On May 27, 2016, the Los Angeles Times gave its audience a glimpse into a “small, but vocal group of Chinese Americans who passionately support” US Republican Party Presidential candidate Donald Trump. According to author Kate Linthicum, although most Asian Americans detest the supposedly controversial Republican candidate, Trump’s Chinese American supporters — made up mostly of those who recently arrived from China — have “strong nationalistic leanings, a certain reverence for wealth and a firm belief that US immigration laws should be followed.”
Also, many Chinese Americans detest affirmative action on college campuses, “where some Chinese Americans fear their numbers are being held down by efforts to advance other ethnic and racial groups.”1 In fact, it is Trump’s recent blunt, unapologetic statements — such as rejecting the idea of “political correctness” and calling for a ban of Muslins entering America – that have appealed to these newly arrived Chinese immigrants.2 “Building a Great Wall” to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the US is also appealing to these newly arrived legal immigrants, as they believe that the US immigration law should be strictly enforced to prevent those who did not follow the legal immigration channels from entering.
However, critics have argued against supporting Trump by making historical parallels between his call of banning Muslims and undocumented Hispanic immigrants from entering the US, and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which virtually banned all Chinese immigrants from entering the US.3 In addition, Trump clearly represents those who champion economic protectionism in the name of “creating American jobs.”4 Also, in regards to future US foreign policy, Trump assumes that since nuclear proliferation cannot be prevented, the US should no longer keep American treaty allies like Japan and South Korea within its alliance system for free. Therefore, he called on Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves rather than rely on the US’ extended deterrence.5
In view of the issues mentioned above, this essay argues that although some of Trump’s policy proposals seem appealing on surface to the newly arrived Chinese immigrants mentioned in Linthicum’s article, these proposals, if fully implemented, could potentially bring more negative consequences to livelihoods of ordinary Chinese Americans.
Populism and an Atmosphere of Intolerance
As Linthicum mentioned in her article, one of the reasons for Chinese Americans to support Donald Trump is their resentment toward affirmative action programs and their belief that since many of them legally immigrated to the US, its immigration law should be strictly enforced. Some of Trump’s Chinese American supporters went as far as to claim that Trump’s attack on China “raping” the US had actually invoked their pride in their former home country.6
On the issue of immigration, it is reasonable for these newly arrived legal Chinese immigrants to feel some resentment towards the loose enforcement of US immigration laws since they had earned their US residence and citizenship legally with their hard work and economic gains. However, one could also draw a historical analogy between Trump’s call to build a wall on the US-Mexican border and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. During the late 19th century, California’s white majority working class — led by Denis Kearney, the president of the Workingmen’s Party of California — launched an “atmosphere of racial hatred and discrimination” calling for the expulsion of all Chinese railroad workers from the US.
In addition to the belief that cheap Chinese laborers were taking away white American jobs, those calling for an end of Chinese immigration also believed that Chinese culture was inconsistent with American norms, “consequently laying the cultural grounds for racial hostility and ultimately the Exclusion Act of 1882.”7 In this sense, ethnic Chinese became socially constructed enemies of the United States — deemed culturally and materially unfit to be part of the American Democracy — until World War II, when the US and China became allies.
Therefore, not only should the newly arrived Chinese Americans realize that their ancestors were once victims of blatant racism and prejudice in the US, Trump is also playing into an ideology of which Chinese Americans could one day become a target: populism. From the late 19th century to today, American populism has been characterized by nativism and economic grievances, especially those relating to perceived outsiders taking away blue collar Americans’ opportunities.
In the 21st century, populism in developed countries is also manifested as the working class’ push back against globalization, especially their claim that globalization only benefits the capitalist elites, while better educated and more hardworking foreigners are taking away their jobs. As a result, populists believe that domestic high unemployment and weak economic growth can be solved by economic protectionism and limiting foreigners’ economic opportunities.8
This is why many of Trump’s supporters construct Hispanic immigrants’ identities — especially those of undocumented immigrants — as “parasites” who should be kept away by a wall, and also believe that the government should tax the rich and the middle class heavily. Trump’s populist supporters are also against globalization — which has brought immense wealth, innovation, and opportunity to both the US and China — in the name of job protection.9 Such xenophobic and protectionist attitudes are congruous with hatred toward ethnic Chinese laborers before and during the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the current racial and economic resentment towards Hispanic undocumented workers were once and could potentially again be directed against Chinese immigrants.
