Election 2020

How Chinese Americans Could Help Democrats Flip Texas

Many in the community worry that Trump’s anti-China rhetoric is fueling hate crimes.

A woman presents a Chinese-language sample ballot for the 2020 presidential election at a polling station near the Chinatown area of Houston, Texas, on Oct. 14.
A woman presents a Chinese-language sample ballot for the 2020 presidential election at a polling station near the Chinatown area of Houston, Texas, on Oct. 14. Zeng Jingning/China News Service via Getty Images

Will Chinese American voters help turn Texas blue for the first time in a generation? Republican U.S. presidential candidates have carried the state ever since Ronald Reagan’s first bid for the White House in 1980, but polls show that the Democratic Party candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, is in a dead heat with President Donald Trump just two weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 vote.

Chinese Americans in Texas and elsewhere have long sympathized with the Republican Party’s tough stance against the government in Beijing. But many in the community are increasingly worried about Trump’s anti-China rhetoric—specifically his repeated references to the “China virus” that causes COVID-19—and the way it’s driving racial violence.

According to one anti-discrimination group, Asian Americans in Texas have reported in recent months being spat on, yelled at, and in one instance, nearly run over. In March, a man stabbed an adult and two children in a grocery store in Midland, Texas, because “he thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus,” according to an FBI incident report.

The incident has become symbolic of the discrimination faced by the Asian American community.

“I know people who have bought guns, which is shocking because Asian-Americans do not have a history of purchasing guns,” said Benjamin Chou, the director of innovation for the Harris County Clerk’s Office and a prominent Chinese American leader in the state.

He said many Chinese Americans are socially conservative, but now see the anti-China backlash as a “tangible threat.”

Gene Wu, a member of the Texas House of Representatives, said the community recognizes the threat emanating from the kind of white nationalist sentiment Trump whips up.

“The Chinese American community isn’t stupid,” said Wu. “They may not be in the streets protesting about it, but they know what white supremacy is. They get that our community is not wanted by these people.”

Some 250,000 Chinese Americans live in Texas, many of them clustered around the Houston area. About 73 percent of Chinese Americans nationwide favored Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, but the group does not have a strong affinity for either party, according to community leaders—giving the population group in Texas more leverage than the number might suggest in a state of some 29 million residents.

“Because we have such large numbers of people that are still independent, there’s an open opportunity for either party to really reach out and share their message,” said Debbie Chen, the executive director of Houston’s OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates chapter.

The community is also characterized by generational divisions. While many second-generation and younger Chinese Americans have shown sympathy for Black Lives Matter, some older immigrants who fled former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s communist rule eyed the social-justice marches this year with suspicion.

“The statues being knocked down, the riots going around in many cities, censorship on the media, far-left agenda promoted by some members of the Democratic Party, all these remind Chinese Americans about the Cultural Revolution that happened in China,” said Lily Bao, a member of the Plano City Council, in a region with one of the state’s highest populations of Chinese Americans. “And they believe President Trump is leading the country in the right direction by rejecting this ideology.”

Texas is also home to a large number of nondenominational Chinese churches whose participants tend to support positions advocated by the Republican Party—including support for Israel’s hard-line government and disdain for the Chinese regime.

Still, some 89 percent of Chinese Americans said in a recent poll that the issue of racism and racial discrimination was important to them. And Asian Americans are the fastest-growing voting bloc in the United States.

All that notwithstanding, community leaders said the Democratic Party was not doing much to connect with Chinese Americans.

More than 60 percent of Chinese Americans nationwide say they have not been reached out to by either party. In Texas, where Democrats have broken records for TV ad spending this year, the party has aired just one major Mandarin-language spot, in a competitive Houston congressional race, Chou said.

“The Democratic Party doesn’t talk to Chinese people,” he said. “If they did, they would show up to Chinatown. They would put paid ads into Chinese-language TV and newspapers.”

Darcy Palder is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @DPalder

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