Book Review: The Expanding Roles of Chinese Americans in U.S.-China Relations

Book Review

The Expanding Roles of Chinese Americans in U.S.-China Relations 

P. H. Koehn and X. Yin (Eds.)Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe

Anoop C.

Relations between the U.S. and China span the spectrum from collaborative in the economic sphere, to cautious and adversarial at worst in the political and military arenas. Such a wide canvas offers non-state actors to bridge gaps in perception, conduct direct dialog with civic society on both sides, and raise concerns and influence policy and decision-making. One such group is the American-Chinese population, which according to the 2000 U.S. Census numbered 2.7 million, making it, at 20%, the largest single grouping of the U.S.’ Asian population [1]. Significantly, the Asian population in the U.S. is expected to grow by 213% in the next 50 years, making its share of the country’s population more than double to 8% [2]. Clearly, this demographic will play an increasingly important part in the domestic politics of the U.S. as well as influence U.S. policy towards their countries of origin. 

The book [3] by Koehn and Xiao-huang Yin, which is actually a collection of 13 contributed articles, offers a comprehensive view of the various roles Chinese Americans play in US-China relations. This book will be of interest to China watchers because it fills a gap in terms of content, while avoiding the linguistic barrier most non-Chinese readers face in getting information pertaining to Chinese society, even if such society is a transplanted one. The book is organized in three parts and deals with a wide variety of issues ranging from the historical connection of Chinese trans-Pacific families to U.S.-China relations, to the present day activism of American-born Chinese on political issues in the mainland. What I found most interesting were the articles tracing the history of the Chinese ethnic groups in the U.S., their evolving economic and business interests, the evolution of lobbies from the pro-Taiwan to the more neutral tone vis-à-vis cross-strait relations and the expanding role of Chinese American scholars in conducting a dialog across political barriers with civic society in China. 

Chinese immigration to the U.S. goes as far back as 1850s when able-bodied men came to work on the railroads and in agriculture. In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty provided free immigration between U.S. and China and allowed permanent residency for Chinese in America. However, following popular resentment against cheap labor during the recession of 1870s, the U.S. and signed the Angell Treaty in 1880, which gave the U.S. govt. the right to regulate and suspend Chinese labor immigration. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act of 1892, which extended the provisions of the 1882 Act for another 10 years, worsened the lopsided gender ratio of immigrants by keeping the women and children of Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. Although the Immigration Act of 1924 denied immigrants citizenship, a 1930 Amendment excluded the wife of a merchant and women married before 1924 from the provisions of the law. Such laws that prevented the integration of the immigrants to society, resulting in the growth of Chinese schools and indeed, a modest rate of return of educated people to China. The situation changed dramatically in 1965 with the legislation of the Immigration Act which removed racial criteria from immigration policy – nearly 250,000 Chinese arrived in the U.S. over the next 15 years transforming the community to a 70% immigrant one by 1990, up from the 60% American-born one in the 1960s. Prior to 1979, most of the immigrants were from Taiwan and Hong Kong, which had additional quotas as a consequence of the U.S. support to them. Due to the PRC’s economic liberalization, the restrictions on emigration from China were relaxed and most people emigrants opted for the U.S. The demographics of the immigrants today show an educated (the number of Chinese students in U.S. universities increased steadily from 1000 in 1979 to 54,000 in 1999) and professionally successful and enterprising business community. 

