Whither the Chinese Vote?
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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,"   He is himself married to a Chinese immigrant software engineer and their daughter is being brought up bilingual.]

NORM MATLOFF COMMENTS: A year or so ago John Derbyshire quoted a well-educated immigrant from China, who said, "America is not really a country. It is just a place where people come to make money." [See Thinking About Internment]This quote in many ways relates to that his current article, as well as to my reactions to the author's writings.

I agree with what much of what Derbyshire has to say, though I consider some of his comments to be too strong. I quite disagree with others. For example, the above quote is priceless and has much truth to it. But on the other hand, I often catch Chinese immigrants using the words "we" and "us" when describing the U.S., without their even realizing it. In other words, I think there is a lot more Americanization than the author is giving credit for, albeit proceeding at a slow pace.

I do agree with the author's point that China's authoritarian traditions (I'm referring to Confucius, not Mao or Chiang) form a rather formidable obstacle to political participation. The U.S. media's image that people immigrate here from China thirsting for democracy and freedom is quite false. Just like most immigrants from around the globe, they come here to make money.

The Confucian model is benevolent dictatorship. Most Chinese hold such a notion at some level. I am not saying this is good or bad, but merely pointing it out. One item that I use to shock most Americans is a worldwide survey of attitudes toward governmental interference in people's daily lives. People in China felt (i.e. perceived) the least amount of interference, Americans the most.

When electric power here in California was deregulated a couple of years ago, an ad agency was hired to "sell" the idea to the public. The agency decided to tailor different pitches to different ethnic groups. The pitch aimed at getting Asians to accept deregulation was "Your government has decided this is good for you."

The idea that America was founded as a reaction to government consisting of scoundrels, thus the need for protections against government power (the Constitution, checks and balances, etc.) is baffling to most immigrants from China. Indeed, though the Chinese term for "democracy," "min zhu," can be interpreted as "the people are the masters"-ism, in line with the Western meaning, one could also translate it as "people-ism," i.e. benevolent government, including benevolent dictatorship. I find most Chinese immigrants view it that way.

You may wonder how this squares with the image in the U.S. media of the so-called "pro-democracy" movement in Beijing in spring 1989. The answer is that the students were not pro-democracy. They were just as repulsed by the thought of popular elections as Deng Xiaoping was.

By the way, when John Derbyshire chastises Chinese immigrants for not supporting the movement in China, he should ask himself whether they know things he doesn't know. A number of Chinese saw through those students at the time. Things have become even clearer in the subsequent years. A number of the former student leaders have now become rather corrupt (let's at least say "selfish") once they reached the U.S.

Derbyshire also includes the obligatory comparison between East Asians and Jews, such as in terms of respect for education. As someone who is quite immersed in both cultures, I have always disagreed with this notion. Rather than being "bookish" as the author describes them, which term arguably tends to fit the Jews, Chinese immigrants place high priority on education only as a means to an end, namely to make money. (Compare the percentages of Jews vs. Chinese kids studying, say, sociology in college, for example, versus a "money-making" major.)

Again, there is nothing inherently bad about this. It accomplishes the Chinese goal, which is to achieve a comfortable middle- or upper-middle-class life. On the other hand, it is constraining, resulting in fewer Chinese-Americans becoming true stars in their fields than there should be. One engineering professor in China described the problem very neatly, Rote-memory, "duty-motivated" attitudes lead to the "phenomenon of high scores, low ability."

The other putative area of Jewish/Asian commonality is emphasis on Family. But here again, I would say attitudes are drastically different in the two cases. For example, I would submit that Chinese is much more likely to be willing to lend money to his/her sibling than a Jewish person would. (Again, money is key.)

There must be some kind of commonality between Jews and Asians—those white/Asian marriages are disproportionately Jewish/Asian. But it is not attitudes toward education and family.

I share Derbyshire's concern about university ethnic studies courses. I heartily endorse the idea in concept, but in practice these often become highly polemic, even preaching hatred. This very definitely includes Asian-American Studies. By the way, this also ties in with the earlier-mentioned theme of intermarriage: the dogma in the AAS courses (complete with "research studies") is that Asian women marry white men to derive social power from their husbands.

But I part company with Derbyshire regarding Wen Ho Lee. (I am on WHL's defense fund committee www.wenholee.org.) WHL's firing and subsequent arrest looked fishy from the very beginning, with the government's actions being at best Keystone Kops and at worst rank dishonesty and manipulation. If this case really does galvanize the Chinese-American community into mass action, it will teach them better than any naturalization test why American structures were devised to protect against government "scoundrels."

Similarly, Derbyshire's alarm at Chinese-American "tribalism" may also be premature. That attitude does exist—for example, Chinese parents at some schools in California have formed Chinese PTAs, separate from the mainstream PTAs. But there are signs that it too is diminishing.

