Chinese-Americans account for 1.5-2% of the population in the United States, while Asian-Americans taken altogether account for 6%. In comparison, Jews account for only about 2%, but the positions that the two ethnic groups occupy in the eyes of American politicians are not comparable.
Rudolph Giuliani, the New York mayor, once rushed to the hospital to visit a Jewish child who had been hit by a car on his way home from school. But when the elderly sister and brother-in-law of Henry Chang-Yu Lee, one of the world’s most prominent forensic scientists, a man who has helped solve many criminal cases, were beaten up in their apartment by police who had broken in by mistake, the New York City Police just made a phone call to apologize.
Logically, the two major parties should be fighting for Asian-Americans, since ideologically they identify with the family values and encouragement of personal effort emphasized by Republicans, while at the same time supporting the Democrats' policy that the government should take care of vulnerable groups. The Asian-American electorate swings both ways.
However, rarely does any candidate in the Presidential election visit an Asian community or try to win them over. Given the increasing numbers of Chinese in recent years, some senators or local candidates have started to take notice of the Asian community, but this is not yet widespread.
It is true that Jews occupy leading positions in every field, and in particular in prominent, profitable, and influential sectors. Nevertheless, an election is after all about counting the polls. Famous and rich or not, voters are counted the same. As a matter of fact, Asian-American eligible voters’ turnout rate is not low. It is said that in California their turnout rate is even higher than that of white Americans.
Why is the political influence of the two ethnic groups so different?
Lobbying the candidates
More than 10 years ago, Dr. Shien Biau “S.B.” Woo, the Chinese-American Lieutenant Governor of Delaware, who was also a college professor, noticed this problem. He founded the 80-20 Initiative, a political action committee inspired by the Jewish and Irish secret election weapon: the swing-bloc vote.
Every time there is an election, Jewish and Irish community leaders contact the different candidates and assess who will be most favorable to their communities. They then endorse a candidate, and the rest of the community rallies around – representing around 80% of the community vote.
As a result, none of the candidates could ever ignore the community leaders, and even less their ethnic group. In contrast, on each ballot, the Asian-American community has in general always voted 50-50 % for the two main parties.
The 80-20 Initiative was launched in time for the 2000 election, but the results were not as good as expected. Invitations were issued to both Al Gore and George W. Bush’s campaigns for them to dispatch representatives to lobby Asian-American delegates at the 80-20 Initiative convention.
The Gore camp sent a low-level official, while Bush Junior sent a consultant who was not even officially part of the Bush camp. He was not able to answer most of the delegates’ questions. As a result, and as in the Chinese saying, “Selecting a general from a bunch of dwarfs,” the group announced that it would endorse Al Gore.
In 2000, at least, the Chinese media in the U.S. reported the endorsement of the 80-20 Initiative. By 2004 and 2008, the group was hardly mentioned in the Chinese newspapers.
But the 80-20 Initiative has not stopped operating. Not only does it still try to play a role in each presidential election, but also in senatorial and congressional elections.
The group announced in September that it would once again request talks with the two camps in order to decide whom to support.
If you take a closer look on the political action committee’s official website, you will find that in the past ten years, the only candidates who have taken the time to answer their questionnaires have been Democrats. None of the Republicans seem to pay attention to the Asian-American initiative.
Communities within the community
Why is it that this organization does not seem to play its role?
It is partly because Asian-Americans, especially the Chinese, lack a common religion or belief. For instance, ethnic Chinese hailing from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are naturally divided in two distinct groups. And within these two groups, they are further divided according to which towns or colleges they come from. There are a multitude of community leaders, but nobody manages to convince the others.
For instance, in the 2000 election, some community leaders attacked Dr. Woo, saying it was unfair for him to endorse Al Gore since he was himself a member of the Democratic Party.
However, this does not seem to explain the specific Asian-American problem, since the same phenomenon also exists to a certain extent in other ethnic groups. For instance, Jews come from different regions and vary widely in religious practices or cultural identity. A political leader should be someone who is able to navigate among a variety of influences and stand out convincingly from the crowd.
In my opinion, a significant factor is that in our culture the hierarchical concept that “people have higher and lower rankings and grades, as well as a pecking order” is over-emphasized. Politicians, for example, often consider themselves big shots. In turn, our community leaders tend to consider themselves - consciously or unconsciously - as officials or party cadres. They seem to prefer to participate in backroom trading and high-level operations, rather than humbly and directly serving the public to establish mass support.
Take the 80-20 Initiative as an example. Its founding motivation is a good one and its purpose has grasped the core elements of electoral politics. Dr. Woo’s spirit in trying to break the glass ceiling is admirable.
Nevertheless, the group has bragged about its “behind the scenes operations” rather than building a real strength by playing a role in politics.
Moreover, the group’s members only act as political leaders during elections. The rest of the time, the Asian community does not see or hear about them. When events occur within the community, they rarely speak out. And when they do take a stand, it is mostly to talk about issues of nationwide influence. They obviously do not know that grass roots are the most important rule of politics. They should spend some time studying Mao Zedong’s strategy of “encircling the cities from rural areas.”
In today’s world, where people are much better informed and better educated, how can a politician expect them to be there for him, if he himself is not there for them? Not to mention that democracy functions by counting ballots.
The 80-20 Initiative claims to have 700,000 subscribers to its newsletters. Even so, that accounts for only 7-8% population of the Asian-American community.
If the 80-20 Initiative manages at least to make some noise, the Committee of 100 (C-100), a Chinese-American organization whose mission is to address issues in Chinese-American relations, is even more about castles in the air.
Its name alone tells you that itis a small closed group of people with a lot of self-esteem. While it is true that most of the group’s members excel in their respective professional fields, it is at most an organization that holds a few seminars behind closed doors, engaged in empty talk about topics such as cross-strait relations and Chinese-American relations. Its influence is even more negligible.