Expanding business networks of Chinese Americans had an important impact on trans-Pacific economic ties. Taking advantage of the post-1965 U.S. policy (particularly the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990) of providing special immigration visas for people who could bring in large wealth ($ 500,000 to 1 million) and contribute to employment, affluent ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan brought a large amount of capital (estimated between $2-3 billion every year for more than a decade) to the U.S. With the downturn of those economies, their remittances also slowed, but were made up by businessmen from Mainland China’s booming economy in the mid to late 1990s. Such investments were in U.S. offices of Chinese companies that benefited from the large trade surplus of China vis-à-vis the U.S. and also in real estate including hotels, high-rise office buildings and shopping malls. A more modest investment of the less wealthy immigrants were in services provided to an ever increasing number of compatriot students and professionals – grocery stores, restaurants, medical care and financial counseling. During the 1980s, a large number of highly qualified professionals and managers left the U.S. for Taiwan in response to a concerted recruiting effort by the government and helped power the Taiwanese economy to a strong position in Asia within a decade. Indeed, many of these families stayed back in the U.S. to take advantage of the less competitive but good quality school education for their children, and the professionals split their lives between the two countries, marking an ironic reversal of their fore-fathers fate. The semi-conductor and later information technology boom in the U.S. saw more than its fair share of Chinese participation – in 1995, 20% of technology start-ups in the Silicon Valley were Chinese American and by 1998, their contribution to came to 17% in ownership, 10% in employment and 13% in sales. Most of their ventures were financed by leveraging their connections in the expanding markets, first in Taiwan and later in the Mainland, making them an important factor in the technological success story shared by the U.S. and these countries. With the booming economy in China, many graduates returned to the coastal towns to set up hi-tech business ventures as the Taiwanese had done before them– Shanghai alone benefited from 2 billion USD worth of enterprises started by the returning professionals according to the city’s estimates.

With the changing social and economic character of the immigrant population comes change in their political outlook. This is expressed in different ways – at the personal level, via vernacular media and through organized lobbies. Three chapters in the book deal with this topic. One reports the author’s findings of a survey conducted among the Chinese population in North Carolina; while 72% of the respondents wanted the U.S. to promote democracy in China and 50% wished for improved bilateral relations, 32 % expected the U.S. to aid in the reunification of Taiwan and 17% hoped that it would help Taiwan become independent. However, the very small survey sample size casts doubts on the generality of these trends. Community newspapers and periodicals numbering more than 100 – there are about 20 in Southern California alone – offer a broader indication of the mood of the populace. Sometimes, the press has looked out for the interests of the immigrant community, even encouraging them to dissociate themselves from the governments in Beijing and Taipei after the 1949 victory of the Communist party in the mainland’s civil war. However, after the U.S.-China clash over Korea, the sentiment turned pro-Taiwan, perhaps because the espousal of a Communist govt. would not sit well with their adopted country but also because there was a substantial contribution to the Chinese community from Taiwan and Hong Kong. This trend was reflected in the editorials of the largest Chinese newspaper, the World Journal, which was pro-Taiwan throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The protests over the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and the sale of U.S. arms to Taiwan in the early 1990s also polarized the community. The paper became more neutral in its political opinions with the easing of relations between the U.S. and PRC governments in the late 1990s. The strengthening mainland economy coupled with the weakening Taiwanese economy and the attempts by the newly elected Democratic Progressive Party to declare independence shifted the pendulum to a criticism of Taiwan’s policy. The paper called for a refrain from dangerous rhetoric as well as to move closer to People’s Republic of China in the economic sphere. Most newspapers now propound that the China-Taiwan conflict is one between the same people, essentially burying the idea of independence. 

