinds of racialism, tribalism and imperialism, and are deeply ignorant about recent history. Most mainlanders arrive at adulthood having heard nothing about the world but what the Chinese Communist Party wishes them to hear—in other words, their education has been a pack of lies. With the best will in the world, it is not easy to shake off a background like that.

If, in spite of high rates of intermarriage, there remains a distinctive Chinese American community carrying imported traditions, I should therefore expect their political enthusiasms to break along approximately the following lines.

  • A high proportion of politically apathetic individuals.
  • High thresholds of tolerance for corruption.
  • Low levels of understanding of, and commitment to, pluralist, disinterested and public-spirited political activity.
  • Higher-than-average susceptibility to the kinds of multicultural and victimological dogmas found in universities.
  • Some vigorous political involvement by Taiwanese-descended Americans.

In so far as these characteristics favor any U.S. political party, they favor the Democrats in their current configuration. I would therefore expect that those Chinese Americans who bother to vote will preferentially vote Democratic. The last big intake of mainland-Chinese immigrants are just now getting their citizenship papers. I shall be interested to see how my analysis holds up when the psephological data comes in.

July 22, 2000