A number of my Chinese immigrant friends who contributed money to the campaign of Rep. David Wu two years ago, in many cases crossing party lines (not to mention state boundaries) to do so, now regret it. They will think twice before contributing to someone in the future just because of his/her Chinese ethnicity. (Moreover, the Chinese are hardly the first immigrant group to have "tribalistic" attitudes.)

Derbyshire notes that Jews have mainly become Democrats in spite of their affluence. He projects that the Asians may follow in their footsteps.

The difference Derbyshire has missed here is that Jews became Democrats out of the Jewish tradition of altruism and sympathy for the downtrodden. (I might add that this is why I myself am a registered Democrat, though these days I have no respect for either party.) The Confucian, i.e., Chinese, tradition is just the opposite—your sole responsibility is to provide for your family, not help your fellow man. For example, the Asian rate of volunteerism is the lowest of the four major American ethnic/racial groups—white, black, Latino and Asian. Once again, this is neither "good" nor "bad." My point is that the Asian/Jewish comparison fails here.

Having said that, there has been at least something of a short-term trend among Chinese immigrants toward the Democrats, for a reason, which is very un-Chinese: welfare. The Chinese ethnic print and electronic media are largely controlled by the Chinese "community activists." The latter are staunchly Democratic, and they have very skillfully blamed the Republicans for the 1996 bill which clamped down on immigrant welfare abuse. (This is highly misleading. Starting back in 1993, the Democratic Party was just as outraged about the abuses as the Republicans were, and introduced their own welfare-reform legislation to reduce immigrant benefits.) This campaign by the Chinese community activists has produced a lot of Chinese votes for the Democrats in the last couple of years.

And keep in mind that the "suburban" Chinese—I assume these are the main ones Derbyshire has contact with—are just as vested in the welfare system as their poor cousins in Chinatown. Derbyshire may not be aware of the fact that among those well-educated professionals he meets from China, most of those who have elderly parents in the U.S. either have them on welfare or plan to do so.

So, in the short term, I see the Democrats making a lot of inroads among the traditionally conservative Chinese immigrants. But in the long term, I think the Chinese are up for grabs between the two parties.

If the influx of Chinese immigrants were to abate, assimilation would of course occur much more quickly. But even with the continuing supply of newcomers, I think there will be some gradual changes toward assimilation—which will surprise (and even maybe disappoint) Derbyshire.

JOHN DERBYSHIRE RESPONDS: There are actually two political traditions in China: the Legalist (dictatorship facilitated by government terror) and the Confucianist (dictatorship facilitated by internalized moral codes). Both are always present, though at most points of Chinese history it has been considered impolite to mention the first. Mao was an exception—he spoke approvingly of the frankly Legalist emperor Qin ShiHuang. But yes, there is practically no non-authoritarian tradition.

One of my very first Chinese conversations was with a Taiwanese who had been introduced to me as "very liberal". The subject of young men's hair length was at that time quite hot in Taiwan. Police were forcibly cutting kids' hair in the streets. Did he think this was right? I asked him. No, he said, it wasn't right to impose short hair by force. The right way was for the government to have a big propaganda campaign to convince young men that long hair was bad. Pure Confucius! (The cops were following Legalist principles.) The idea that it might be NONE OF THE GOVERNMENT'S GODDAM BUSINESS how I choose to wear my hair was utterly outside his comprehension, and is deeply Chinese. (He is now Dean of Students at Taiwan Normal University.)

I object rather strongly to Norm's comments about the 1989 student movement. It included a number of rogues; and a number of people who developed into rogues; and a number (much larger than either of the other two numbers) of people who gave up activism in despair and devoted themselves to the acquisition of a bourgeois lifestyle. It also included a great many genuine idealists, however, including some who understood very well the meaning of liberty and democracy, and some who died courageously for their beliefs. The resemblance of the Goddess of Democracy to Lady Liberty was not a coincidence. I mix with mainlanders all the time—I am married to one—and yes, I know very well what some of them say now about the movement. It is one of the few kinds of exchange that makes me lose my temper. I am otherwise pretty inured to things they say. Or parrot: One of the most depressing things about despotic society is that most of the people end up believing most of the lies their leaders feed them. They have little else to go on.

There is little encouragement of creativity in Chinese education. But this is not news to the Chinese, who talk about it constantly. I have a mainland friend, Wang YanBin, who did his Master's thesis (i.e. M.Ed.) on it!