In order to understand how the wheel has come full circle, one must examine the history of organized Chinese American lobbies in the U.S. The first organization to support the Kuomintang government in Taiwan was, ironically, named the China Lobby and it traces its origins to 1949. This was a loosely knit group comprising KMT agents, U.S. citizens and Chinese Americans, which established the Committee of One Million to block the PRC’s admission to the U.N., to ensure the survival of the KMT and to push for U.S. arms and economic aid to Taiwan. The modus operandi involved publishing newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, petition drives (the name of the committee is derived from the number of people who signed to prevent the PRC’s admission to the U.N.), campaign contributions and being heard in Congressional Hearings through their sympathizers in Congress. The theme employed was that Taiwan was a bulwark against the spread of Communism in Asia – a message that was received with sympathy in both the political circles and among the general populace in the U.S. during that time. As the rapprochement of the U.S. and the PRC governments took place in the late 1970s, the effectiveness of the China Lobby decreased, giving rise to the Taiwan Lobby. This is an umbrella of various organizations like the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce of North America, the Center for Taiwanese International Relations, World United Formosans for Independence and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, with the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) forming the core. The agenda for these organizations has shifted from a focus on influencing U.S. domestic politics to Taiwan’s internal politics, security and international stature. These organizations seek to terminate the control of the KMT in Taiwan and push for independent status for Taiwan. The FAPA has 40 chapters across the country. It has a strong grass-root orientation (they instruct their members on how to visit, write and talk to Congressmen), collects money from fundraising and membership dues (in 1999, that amounted to more than $500,000), is careful to maintain an impartial domestic image (FAPA is banned from contributing to U.S. election campaigns, although its members are allowed to do so in their individual capacity). It wields significant influence in Congress, as can be seen in the resolutions passed between 1996 and 1998 calling for Taiwan’s admission to the U.N., the case for including Taiwan in a Theatre Missile Defense system and for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization. The author of this article contends that the effectiveness of the Taiwan Lobby is likely to be counterbalanced by the growing influence of pro-Mainland lobbies, although none are listed. This seems like a glaring omission in an otherwise very informative piece. 

Distinct from political lobbies, there are a few Chinese-led transnational organizations that seek to improve the social, political and economic conditions in China while functioning as a resource to both governments in understanding the other’s society. Well-connected ethnic Chinese in San Francisco founded the 1990 Institute in the year following the Tiananmen Square massacre, with the charter of preventing the political debacle from impinging on the pace of economic reform. The Institute first published books and monographs on Chinese economic reform largely by drawing upon contributions from ethnic Chinese economic scholars in the U.S. academia and economists in China. Later, when this activity gained momentum and the economic theories gained acceptance, the focus of the institute’s research shifted to the social ethics of economic liberalization. This think-tank has been active in organizing seminars in China with the participation of Western business investors and has been well received by Chinese officialdom, with people like President Jiang Zemin inaugurating their conferences and Premier Zhu Rongji espousing its policy prescriptions. Similarly, the Committee of 100, whose membership includes very successful Chinese Americans in business, arts and science, on the one hand, focus on fighting the negative fall-out of controversial incidents involving their community (e.g. political fundraising for the Democrats in 1996 and Wen Ho Lee’s incarceration on suspicion of being a spy) and on the other hand, function as advisors to political figures like Clinton’s NSA, Sandy Berger prior to the President’s visit to China in 1998. Needless to say, this group is also well connected to Chinese officialdom, even hosting a private event for Jiang Zemin during his 1997 visit to the U.S. In contrast, the Human Rights In China organization, also founded in 1989, is openly critical of the Chinese government’s human rights record and also of those organizations that push for expanded trade and diplomatic relations with China at the expense of its human rights violations. Prominent members like Liu Qing and Ge Yang have been either imprisoned or kept in exile for many years in the PRC, prior to their arrival in the U.S. This organization broadcasts Chinese language programs to the mainland through the Voice of America, BBC, Radio Australia, distributes newsletters and maintains internet contact with many students in China and even campaigned, futilely, to have the Chinese Premier excluded from the U.N. group, the Inter-Parliamentary Union. 

There are many other topics covered in the book, from the role played by the Chinese American community in negotiating environmental issues between U.S. and China, the value of scholars like Nobel laureates C.N. Yang and Yuan Tze Lee in broaching politically difficult topics with their colleagues in China on account of the high respect they enjoy in that society to the increasing activism of American born Chinese and the little known philanthropic record of the community. The tone of the book is slanted more towards a social studies perspective and its value lies in the various avenues it opens for a newcomer to study this important, and thus far neglected, piece of the U.S.-China relationship mosaic.