‘If US sees China as enemy…’: Xi-Trump summit proves a testing time for Chinese-Americans

Some members of the Chinese community in the US are fearful Donald Trump could sour ties with China if he treats the nation as an enemy, writes Robert Delaney

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2017, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2017, 11:29pm

Few Chinese-Americans tuning in for news of this week’s summit meeting between presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump have ever had to make a choice over where their national loyalties lie. Many were not even born in the years when each side branded the other enemy number one and racial epithets were acceptable even in polite society.

China and the US have enjoyed nearly 40 years of relatively stable diplomatic relations. Tensions have flared, to be sure. The pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the deployment of an American aircraft carrier in the Taiwan Strait in 1996 and the US bombing of China’s Belgrade Embassy in 1999 were some of the biggest tests, but these tensions proved manageable through patient diplomacy.

Not even jingoistic and protectionist rhetoric from China’s Global Times newspaper or US President Donald Trump’s National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro have managed to spark any kind of broad-based rancour in the US or China.

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This long stretch of relative stability has made the use of a hyphen to describe the community as Chinese-American far less common, or as culturally loaded as say Muslim-Americans.

But US President Donald Trump could test the depths of this steady and level-headed attitude among the Chinese-American community when he meets his Chinese counterpart.

Trump has pulled back from the hardline language he used during and immediately after the US presidential campaign late last year. Trump limited his comments last week about the US trade deficit with China, saying only that the imbalance made his upcoming meeting with Xi a “very difficult one”.

But the US president has been known to ratchet up the rhetoric on a whim and even slight his country’s closest allies, including Britain and Germany.

“If America sees China as an enemy, that’s going to bring about a change of attitude” for many of the most politically engaged members of the Chinese-American community, said Chris Kwok, national representative of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York.

Kwok emphasised that the Chinese-American community has a wide range of attitudes regarding Sino-US relations and that there is a particular difference between members of the community who immigrated from China before and after 1965.

Many “post-1965” Chinese-Americans are less inclined to be bothered by Trump’s behaviour.

The Chinese American Citizens Alliance and the Committee of 100 Extraordinary Chinese Americans work to bridge cultural gaps between these two generations of immigrants.

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Kwok, whose organization has a lineage dating back to the late 19th century when California’s Supreme Court stated that the Chinese were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point”, says many Chinese were taken off-guard by the weight of Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

Kwok said, however, that most Chinese-Americans were “hopeful there will be a good working relationship, but it’s a wait and see given what happened with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel. That was awkward even between two strong allies.”

It’s not just Trump’s rhetoric that has the Chinese-American community concerned. Specific policy action may be alienating some Chinese-Americans even more.

“We want to be able to identify areas of collaboration with China,” said Earl Carr, a managing director at Momentum Advisors and an adjunct professor on US-China relations at New York University.

“With [former president Barack] Obama that was climate change. Now with these executive orders on climate change, Trump has thrown that common interest out of the door,” said Carr, whose mother is of Chinese descent.

Trump signed an executive order last week that rolls back his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan, a rule that discouraged utilities from using coal to generate electricity.

Trump’s actions, however, have done little to bother one “post-1965” Chinese-American relaxing at a park in New York.

“I think the relationship between the US and China is one through which the people of both sides have benefited,” said a 40-year-old mainland Chinese woman, who sat among many others enjoying a sunny morning in Lower Manhattan’s Columbus Park.

Asked what she thought of the forthcoming summit between Trump and Xi, she said: “I just hope that the people of both sides continue to get along.”

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Getting along has been something Chinese and Americans have done since long before the US re-established formal diplomatic relations with China in 1979.

As author and former Washington Post correspondent John Pomfret points out in his recently published book The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, Sino-US ties were forged in the earliest days of American history when merchants from New England, including John Jacob Astor, enriched themselves and the merchant princes with whom they traded.

Americans brought Mexican silver coins, otter pelts from North America’s Pacific coast and ginseng from Appalachia to China and sold Chinese porcelain and tea to eager consumers in their fledgling republic. Many US missionaries established universities and hospitals in China. Chinese labourers played a pivotal role in building the economy of the early American West and Chinese students attended American universities.

Throughout the 19th century, the Chinese in America and Americans in China also endured spasms of violence and bloodshed. However, a mutually respectful relationship between the governments and citizens of the two countries remained intact, at least partly because of US government intervention against the designs of competing powers. The UK, France, Russia and Japan, in particular, succeeded in carving out exclusive trading zones in China in the 19th century

While the economic and trade relationship has waxed and waned over the past two centuries, the two have become the world’s largest economies. The balance of trade has swung back and forth between China’s and the US’s favour over that time, but China’s trade surplus with the US, intact for decades, reflects the extent to which China has benefitted more in recent history.

Even among Chinese-Americans who have spent more of their lives in China, not all are ready to condemn Trump.

“No one should be upset by Trump’s attitude,” said 64-year-old Chong Yong, who immigrated to the US from Guangdong province 15 years ago.

“China has grown very strong in the past few decades, while the US has lost its manufacturing edge,” Chong said, sitting near a statue of China’s first president Sun Yat-sen, which stands in the centre of New York’s Columbus Park. “I don’t blame Trump. Sometimes a strong leader needs to break with the policies of the past.”