¡ªA Diverse People Build Bridges That Span the Pacific

Xiao-huang Yin

¡¾Abstract¡¿Chinese Americans have become prominent players in the U.S.-China relation. They serve as a crucial bridge that spans the ocean. Among the reasons are advances in information technology, increasingly predominant Chinese immigration, the globalization of the U.S. economy, and the emergence of trans-Pacific Chinese business networks. Although Chinese Americans are not united in their attitudes towards to Beijing, this diversity of opinions will in the long run better serve their interests and promote a healthy and stable relationship between the two countries¡¡¡¡After the Chinese government suppressed a student-led democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the Bush administration imposed economic sanctions on China, straining U.S.-China relations. Three months later, T.D. Lee, an American Nobel laureate in physics and a frequent guest of China's leaders, flew to Beijing to meet with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Upon his return to the U.S., Lee traveled to Washington to brief then-President George H.W. Bush on what Deng had told him: Despite the tension between the two countries, China wanted to maintain close ties with the United States. Lee thus had served as a crucial bridge between Washington and Beijing at a time of crisis.

Soon after his trip, Lee, together with other prominent Chinese Americans, formed the Committee of 100. The group's founding members included David Henry Hwang, Bette Bao Lord, Yo-Yo Ma, I.M. Pei, Chang-lin Tien, S.B. Woo and Shirley Young. Their aim was to build more bridges between the United States and China. To that end, they have acted as intermediaries and consultants for both the U.S. and Chinese governments, promoting greater dialogue across the Pacific.

The work of the Committee of 100 highlights the increasing role that Chinese Americans are playing in the evolution and development of U.S.-China relations. Washington Gov. Gary Locke's highly publicized trip to China in October 1997 is another example. Locke, a U.S.-born Chinese, made his trip, which included a visit to his grandparents¡¯ village in Canton, less than a year after his election as governor. His goal was to strengthen the link between the two countries.

Chinese American scholars and activists¡ªamong them Pei Minxin, a senior associate of the Carnegie Foundation, and George Koo, a community activist from Northern California¡ªhave participated extensively in debates on China's human rights policies, trade disputes with the U.S., Washington's role in Taiwan and other issues affecting U.S.-China relations.

Eric Liu, a second-generation Chinese American and former foreign-affairs speech writer for Bill Clinton, sums up Chinese Americans' growing interest and involvement in Sino-American relations. "One way or another," he said in an interview, ¡°I will stay involved with politics and involved with China and Asia. Those two areas seem really basic to me.¡±

Chinese Americans have become prominent players in the U.S.-China game for more than reasons of ethnic solidarity. Advances in information technology have certainly brought events in China and the rest of Asia into Chinese American living rooms and stimulated interest in Sino-American relations. The daily activities of Beijing's leaders, Taiwan's parliamentary debates and the gyrations of the Hong Kong stock market are common fare for discussion in America's Chinatowns.

More important is that the Chinese American community has become a predominantly immigrant one since the 1960s, and, as such, is sometimes vulnerable to the ups and downs of U.S.-China relations. Although Chinese have settled in America in significant numbers since the 1850s, nearly 70% of the 2.8 million Chinese living in the United States today were born overseas. The increasing prominence of international affairs in American domestic politics, in general, and volatile U.S.-China relations, in particular, has compelled Chinese Americans to get involved in the two countries' bilateral relationship, sometimes out of self-defense.

For example, when a U.S. Navy spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter and was forced to land on a Chinese island in April 2001, some callers to radio talk shows demanded that Chinese Americans be sent to internment camps. As a result, many Chinese American activists who used to focus on domestic issues now realize that they can no longer remain on the sidelines of U.S.-China relations. They need to get their perspective out.

The globalization of the U.S. economy and the emergence of trans-Pacific Chinese business networks have also heightened Chinese Americans' interest in U.S.-China relations. Like their non-Chinese counterparts, Chinese American entrepreneurs are eager to tap the huge Chinese market. They hope that they can take advantage of their Chinese heritage to reap profits from their ancestral homeland as China evolves into a global manufacturing power. This is in part why nearly 80% of direct foreign investment in China comes from Chinese overseas.

The huge increase in trade and business across the Pacific, coupled with the rapid expansion of U.S. companies into Asia, has further promoted networking between Chinese Americans and their ¡°old home.¡± For example, since the 1970s, the amount of Chinese capital flowing into the U.S. has varied from several billion US dollars to more than ten billion US dollars annually. In just one week in July 1995, several billion dollars of capital flowed from Taiwan into Southern California because of tension in the Taiwan Strait. In addition, since the 1990s, a growing number of Chinese Americans have returned to China to start businesses or have been hired by U.S. companies to manage offices there.

Although Chinese Americans are getting more involved in U.S.-China relations, they are anything but united in their attitudes toward Beijing. This is especially true in the case of recent immigrants from China. Those who actively participated in China's dissident movement want to bring down the Beijing regime quickly and think a containment policy would accomplish that goal.

Chinese American entrepreneurs and those who work in China-related professions, on the other hand, support engagement, believing that a positive and healthy Sino-American relationship is the best way to avoid confrontation. Having experienced hardships and difficulties in China, they also know the intricacies involved in China's current reform campaign and hold the view that only after China achieves a relatively high level of economic prosperity can it afford the fruits and the perils of democracy.

This diversity of opinion among Chinese Americans toward China is further illustrated in conflicting attitudes toward Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit last week to the U.S. and his meeting with President Bush. While some held demonstrations against Jiang's visit, others organized gatherings to welcome him. Speaking with more than one voice may weaken Chinese Americans' influence on the development of U.S.-China relations in the short run, but because such diversity represents a balanced Chinese American view on China-related issues, in the long run it will better serve their interests and promote a healthy and stable relationship between the two countries.

Author: Professor and chair of the American Studies Program at Occidental College, author of CHINESE AMERICAN LITERATURE SINCE THE 1850S and co-editor of THE EXPANDING ROLES OF CHINESE AMERICANS IN U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS. This article was published in Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2002 (Sunday), M3 Search the archives of the Los Angeles Times for similar stories.