This Year Could Be a Reckoning for New York’s Chinese Community
Divides over the police split young and old.
The morning before Independence Day, the Chinese-dominated neighborhood of Flushing in New York City was boiling over. Close to 200 people, all Chinese, waving American flags and holding signs, gathered in front of the library in the Queens district and chanted, “We love the NYPD,” and “All lives matter.” Their voices could be heard a few blocks away.
Beside the crowd, a few dozen people, mainly in their 20s and including many Asians, held their own signs: “Black Lives Matter,” “Defund Racism.” They were outnumbered, but they still made plenty of noise, chanting at the larger group in their own persistent rhythm: “We don’t love the NYPD. But we love you.” Sometimes they chanted in Mandarin, with detectably nonnative accents.
A middle-aged man who wanted to be identified only by his last name, Wang, came across from the larger group to challenge some of the young people helping distribute anti-police-brutality fliers. “I’ve been in the U.S. for 30 years. I did all odd jobs. I work hard,” Wang said, waving his arms. “Black lives matter. Does my life matter too?” A few gray-haired Chinese joined him. “If you don’t like American police, move to a country with no American police,” one shouted at the young people.
“I don’t know why they are so angry,” Fiona Zhao, a 26-year-old New York-born Chinese woman, told me. In her hand, a sign in Chinese said, “Same harm, same racism, same history. United against police brutality.”
Her sign highlights the long-standing concept that people of color may have some united interests. Despite having been upheld by the pioneers of the civil rights movement for decades, the idea is now challenged by a rising movement of conservative Chinese, many of whom are relatively new immigrants to the United States from mainland China. In particular, this increasingly vocal group vehemently opposes affirmative action in college admissions, as they believe it shortchanges the interests of Asian students and favors Black and Hispanic students. They have also taken law-and-order stances against the legalization of marijuana and reforms of the bail system.
Their separation from the liberal mainstream has become even starker in the wake of the anti-police-brutality movement triggered by the death of George Floyd in May. While many Americans of all races and backgrounds have protested on the streets to demand reforms, including defunding the police, some new Chinese immigrants have joined the other side, led by white conservatives, to show their support for the police. They participated in almost all the pro-police rallies in New York this summer, whether organized by resident groups that support President Donald Trump or entities like the Brooklyn Conservative Party. Sometimes, they were the only organized minority group at white-majority rallies, for example, at the march that took place on June 22 in Middle Village, Queens.
That might seem surprising, but it makes sense given this group’s history in the United States.
Public safety has always been a top concern in the Chinese community in the United States. In 2013, during the New York mayoral election, many Chinese voters made their choice based on the candidates’ stance on the city’s stop-and-frisk policy. Many voted against those who supported rescinding the enforcement practice that mostly targeted the Black and Hispanic communities. Even John Liu, then city comptroller and a political rock star in the Chinese community, failed to secure an endorsement from at least one Chinese-language newspaper, largely because of his call for tossing out the stop-and-frisk program.
There is a real fear that the COVID-19 pandemic and reforms to the justice system could lead to rising crime. Racist attacks against Asians over the origins of the virus in China and the looting of shops in Chinatowns in several cities have reinforced their stance. “Without the police, who’s going to protect us?” said Donghui Zang, a father of two who has attended several rallies in support of the police.
Zang, who is also the head of the New York City Residents Alliance, a grassroots organization of Chinese immigrant parents, has been organizing Chinese residents in his neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens, to donate masks and pizza lunches to the local police precinct since the pandemic hit the United States in March. And he also formed a vigilante patrol that drives through the neighborhood at night periodically to “deter” troublemakers. “This is a time you don’t want to reduce the power of the police. You want to enhance it,” Zang said.
The rise of attitudes like Zang’s also reflects the complex relationship the Chinese community has with the Black community. Chinese and Black community leaders consistently backed each other during the civil rights movement. Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American activist who married the Black activist James Boggs in the 1950s, fought for equal rights for Black people for much of her life before she died in 2015 at the age of 100. And the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson stood with Asian protesters to fight for justice in the 1980s, after a young Chinese man, Vincent Chin, was killed by two white auto factory workers in Detroit. They thought Chin was Japanese and held him responsible for the threat to their jobs from Japanese automakers.
But tensions between Chinese shopkeepers and customers in Black neighborhoods have also simmered for a long time. In the 19th century, Chinese immigrants settled in the Mississippi Delta region, where many among the community opened grocery stores, profiting from the freed slaves whose access to the broader economy was still systematically restricted.
More recently, the stage has been set for more suspicion between the two communities as more Chinese immigrants seeking new markets after Chinatowns became saturated opened up in Black neighborhoods. They sometimes faced resentment from relatively poorer Black locals who felt that the shopkeepers were becoming rich off the struggling local communities.