Readers should also keep in mind that Trump has argued more than once that China is also guilty in taking away American jobs, generating populist anger towards the Middle Kingdom as well. For example, Trump has said that once he become President, he will impose 45 percent duties on all Chinese imports and 35 percent duties on Mexican imports in order to protect American manufacturing jobs, even though such tariffs would significantly raise consumer prices in the US and risk pushing to country into another recession.10 In this sense, if Trump’s populist appeals — including elements of nativism and xenophobia — become public policies, Chinese Americans could become targets of economic discrimination and racial prejudice, while the US economy could risk another recession.
In addition, Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the US due to the threat of radical Islam should raise alarm among the Chinese American community. Based on the past construction of enemy images in the US, especially those directed against Japanese Americans before and during World War II, one can easily draw a historical analogy between Trump’s and his supporters’ prejudice against Muslims and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
In this sense, one can ask a simple question: if the US-China relations continue to deteriorate over issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan, or other geopolitical competitions, would Trumpism potentially justify the internment or another round of exclusion of Mainland Chinese immigrants and students, effectively bringing the populist and nationalist sentiments onto very personal levels and ignoring the individual liberties which the American liberal political culture cherishes? As a result, Trumpism is anathema to both contemporary American liberal democratic ideology, which promotes multicultural coexistence and mutual respect between all Americans.
A Far More Disorderly and Cynical International System
While Trump’s populist rhetoric calling for constructing a wall on the US-Mexican Border and banning Muslims from entering the US should raise alarm within the Chinese American community, his foreign policy stance is just as troubling. According to Alex Ward of the Atlantic Council, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy proposal suggests that “the United States should not expend its foreign-policy energy and power unless its allies, partners, or other stakeholders have a similar commitment to solving the issues at hand.” That’s basically the opposite of the current consensus among Washington’s foreign policy and national security leaders.11
For example, regarding the US alliance structure in the Asia Pacific, Trump has argued that the US should not be a “world policeman,” and that South Korea and Japan should “pay more” for their defense, including arming themselves with nuclear weapons. He also added that the US-Japan mutual defense treaty is “not a fair deal.”12 Thus, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy proposals symbolize a more isolationist stance when compared with previous US Presidential administrations. In addition, with regards to North Korea’s illegal possession of nuclear weapons, Trump has stated that he will directly talk to Kim Jong-un, if elected President.13
At first glance, Trump’s proposals may appeal to the “nationalistic” Chinese American voters mentioned in Linthicum’s article, especially those who believe that improving US-China relations should be based on respecting Chinese nationalistic identities, reduced US military involvement in issues relating to territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, and preventing Japan — a perceived historical archrival of China — from challenging China’s regional interests.
Nevertheless, although the current US-led international order could arguably be unjust from the Chinese perspective, China has also indirectly benefitted from the US hegemonic order over the past 30 years, as it has allowed China to focus on economic growth and subsequently march towards the “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation.14 In other words, it is the presence of the US-led security order after World War II that has guaranteed a peaceful environment allowing different Asian countries — including China since 1978 — to focus on economic growth rather than constantly devoting the vast majority of their national resources preparing for war. The economic boom in the Asia Pacific resulting from the US hegemonic order is also why so many middle-class Chinese immigrants can send their kids to study and immigrate abroad, including to the US, enhancing cultural and economic exchanges between the two countries.
If Trump’s call for a reduced US role in guaranteeing the security of its allies materializes, leading Japan and South Korea to “go nuclear,” the post-Cold War security order could potentially break down, and the Asia Pacific alone could give way to disorder.
According to British international relations scholar Hedley Bull, order reflects the organizational principles and rules that shape and direct state relationships. Order breaks down and gives way to disorder when these settled rules and principles no longer operate. Order can be imposed by a dominant state, or it can reflect more consensual and agreed-upon rules and relationships.15 In the words of John Ikenberry, the US-led international order is a hegemonic one, meaning that the dominant state — the US — establishes its position through leadership, bargaining, and the provision of various goods such as security and open markets.16
Under this logic, the post-World War II international order — especially after the Cold War — is characterized by the US as the dominant state establishing economic and military leadership in order to ensure both international security and economic prosperity, serving the interests of the US itself, its allies, and other countries like India and post-1978 China. The US provides security — by means of conventional military assistance and its nuclear umbrella under mutual defense treaties — to its allies and partners, so that they would not need to develop their own nuclear deterrence. Subsequently, with a relatively weak Japanese military, Beijing did not need to spend too much effort preparing for another large-scale conflict with its historical rival, despite continued geopolitical competition.
