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October 26, 2004

Mainland China and Asian-American Identity Politics

This post evolved out of a question razib posed to me in the comments section of an earlier post. I'm keeping it in extended-entry since it's political and, typically of me, unnecessarily loquacious: it concerns the general topic of US-born Asian kids going to their mother countries and, through the pop culture, giving the public there the whole song and dance (literally) about "how oppressed we are in the US." Usually this occurs through the medium of pop tunes, rap, and movies, often presented by artists who failed to break into the US entertainment industry. They return to Asia (where, in many cases, marketing is more important than talent) to try their luck again, and popularize their "political struggle".

So far, we haven't seen most Asian-Americans turning to Asia to gain support for their identity politics, for one big reason: the public in Asian countries couldn't care less. But that might be changing.

Unlike, say, Mexico, most Asian countries are not all that concerned with their emigrants or the descendants of those emigrants, and even look down on them. India dubs theirs "Non-Required Indians" (a play on the official government designation of "Non-Resident Indians"). In Japan, even Japanese kids who live overseas for a few years and then return to Japan suffer discrimination and bullying (google "kikoku shijou"), to say nothing of Japanese descendents such as 4th-generation Japanese-Americans who speak no Japanese (sometimes turned down for English-teaching jobs in favor of Swedes) or the equally un-Japanese Brazilian labourers imported en-masse. Thus, the public in Asian countries have remained largely indifferent to the issues their co-ethnics face in the United States.

Korean-Americans might seem an exception to this trend, but missed their chance to gain sympathy for their struggles among Koreans --- they had long had influence in the Korean music industry (try listening to some Seo Taiji rap to find the obvious American roots), and emigration to the US was a hot topic in the 1980s, thus keeping Korean-Americans central in the public imagination. But the same event that crystallized the Korean-American political identity --- the 1991 L.A. riots --- was largely ignored in Korea. Some even believed the emigrants and their children deserved the calamity, for having abandoned the mother country and contributed their efforts to building up a foreign economy. Korean-Americans, having failed to gain sympathy or assistance from their brethren for a real calamity filled with destruction and death, figure that asking their assistance on smaller grievances such as racial discrimination would be pointless.

However, there already exists at present one true major exception to the above rule of non-involvement: Taiwan, a country which emerged from the Chinese cultural matrix and shares its traditional values. Thus, Taiwan's present state is at least a bit better than any other for forecasting cultural trends in mainland China. And at present, we can clearly see the influence of Taiwanese domestic politics at work among student organizations for (US-born) Taiwanese-American students. To understand how this situation came about, we need a brief overview of Taiwanese society and history.

Taiwan consists of four broadly-defined groups, presented here in decreasing order of their numbers:

  • Hokkiens, Minnan-speaking Han Chinese, who began coming over from Fujian province and settling in Taiwan in the 1600s
  • Mainlanders, post-WWII immigrants who came over with the Nationalist government and army
  • Hakkas, a separate Han Chinese linguistic group who also began settling in Taiwan at the same time as the Hokkiens and often came into conflict with them
  • Aboriginals, non-Han Austronesians who were driven into the mountainous areas by Han settlement, and for the most part have occupied the lowest rung on the economic ladder ever since then

Broadly speaking, from 1949 up until recent years, the Mainlanders totally excluded the other 3 groups from politics, especially the majority Hokkiens, and surpressed their languages. No formal opposition parties existed, just a generalized underground with leftist tendencies, more concerned with trying to get the existing Nationalist dictatorship out of power than with any concrete political or social platforms. The 1966-76 Cultural Revolution happening next door in mainland China, aside from scaring the pants off the Taiwanese people and government, largely delegitimized Communism in Taiwan. This forced the slowly-forming Taiwanese left to abandon Marxism as any form whatsoever of intellectual basis (if only to ensure their own survival and avoid even more ruthless surpression by the Nationalist government), and to evolve towards ethnic politics and its familiar demagoguery, arguably early and faster than the equivalent shift in certain segments of the American left. (For a much more detailed look at this process, see this article from the previous edition of New Left Review).