After a spate of murders of Chinese deliverymen in historically Black New York neighborhoods, Chinese business leaders came more directly into confrontation with local communities and began demanding police support. “I understand the police may abuse their power sometimes. But that doesn’t mean we should defund the police,” said John Chan, the president of Asian American Community Empowerment, an organization created to aid families of killed deliverymen. “Without the police, who’s going to help us when we are targeted by criminals?”
Chinese support for the police hit a milestone in February 2016, when tens of thousands walked the street in 40 cities in the United States to call for justice for Peter Liang, a rookie New York Police Department cop who was convicted of manslaughter after accidentally shooting dead a Black man, Akai Gurley, in the dark stairwell of a government housing project while on patrol in November 2014. In the view of the Chinese protesters, Liang was a scapegoat—after all, a series of white police officers had avoided prosecution after their violent conduct led to the deaths of Black civilians. The protesters felt he was an easy target for prosecution because he was Chinese. That was not the view of Black Lives Matter activists, who saw Liang as a part of the police apparatus, regardless of his ethnic background.
A month after Liang killed Gurley, in late December 2014, New York police officer Wenjian Liu and his partner Rafael Ramos were shot dead in their patrol car by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, who had picked the cops randomly in revenge for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, both Black men who had died during police operations against them. Liu was treated as a hero in the Chinese community. “As immigrants ourselves, we rely on the police to help us on all sorts of things. They have sacrificed so much for our safety,” Vivian Shen, a 70-year-old immigrant from Shanghai, told me in July. Shen was a colleague of Liu’s wife, Pei Xia Chen, at the time he was killed. Shen, who has lived in New York since 1986, said that she has had scores of interactions with police. When she was lost driving back home from Long Island, a police officer helped her find her way. When her father with Alzheimer’s strayed away from home, it was the police who found him and sent him back. When 9/11 happened, her husband, who worked in the twin towers, was rescued by a police officer.
When New York City recently decided to cut $1 billion from the budget of the police department, Shen raised $1,400 from 14 of her family members and friends for the police. (The donation was accepted by the 109th Precinct Community Council, a nonprofit that builds communications between the precinct and the local community.) “I am an ordinary senior. I am not able to do much. But I want to help the police in whichever way I can,” Shen said.
Of course, the relationship between the police and the Chinese immigrant community is much more complicated than Shen’s particular experience may suggest. The memory of Yong Xin Huang, a 16-year-old shot dead in 1995 by a police officer who thought the BB gun Huang was playing with was a deadly weapon, still sends shudders through some people in the community. The police officer who was responsible for his death was not charged. Another flash point came in July, when a nearly 90-year-old Chinese woman went to the police after her shirt was set on fire by a pair of strangers. There, she was told to go back home to call 911. This outraged some people in the community, including the hip-hop artist China Mac, who organized protests demanding the case be categorized as a hate crime.
And many Chinese street vendors have been ticketed or arrested by the police for reasons beyond their comprehension. “By the end of the month, you’ve got to be very careful. That’s when the police would try to fulfil their quota of tickets, and we’d get tickets for no reason,” Shaohua Yu, a street vendor in Manhattan’s Chinatown, told me. (The NYPD has denied it has a quota for tickets.)
Yet many new Chinese immigrants tend to seek solutions within the system rather than trying to work outside it. Yu said that even when he believes he has been ticketed unfairly, he still accepts the situation without resistance. “I can always get it dismissed in court,” he said. Zang and Shen say they deal with their driving tickets in the same way.
To many Chinese immigrants, the Black Lives Matter protests and the calls to defund the police appear to be too radical. While such civil rights protests and demands are an ingrained part of the American democratic system, to people who grew up under the iron fist of the Chinese Communist Party they go well beyond challenging the system. Many still remember how the Tiananmen protests in 1989 became too much for China’s political leadership and were viciously crushed as a result. In turn, they often have a narrower conception of working within the system for change.
Such acceptance of authority—even when it is entirely wrong—poses a tough challenge to the liberals in the Chinese community who offer the message that Chinese interests are tied to those of Black people. “Many Chinese immigrants have never faced this kind of police violence in China. When they see it here, they don’t necessarily know how to react to it. Their gut reaction is not to oppose the government,” John Liu, the former comptroller who now serves as a New York state senator, told me in a phone interview in July. “When people say we support the police, they are really saying we are not against the government.”
Liu noted that not all Chinese residents who support the police are against Black Lives Matter. Many may be out at the rallies to show their appreciation for individual police officers they know, he said. Still, he wants new Chinese immigrants to learn more about the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. “Black people do not trust the system because the system failed them every single time,” Liu said. Chinese people wouldn’t have as much privilege, he argued, “or even the ability to immigrate here without the civil rights movement, without the ongoing struggles of Black people.”
Although it doesn’t seem some of the participants in the Flushing rally could be persuaded to accept this view anytime soon, Liu is hopeful. “Many of the Asians who are in the BLM movement are young, so are the vast majority of the protesters. This is a generational shift in this country,” Liu said. “Over time, it’s their kids who are going to educate them.”