On the other hand, great powers outside the US-led alliance system — like China and Russia — maintain their own nuclear deterrence and conventional militaries to check the power of the US and its allies. Thus, with the cost of war under the current international order extremely high, most countries — including non-US allies like China — focus on improving their citizens’ economic wellbeing, while benefiting indirectly from the US-led alliance system and directly from the current order, which is characterized by stability resulting from balance of power and increasing cultural-economic ties.
However, if Trump’s call for a reduced US role in guaranteeing the security of its allies materializes, leading Japan and South Korea to “go nuclear,” the post-Cold War security order could potentially break down, and the Asia Pacific alone could give way to disorder, as Bull has argued. According to US Vice President Joe Biden, Japan has the industrial capability to build nuclear warheads “virtually overnight,” meaning that if Japan feels that the US nuclear umbrella is no longer credible, it has the capability to immediately adopt a great power’s military capability.17 This would create an environment that runs counter to stability and economic development, not to mention that the current Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) would become completely defunct.
In the hypothetical multipolar nuclear scenario which Trump advocates, unlike the Cold War, no major nuclear power enjoys the luxury of worrying about just one adversary, so they must develop expansive and risky nuclear postures to take multiple potential adversaries into consideration. For example, if the US improves its ballistic missile defense system, this move could prompt China and Russia to improve their ballistic missiles’ penetration capabilities, but such a move by Beijing could trigger India and Japan to enhance their own nuclear weapons, leading to the vicious cycle of an uncontrollable multipolar nuclear arms race.18
In addition, Trump has said that he is willing to talk to Kim Jong-un in order to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to Doug Bandow, although directly negotiating with the Hermit Kingdom could possibly persuade Pyongyang to accept restrictions on future nuclear arms development and proliferation, there is no guarantee that North Korea would give up nuclear arms anytime soon, which is the common interest of the US, South Korea, Japan, and China.
To make matters worse, directly engaging the North Korean leadership would enhance Pyongyang’s prestige, potentially drawing Pyongyang away from China.19 If this were the case, the result of the negotiation would not only fail to guarantee a nuclear-free DPRK, but also allow Pyongyang to gain far more relative interests in terms of prestige and diplomatic influence. Therefore, engaging the North Korean dictator — as Trump suggests — would only enhance and encourage his disregard for the current international order, especially international laws like the NPT, and disrespect of the interests of other nations, including those of the US and China.
Based on Trump’s policy suggestions in regards to a reduced US role in securing the current international order, encouraging South Korea and Japan to “go nuclear,” and talking to rogue states that blatantly disregard the current international order, Trump’s foreign policy proposals clearly do not match the interests of the newly-arrived Chinese Americans, whose livelihoods are much better enhanced by stable US-China relations under the current international order.
However, based on economic and military strength, only the US — and to a lesser extent, China — is capable of maintaining the current international order, an order in which the US, China, the EU, South Korea, Japan, etc. all have significant stakes. It is also this order that allows many middle class Chinese families to immigrate to the US, become a member of American society, while maintaining their cultural, economic, and familial ties with their former fatherland.
Not only is US required to defend Japan, South Korea, and other treaty allies from armed assault, such mutual defense treaties also prevent these US allies from initiating military conflicts with other countries, especially rising powers — like China — that need a peaceful environment for economic growth. Even though the image of the US as a “world policeman” angers many, including many individuals and policymakers in China, if US foreign policy become more isolationist and fails to uphold post-Cold War international security, the world would “look much more cynical.”20
In such a cynical world, Chinese immigrants with significant cultural, economic, and familial interests in both the US and China would have much more to lose. For example, imagine the US, Japan, and China aiming thousands of nuclear warheads at each other, and all sides strictly limiting cultural and economic engagements in the name of “national security,” while North Korea constantly threatens to turn the region into a nuclear winter. As a result, although all individuals have the right to vote for their candidates of choice, and some of Trump’s proposals seem appealing at first glance, with his potentially disastrous foreign policy proposals in mind, Trump’s Chinese American supporters mentioned in Linthicum’s article should think twice before casting their ballots for a candidate with unpredictable foreign policy proposals.
