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The wound that never healed

Chinese immigrants soul-searching in the post-Trump era

President of the Asian GOP in Florida, Cliff Li switched his vote to Joe Biden just days before the Nov. 3 election. Li sees a parallel between Trump and Chairman Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China. (Photo courtesy of Cliff Li)

NEW YORK -- Cliff Li's father was devastated when he heard that President Donald Trump had lost the election.

Unable to eat or smile for days following the news, the 86-year-old even stopped talking to his son after Li -- president of the Asian GOP in Florida -- not only switched to Joe Biden right before the election but asked other Chinese conservatives to do the same.

"He hates me," Li told Nikkei Asia over the phone. "He looks at me like I'm the enemy," he added, his voice rising an octave. "He doesn't understand English, but nobody in the world has related to my father like Trump did... He looks at Trump like a family member, which is ridiculous."

Li has worked with the Republican Party for years, organizing Asian American conservatives across the country. But now he sees a parallel between Trump and Chairman Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China. That, as Li puts it, turns him off "Trump's Republican Party."

Many Chinese dissidents and first-generation Chinese Americans are drawn to Trump, despite his authoritarian streak. Trump was impeached, for the second time, by the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday for inciting a violent insurrection against the Capitol.

Other hard-core Trump fans include some Chinese dissidents who sought political asylum in the U.S. following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and intellectuals who were beaten down during China's Cultural Revolution. Many Chinese Trump loyalists are still calling the November election results fake.

All of which has puzzled many China watchers, least of all large sections of the Chinese American community itself. What stronghold does Trumpism have on these loyal Chinese fans that "China virus" or "Kung-flu" cannot even make a dent on their support?

Some first-generation Chinese Americans choose Trump out of convenience, whether it's taxations or the move against affirmative action. But for many Chinese dissidents and critics, like Li's father, the cultlike loyalty is rather psychological, deeply rooted in their own traumatized memory from a troubled time in China's history.

In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to take over the Chinese government that he viewed as evolving in the wrong direction. Mao saw the party leadership at the time emphasizing expertise rather than ideological purity, and with the help of a group of radicals -- including Mao's wife Jiang Qing and defense minister Lin Biao -- he launched a ruthless purge of the Communist Party leadership that lasted until his death in 1976.

Asian GOP Executive Director Cliff Li, far right, at Donald Trump’s private club, Mar-a-Lago, in Florida. Trump's sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau, is second from the right. (Photo courtesy of Cliff Li)

The turbulent period resulted in countless intellectuals being removed from their positions, imprisoned or sent to the rural areas to work in farms and factories with poor living conditions. Many, including one of China's most significant novelists Lao She, committed suicide. Up to 1.5 million people lost their lives over the course of the decade.

Li's father was no exception. A teaching professor at the Anhui Medical University in Hefei, and a respected doctor within his community, Li suddenly found himself labeled as "impure." He was beaten down and sent to a farm in Huai Nan, a rural area in Anhui Province. Humiliated by the Red Guards, he was forced to sleep with the cows in a barn.

Growing up, Cliff Li's nose turned black everyday when he arrived home, from breathing in the coal dust. The area was so poor that Li's family had to beg for food every winter.

"Going from the university with dignity and respect to [being] thrown into the barn with the cows, suddenly you create a monster psychologically," said Li of his father, whose hatred for the Chinese Communist Party has not waned, even though the party of today is unrecognizable to the one dominated by the Gang of Four who led the Cultural Revolution.

His father's wound, like those of many who endured the government's mistakes, has never properly healed. "I don't blame my father at all for being so radical," said Li.

Yet it is these painful memories that have trapped many elderly Chinese immigrants in the past and left them longing for "strong man" leaders capable of punishing the perpetrators of their suffering. Inadvertently, China's Gang of Four is indirectly responsible for so many of today's passionate Chinese "Trumpers."

"The predators were literally making their prey the same kind of people as they were, it totally changed their mindset," said Li. "If you give them power, they will treat their adversary just like how the adversary treated them. Being traumatized actually [gives] them a totalitarian kind of thinking more than democratic thinking... They're very much relating to Trump because he's kind of a predator."

Li, in his 50s, came to the U.S. in the 1990s as a college student, later becoming a computer engineer and eventually moving his parents to Florida. His father loves U.S.-style democracy so much that he would "pick up a gun to defend" it, Li said. Still, he cannot identify with American liberals, or even moderate Republicans.

"Obama, Clinton, Bush, my father doesn't relate to those three at all, but he relates to Trump," said Li, who is himself puzzled by his father's political allegiances. "He's a true defender of democracy, but deep down, he's a totalitarian kind of person, [and] this twist is a phenomenon [among his peers]."

