Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years

by Charlotte Brooks

Sen. Hiram Leong FongIn October 1950, the newly established People’s Republic of China entered the Korean War on the North Korean side against the United States and other United Nations troops. Many Chinese American citizens expressed deep concern at this turn of events; less than a decade earlier, the US government had disregarded Asian American citizens’ rights when it imprisoned every Japanese American on the West Coast in the months after Pearl Harbor. Another mass incarceration did not occur in 1950, but Chinese Americans’ fears were hardly baseless. Other American citizens continually associated Chinese Americans because of their ancestry with the PRC, one of America’s Cold War enemies—but also with one of the United States’ closest Cold War allies, the Republic of China on Taiwan. Further complicating matters, people of Chinese ancestry also struggled with pervasive racial discrimination that limited where they could live and work. Chinese Americans who sought empowerment through political activism at the height of the Cold War thus contended with a dizzying array of issues and constraints.

Still, second generation Chinese Americans in particular began testing the political waters in the 1950s and 1960s. They sought to build the influence of a community that had struggled with political demonization and disempowerment for almost a century. Chinese began coming to the US in significant numbers in the 1850s and 1860s to look for gold and to help build the transcontinental railroad. In 1882, however, a powerful white supremacist movement in the Western states convinced Congress to end legal immigration from China almost completely. Until 1943, the United States barred all Chinese except tourists, students, and merchants. Chinese aliens could not become naturalized citizens during this period, although the Supreme Court eventually clarified that Chinese Americans born on US soil were in fact citizens. Exclusion and the prohibition on naturalization largely prevented Chinese American communities from mobilizing politically the way so many other immigrant groups did during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the structures set up to enforce it shaped the Chinese American community long after the law’s repeal. Unlawful Chinese immigration had continued throughout the entire period of exclusion, with many working-age men posing as the sons either of Chinese American citizens or alien merchants. Few women followed, in large part because immigration laws and court decisions made their entry very difficult. Male Chinese American citizens coped by marrying in China, but US statutes generally prevented them from bringing their Chinese-born wives into the United States. Chinese American war veterans successfully lobbied for legislation to allow them and, later, all Chinese American citizens, to bring in spouses and fiancées as non-quota immigrants. Arguably, this changed Chinese American life even more than the repeal of exclusion. Thousands of Chinese wives arrived in the US between 1946 and 1949, helping transform misnamed “bachelor communities” into family communities.

These demographic and legal changes altered Chinese American politics as well. Before World War II, few Chinese Americans participated in American elections or political party activities. Between 1949 and 1950, the Chinese Communist Party won China’s civil war, established the PRC, and entered the Korean War. Meanwhile, the Second Red Scare distorted American domestic politics. Fearful of being associated with Communist China, Chinese Americans scrambled to prove their loyalty to the US by denouncing communism and holding anti-communist rallies and parades. Conservative Chinese American leaders close to the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, which retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war, also helped US officials locate, harass, and sometimes deport community leftists. The main priority of the Taiwan government in the 1950s and 1960s was to win military and economic aid from the US government and to prevent American recognition or UN membership for the People’s Republic of China. In these campaigns, the Nationalist regime expected Chinese Americans’ support and red-baited those who opposed the KMT’s demands.

Yet many if not most Chinese Americans distrusted both the Nationalists and the Communists. They bitterly recalled the corruption and incompetence of the KMT regime, which ruled China between 1928 and 1949, but they also feared the Communists’ land reform and class policies, which targeted Chinese with families in the Americas and Southeast Asia. Facing public scrutiny and government surveillance, a growing number of Chinese American centrists and liberals sought during the 1950s and 1960s to organize for political influence in the US and independence from the Taiwan regime’s demands.

Unfortunately, exclusion and its legacy undermined Chinese Americans’ potential for political relevance in much of the US. Unlawful Chinese immigrants comprised a far larger percentage of the Chinese American populations of the East Coast and Midwest than they did on the West Coast and in Hawaii. The insecure status of unlawful immigrants limited the political influence of Chinese Americans outside of the Pacific states; it also gave Taiwan government officials and sympathizers considerable power to suppress criticism and control political activity in eastern and midwestern communities. In older industrial cities, the remnants of local political machines showed little interest in a largely disfranchised ethnic group.

Chinese Americans were far more secure in their citizen status on the West Coast and in Hawaii. There, Chinese American community activists increasingly ignored China politics and forged ties to non-Chinese liberal and centrist politicians. Postwar political competition between Democrats and Republicans helped make this possible, for it prompted leaders in both parties to seek Chinese American support. Liberals and moderates of Chinese ancestry increasingly participated in groups like the California Republican Assembly and the California Democratic Council, ran for county party committees, and joined local political networks. The results of this divergence became clear in 1956. That year, the Department of Justice launched a nationwide probe into alleged Chinese immigration fraud. Authorities baselessly claimed that PRC agents might be entering the US, and they used the specter of communism to justify investigation tactics that violated Chinese American rights. Immigration agents randomly stopped Chinese Americans on the streets of Chinatowns and demanded to see their papers; in San Francisco, the grand jury issued a blanket subpoena demanding all the records of more than twenty Chinese American organizations. Across the West Coast, Democratic politicians with close ties to Chinese American communities condemned the probe as discriminatory and aided the battle against it. But in the rest of the country, elected officials largely ignored the questionable investigation and its racial motives.

By the late 1950s and 1960s, people of Chinese ancestry on the Pacific coast and in Hawaii had made considerable political gains, especially for a once marginalized and despised group. By themselves and in multiracial coalitions, they fought for fair housing laws, equal employment legislation, and other civil rights measures across the West. In California, Chinese American backers of candidates like Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Attorney General Stanley Mosk, and Congressman Phil Burton received patronage and acclaim for their activism, while Vice President Richard Nixon, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan vied for Chinese American support. Voters sent March Fong to the California Assembly and made William Soohoo mayor of Oxnard, and the new Chinese American Democratic Club of San Francisco forged multiracial support networks with rising stars like Assemblyman Willie Brown Jr. Hawaiian statehood meant that popular local politician Hiram Fong became the first Chinese American US senator, while a multiracial coalition in Seattle elected Wing Luke to the city council. Second generation men and women elsewhere in the country sought to duplicate the political success of their western and Hawaiian peers, but Chinese Americans on the East Coast and in the Midwest often lacked the networks and willing partners they had in the Pacific states.

Several key developments in the 1960s and early 1970s transformed Chinese America and its politics once again. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy allowed an influx of refugees from Hong Kong to enter the United States. More people of Chinese ancestry arrived after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated the national origins quotas (before then, China had only 105 immigration slots per year). Just a few years later, activists in the new Asian American movement began to challenge Chinatown conservatives, and some even expressed their support for Chairman Mao Zedong of the PRC. So, in a sense, did President Richard M. Nixon, whose decision to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1972 set in motion the process that led to official US recognition of the communist government in 1979. The Taiwan regime continued to wield influence in Chinese American communities, but, without the support of US officials, the KMT’s power waned tremendously.

The legacy of the Cold War continues to shape Chinese American political influence even today. The demographics of contemporary Chinese America are very different than they were at mid-century, with New York now home to the largest Chinese American population in the United States. Yet Chinese American political power remains strongest on the West Coast, where activists began participating in mainstream politics in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of the networks, alliances, and organizations they created in those years endure even now, providing much of the foundation for their growing political influence.

Charlotte Brooks is the chair of the Program in Asian and Asian American Studies at Baruch College. She is the author of Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

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