Now, what is all this about Jews? I mentioned them precisely twice in the piece: once to comment on the tenacity of their social/ethical/political orientation—I am, after all, writing about the persistence of such things—and once very en passant as being the group in America most likely to go to college. That was it. Norm: "Derbyshire notes that Jews have mainly become Democrats in spite of their affluence. He projects that the Asians may follow in their footsteps." Scuse me? Where did I say that, or anything like it? Where is this "comparison"? I think Norm has me mixed up with somebody else. This baffled me so much I went to my original text and did "finds" on it. Nope, not there.

However, since Norm has raised the Asian/Jewish parallel, I don't see much of one. I think—cautiously—that Norm is probably right in saying that Jewish bookishness and Chinese bookishness are of a different sort. The bookish tradition among Jews originates with a desire to understand the mind of God; among the Chinese, it originates with a desire to get a government job. (There is a saying in Chinese that translates: "Education is like a brick— you can use it to break down a door. Then you can throw it away.")

Human nature makes for a lot of overlap, though. I know a lot of Jews who never touch a book after college; and a lot of Chinese who L-O-V-E to study—can't bear to throw away that brick. My wife, for example, who after 14 years of marriage I can't get out to work. "Just one more college course!" She is on her third. There are also, it hardly needs saying, strong non-bookish traditions in both cultures. The early 20th century Jews of America produced a great stable of boxers — not to mention ENTERTAINERS. Similarly: Bruce Lee, Deng LiJun (pop star), Gong Li (movie star) etc.

The business of altruism (Jews—yes; Chinese—no) is much more complicated than Norm makes out. He is quite wrong about Confucianism. The Analects contain plenty of exhortations to altruism outside one's family: "Si hai zhi nei, jie xiong-di ye", for example—"Within the four seas, all men are brothers." (Analects 12.v.) If you get an educated Chinese person on the defensive about the coarseness and cruelty of Chinese society, he will soon start throwing Confucius at you. Asked for a golden rule, for another example, Confucius simply stated THE golden rule: "Ji suo bu yu, wu shi yu ren"— "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." (Analects 15.xxiii) Contrariwise, while Jewish altruism certainly has an ethical/religious component, it has other less photogenic elements in it too, as Kevin B. MacDonald has documented in his book The Culture of Critique . MacDonald argues that support of other minorities makes good sense as a group strategy for Jews. Look at it this way: bearing in mind the history of the 20th century, is it a good idea for Jews to be the ONLY obvious minority in an otherwise-homogeneous society?

An anecdotal afterthought on Jews and China. Living in Mainland China in the early 1980s, I came to the following two conclusions: (1) All foreigners in China are either German or American, (2) All Americans in China are Jewish. After forming these theorems, I lodged overnight at a student hostel attached to BeiDa (Peking University). Washing up in the morning, I found myself next to an American at the trough — a tall, blond, blue-eyed kid from Wyoming. "I think you're the first American I've met in China that isn't Jewish," I said rather rashly. He laughed. "Matter of fact, I AM Jewish..." From Wyoming! I didn't think they allowed Jews in Wyoming. (Brings to mind Roseanne Barr's joke about her Jewish-cowboy ancestor: "Yippee ai-oh Chai-ay...")

One the matter of lending money to one's family members, Fukuyama covers this area pretty well in Trust. China is an EXCEPTIONALLY low-trust society.

Wen Ho Lee: I just recently wrote a piece about WHL (it's my own website under "Journalism" http://www.olimu.com). His continued detention smells of bureaucratic obstinacy—the guys just don't want to admit they screwed up. He's no spy. On the other hand, I balk at the cries of "racial profiling". The Chinese have been looting U.S. national secrets, and everyone in the intelligence community knows it. WHL worked on the W88 warhead; the Chinese got classified details of that warhead; Chinese people in U.S. labs are obvious suspects. It's rational discrimination— like NY cabbies not picking up blacks. (Even, as has been often documented, NY BLACK cabbies not picking up blacks.)

I'm with Norm on the issue of tribalism, except I think it needs to be said that tribalism in a group that's easily identifiable on sight is twice the menace it is for a blend-in group like the 19th-century Irish immigrants. (Just as race based slavery of the U.S. type was a greater evil than the race-indiscriminate slavery of the ancient world: in the latter, there was no visible mark, and once you got your freedom you just melted into the populace. In ancient Rome, nobody knew your grandfather was a slave.)

But I rather resent the idea that I would mind Chinese people assimilating faster than I predict. With two half-Chinese kids (ages 5, 7) I can't AFFORD to mind. On immigration, I am a Brimelovian restrictionist—we need a pause for a few decades. Given that I am on the whole hopeful for assimilation. Some of the attitudes, however, will linger. For decades to come (at least), Americans of Chinese ancestry will, I think, show a bias to statism.

Not my kids though: I am doing my best to raise Tories.

July 31, 2000



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 judgment 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."

August 7, 2000


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