Taught to worship only one leader, one set of beliefs and one set of values, many children of the Cultural Revolution have been slow to shrug off such a mentality.

"They're bringing the mark of the Cultural Revolution to the U.S.," Wu Yiping, 58, a community leader and a former Trump supporter from Long Island who voted for a third-party candidate this year, told Nikkei Asia in his native Mandarin. "On the surface, they're supporting the extreme right values, but in fact they only worship Trump because they see him as a savior."

Looking ahead to the 2024 presidential race, Wu believes that China hawks and Trump imitators will only get so far with Chinese voters simply because they are not Trump. That cult of personality, Wu argues, is a result of their upbringing.

Not as oppressed during the Cultural Revolution as some of their elders, and now in their 40s and 50s, this generation became inured to strongman leadership as China itself embarked on the search for direction and health from that starkly traumatic period.

"When we were growing up, we were taught that Mao is right about everything and we just needed to do everything he says," said Wu. "Now a lot of people from my generation are rather against communism, but they still miss the time when they just followed one leader and were taken care of. Coming to America, they understand the benefits of having freedom, [such as] to express freely, but they don't really understand the foundation of this freedom."

Many Chinese dissidents and first-generation Chinese Americans were drawn to Donald Trump, despite his authoritarian streak, puzzling many China watchers, least of all large sections of the Chinese American community itself.    © Reuters

Harvey Dong, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that many first-generation Chinese Americans lack a proper understanding of the U.S. civil rights movement and how hard minority communities had to fight for many of the rights they enjoy today.

The move toward change often comes in the second generation, and this year, "some first generation that began to experience what it's like to be a person of color in America," said Dong.

The pandemic, as well as Trump's anti-China rhetoric, have put many Asian Americans at risk of hate crimes this year, prompting many Chinese American conservatives to switch to Biden. The community was especially enraged in December after Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted that "China has a 5,000-year history of cheating and stealing. Some things will never change."

What hurt so many Chinese American conservatives was that they once thought their ideals were aligned with Republicans like Blackburn, but the 2020 election led many to the uncomfortable conclusion that they had not been truly accepted by their conservative counterparts after all.

"Coming from mainland China, we bear the mark of communism, we will never be trusted in the American political world," said Wu. "Hopefully it will fade with time, but I think for now Chinese Americans shouldn't blindly pick a side."

Instead, Wu said first-generation Chinese immigrants need to better understand their own American children who are often separated by a language and cultural barrier. For children born and raised in the U.S., many are unfamiliar with the details of China's recent past and often detest their parents' illiberal views.

“Our children are very in tune with American history and culture, but we parents try to educate them in a Chinese way, demanding them to think in the same way as we do, this is a conflict on our part,” said Wu. “We’re using our own interpretation of America to limit our children, it’s wrong.”

Wu said that Chinese American parents need to participate more in the next generations’ social life and events, and try to understand their values and needs. Vice versa, parents need to teach the children to be proud of their Chinese heritage and help the children comprehend what constructed their worldview. Parents should also encourage the next generations to get more involved in local politics and be more vocal. 

"Our children want us to become a part of the American society [like them], so we need to branch out of our own community and do more," said Wu.

During the pandemic, Wu said his community donated masks to other minority communities in Brooklyn and they plan to make more donations as the U.S. struggles with COVID-19. It is a step forward to work more closely with other groups, he said.

Cliff Li, executive director of Asian.GOP, posing with Republican Congressman Brian Mast, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and former Republican Congressman Mark Foley. (Photo courtesy of Cliff Li)

Wu is not the only one trying to change the first-generation's views of America. Steven Chen, 57, a first-generation Chinese American community leader and a liberal, has been working with different Asian American organizations for years. Chen and a few others operate a popular WeChat public account called "Chinese American" that provides news and American public perspectives in Chinese.

"The good thing is that the second generation [is] actually very close with our side to educate [the first generation]," said Chen. "[For example], we write a lot about [why] we should support the Black Lives Matter movement and we [translated] and published the open letter written by Yale student Eileen Huang to the Chinese American community [addressing racist views], which made a huge wave."

Chen and his fellow community leaders also serve as the "alliance" between the Chinese American community and other minority communities to "help each other if needed," he said.

Wu also emphasized that it is important to spark the next generations' interests in American politics and to educate them to give back to the communities whenever they can.

"Our understanding of education needs to change, it's not simply getting into a good school," said Wu, reflecting on the priority that many Chinese families place on education. "We parents have a big problem, we focus too much on family success, that's why we don't encourage our kids to go into public services, become judges, make donations or join nonprofit organizations. Our children are the future."

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