Chinese people, unlike other Asians, are fairly interested in their diaspora --- no less than the national father Sun Yat-Sen studied in the US --- and the Taiwanese share this Chinese cultural tendency. The Nationalist government began outreach towards overseas Chinese communities almost immediately after its resettlement on Taiwan. (See this post from the blog East South West North for one example of the results: the 1956 riots in Hong Kong, in which the Swiss consul's wife burned to death). The most familiar example of this outreach today is the so-called "Love Boat," Youth Study Tour to the Republic of China, where Taiwanese descendants all over the world converge on Taiwan with the excuse of language and cultural study, and spend 6 weeks hooking up with each other (much to the delight of their Taiwanese parents of all political persuasions, who hope they'll marry within the race), but also listening to propaganda from the Nationalist government.

The Taiwanese left showed themselves to be no less interested than the Nationalist government in using their overseas compatriots as a tool to advance their agenda in Taiwan. Taiwanese students in the US, already exposed and often sympathetic to the language and concepts of identity politics back in Taiwan by their local leftists, easily found common ground and sympathetic understanding with young Taiwanese-Americans and their growing ethnic consciousness and generalized sense of political dissatisfaction.

The best example of the result is ITASA, a yearly intercollegiate conference held by Taiwanese-American student organizations, at which the topics of Taiwanese independence (or, more precisely, Hokkien nationalism) and Taiwanese-American oppression both receive ample air time. All these identity politics are set against a background of Asian parties which provide the real impetus for most of the students who join the conference and throw their weight behind lobbying the US government in support of both topics. The public in Taiwan still lag in their awareness of the issues of Taiwanese-American and Asian-American identity politics, but an increasing stream of returnee and US-born musicians are slowly attending to this problem. (ctrl-F "racial culture" in that article).

Now, the above don't amount to a very large problem, because Taiwan is a small island of 22 million who can't exactly risk annoying the US government too much, lest the latter stop selling them the weapons necessary for their survival. So pushing Asian-American identity politics will likely remain very low on the agenda of the Taiwanese government, regardless of whether Taiwanese-Americans can succeed in riling up the Taiwanese public to protest the US government's "mistreatment" of Asian-Americans.

The real worries are the country of 1.3 billion people across the straits, and their government. And there are several reasons to think they (both the people and the government) going to start getting interested in Asian-American identity politics, even to the extent of pressuring the US government about it:

  1. Chinese people have very few forums for expressing very abundant political anger. Complaining about alleged mistreatment of Asian-Americans in the US would be one more vent for a hell of a lot of steam. And the Chinese Communist Party obviously has an interest in encouraging people to expend their political energy protesting pretty much anything other than the CCP.
  2. The Chinese Communist Party, having lost any reasonable claim to being Communist except for the fact that they're not democratic, are encouraging the growth of racial-nationalism among their people, with a generous helping of victimology to boot. Such a "my race, always right" mentality will easily sympathize with the struggles of identity politicos in Asian-America, if only there were someone to present the story properly to the mainland audience --- "Look at these poor Chinese in America, blocked by racism from achieving their dreams."
  3. The Chinese government already shows little restraint in protesting to other governments about their treatment of Chinese descendants, even if those descendants are not Chinese citizens and thus not properly the concern of the Chinese diplomatic establishment --- for example, during the riots in Indonesia which followed the fall of Soeharto. (Though Indonesians certainly committed atrocities against Indonesian-Chinese during this time, many of the most disgusting photographs published by the Chinese media on this topic later turned out to be of East Timorese, not Jakarta Chinese).
  4. The Chinese-government has an interest in countering the influence of Taiwanese groups by whatever means possible, and following their move into the American identity politics game is certainly one way of doing that. Don't imagine that ABCs would be deterred from getting involved just because of their or their parents' reservations about the mainland government, either --- ITASA-like groups have co-opted a lot of the kids of Nationalists and Hakkas who left Taiwan in recent years due to their mistreatment at the hands of increasingly-influential Hokkiens. Besides, as long as the primary focus of an organization remains on "fighting injustice against Chinese-Americans in the US", most of the kids who grew up in the US couldn't give three damns about said organization's views on foreign policy, as long as it promotes their issues and brings together people with their same cultural background for socialization and mating.

What prompted this post? I saw a rather unimpressive Filipino-American rap video of the identity politics variety, shown on a segment on a mainland MTV clone hosted by a returnee VJ, and conveniently subtitled in Chinese, complete with historical background of the "struggle" presented in the video. Just an isolated event, or the herald of a wider trend of mainland Chinese interest in Asian-American identity politics? Let's hope it's not the latter.

Posted by ericlien at 08:03 AM