Although it is still too early to tell whether Trump will implement all of his policy proposals and rhetoric if he is elected the President, his words should already be alarming to the Chinese American community. Even though his policy proposals like strictly enforcing the US immigration law by building a wall separating the US-Mexican border, banning Muslims from entering the US to prevent terrorist attacks, and reducing the US role in protecting its allies in the Asia Pacific, may seem appealing to Chinese Americans at first glance, these proposals — if fully implemented — might cause more harm and uncertainty to the Chinese American community.
The current populist rhetoric that are directed against Hispanics and Muslims were once directed against Chinese and Japanese Americans as well, while a reduced US role in upholding the current international order could cause the breakdown of an order that has served the interests of so many Chinese Americans today. As a result, if one takes a deeper look of the dire consequences of Donald Trump’s domestic and foreign policy proposals, he is not necessarily the ideal choice for the Chinese Americans voters mentioned in Linthicum’s article. Rather, he represents the America and the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when both Chinese Americans and ethnic Chinese suffered appalling injustice.
1. Linthicum, K. (May 27, 2016). Meet the Chinese American immigrants who are supporting Donald Trump. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-asian-voters-20160527-snap-story.html
2. Ngai, K. (June 8, 2016). Donald Trump finally meets his biggest Chinese American fans. Shanghaiist. Retrieved from http://shanghaiist.com/2016/06/08/chinese_americans_meet_trump.php
4. Frank, T. (March 8, 2016). Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump, here is why. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/07/donald-trump-why-americans-support
5. Gerzhoy, G. and Miller, N. (April 6, 2016). Donald Trump thinks more country should have nuclear weapons. Here’s what the research says. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/06/should-more-countries-have-nuclear-weapons-donald-trump-thinks-so/
6. Linthicum, K. (May 27, 2016). Meet the Chinese American immigrants who are supporting Donald Trump. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-asian-voters-20160527-snap-story.html
7. Historians and the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882. Retrieved from https://thechinesequestion.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/historians-and-the-chinese-exclusion-act-1882/
8. Chan, H.H.L. (June 25, 2016. Brexit and Asia: Rationality versus emotion. IPP Review. Retrieved from http://www.ippreview.com/index.php/Home/Blog/single/id/177.html
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10. Gimein, M. (April 6, 2016). How would Trump’s proposed tariffs affect your wallet? Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/money/4282166/donald-trump-tariff-plan-cost/
11. Ward, A. (October 27, 2015). Why Donald Trump should be taken seriously on foreign policy. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/27/donald-trump-is-right-about-foreign-policy/
12. Sevastopulo, D. (March 27, 2016). Donald Trump open to Japan and South Korea having nuclear weapons. Financial Times. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c927017c-f398-11e5-9afe-dd2472ea263d.html#axzz4C6RdHduR
13. Bandow, D. (May 19, 2016). Donald Trump wants to talk to Kim Jong-un. Is that really so bad? The Diplomat. Retrieved from http://thediplomat.com/2016/05/donald-trump-wants-to-talk-to-kim-jong-un-is-that-really-so-bad/
14. Goh, E. (January 2, 2009). The US-China relationship and Asia-Pacific security: Negotiating change. Asian Security, 220. Retrieved from http://www3.nccu.edu.tw/~lorenzo/Goh%20Asia%20Pacific%20Security.pdf
15. Bull, H. (1997). The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.
16. Ikenberry, G.J. (2015). Between the eagle and the dragon: America, China, and Middle East strategies in East Asia. Political Science Quarterly. Retrieved from https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/gji3/files/between_the_eagle_and_the_dragon.pdf
17. Daiss, T. (June 25, 2016). Japan could go nuclear ‘virtually overnight’ Joe Biden tells Chinese President. The Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/timdaiss/2016/06/25/japan-could-go-nuclear-virtually-overnight-joe-biden-tells-chinese-president/2/#3860f9b02058
18. Lee, C.C. (June 15, 2016). Asia’s nuclear future. National Bureau of Asian Research. Retrieved from http://nbr.org/research/activity.aspx?id=698
19. Bandow, D. (May 19, 2016). Donald Trump wants to talk to Kim Jong-un. Is that really so bad? The Diplomat. Retrieved from http://thediplomat.com/2016/05/donald-trump-wants-to-talk-to-kim-jong-un-is-that-really-so-bad/
20. Boudet, A.-E. (March 17, 2016). America’s Putin. Russian International Affair Council. Retrieved from http://russiancouncil.ru/en/blogs/ae-boudet/?id_4=2368