Should Asian Americans/Canadians care about Hong Kong? Part 2: The Asian American/Canadian answer.

Should Asian Americans/Canadians care about Hong Kong? Part 2: The Asian American/Canadian answer. July 15, 2014

This series began yesterday with this more personal post here. I also have previous posts on the Taiwan Congress occupation, Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace, and the legacy of the Tiananmen student movement.

It’s a very curious thing to ask whether Asian Americans and Asian Canadians should care about the political situation in Hong Kong. That’s because of how the term ‘Asian American’ – and its cognate, ‘Asian Canadian’ – were invented. Just to make things a bit messier for our Hong Kong case, then, I’m going to suggest that there isn’t really a natural solidarity between Asian Americans/Canadians over the Hong Kong scenario, but that on closer inspection, there might actually be even deeper bonds. You can see this as a sort of wedge post in the sense that I’m not going to talk about Hong Kong politics in this post so much as I will talk about the possibilities and pitfalls of Asian American and Asian Canadian solidarity with democratic politics in Hong Kong.

In fact, you could say that at some ironic level, the natural solidarity for Asian Americans should be with Beijing’s central government. It might surprise some of my readers that the people who came up with the term ‘Asian American’ – members of the Third World Liberation Front – saw themselves in solidarity with communist leaders like Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s. Because we live in a post-Mao era, we tend to forget that folks like Mao and Ho weren’t always perceived as totalitarian dictators spreading propaganda to enforce their iron grip on their nations. They were returning power to the people — giving even peasants political agency! — and for racialized communities, that kind of bottom-up, grassroots community sort of thing was really appealing. In case you were also wondering, the Asian Americans I’m talking about directly influenced Canadian groups like the Chinese Canadian Writers’ Workshop and the Powell Street Revue in the 1960s as well. By saying all this, by the way, I am not a ‘river crab,’ as I am not suggesting that solidarities should be made with the central government, and I am not arguing that Mao should be venerated as a hero. I’m merely pointing out a few inconvenient historical facts about assuming that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians should have straight-forward democratic solidarities with the people of Hong Kong.

Believe it or not, then, ‘Asian American’ and ‘Asian Canadian’ don’t actually refer to this jook sing mentality that is conflicted about whether one is some percentage of ‘Asian’ but by virtue of living in America, have become ‘Americanized’ or ‘Canadianized’ or ‘Westernized’ or ‘Christianized.’ These were terms of political solidarity, a resistance at being called ‘orientals’ as if we were simply rugs – objects to be stepped on. As the students who participated in the founding moments of the term ‘Asian American’ argued when they struck at San Francisco State College and the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968, they were seeking empowerment for their communities which had been segregated and marginalized by racism. They wanted ethnic studies colleges, including an Asian American studies program, not so that they could learn about their ‘identity’ – important as that was – but because they wanted to learn the concrete tools to resist racism and to bring economic resources into their communities. Many of these students became community organizers in Chinatown housing projects, in the redress effort against Japanese internment, and in developing community non-profit organizations. These networks of solidarity that cut across ethnic lines is often referred to as the ‘community,’ the people who have realized their common bonds to each other through similar experiences of being called ‘orientals’ in the past and are now taking political agency to fight for their own rights. They rejected the term coined about them by white newspapers in the 1960s – the ‘model minority’ – because it was actually an excuse to eviscerate their communities.

When we ask whether Asian Americans and Asian Canadians should care about the contemporary Hong Kong situation and be in solidarity with its democratic politics, this is the legacy that we have to first remember.

Of course, one might object that what happened in the 1960s has been displaced by the post-1965 ‘new immigration’ that has constantly replaced ‘the community’ with first-generation migrants who are supposed to be more conservative, patriarchal, and capitalist. These newer migrants, it has often been said, are more prone to be ‘model minority,’ setting up residence in suburbs, sometimes embracing of political conservatism, and tending to be very private. Yet time and time again, Asian American scholars and activists have observed that these new Asian migrants – those who wouldn’t identify with the radical politics of Asian American solidarity – still experience anti-Asian racism, whether it be in the death of Vincent Chin because he was racially scapegoated for an ethnic group that was not his own, the Koreatown riots in which Korean Americans were caught between a white-black conflict over the Rodney King police officer trial, the accusations that Asian Americans have engaged in campaign finance fraud and espionage, and the constant depiction of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners whose yellow presence is still perilous to the nation’s body politic. While there is a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s worth pointing out that the person who protested President Obama’s immigration reform speech was a Korean American who brought into the national spotlight that Asian Americans have some of the highest deportation rates in the country.

In Canada, some might gently protest that the politics of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop are but a small part of Asian Canada now, again because of the rise of suburbanization and new Asian capital. But those of us who have even lived in Richmond, arguably Canada’s most diverse city, can tell you that there is such a thing as racialization when it comes to the way that offshore capital, store signs, and the politics of apology are discussed. In fact, as the SouthChina Morning Post’s Ian Young has discussed, these conversations that Canadians should be having about race have instead been hijacked by wealthy developers to shut down conversations about economics and the housing market, which has made issues of Asian Canadian racialization even harder to talk about. As I’ll show when I finally resume my ‘big BC politics primer,’ this is why the activism around head tax apologies and the constant questions of whether governments are doing this to achieve political ends are important to probe – it’s a community effort to say that racist policies were and are never OK in the more just and welcoming Canada we now imagine together.

The point is, the Asian American and Asian Canadian communities as anti-racist solidarities are and — need to continue to be – alive and well.

The question is whether this community has an obligation to care about what’s going on in Hong Kong. At one level, some of the arguments simply fall flat. As Ien Ang points out, just because one was born ethnically Chinese does not obligate one to care about Chinese things everywhere – the blood argument is not only weak; arguments by blood have racist origins too. At another level, that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians in fact owe their political consciousness to the postcolonial efforts of folks like Mao and Ho doesn’t exactly make them natural allies of a people about whom it is said that they miss British colonizing rule and would see that as being autonomous over being ruled by Chinese sovereignty. At still another level, even the common argument that ‘Asian American’ doesn’t mean anything because of the kaleidoscope of ethnic groups represented falls apart because the whole point of the terms ‘Asian American’ and ‘Asian Canadian’ signal an anti-racist solidarity, a coming together of disparate groups to achieve a common purpose.

And yet, I am still going to make an argument for Asian American and Asian Canadian solidarity with Hong Kong’s democratic politics. I promise not to do it via any sort of jook sing/we have ‘Asian in our blood’ sort of logic. Instead, tomorrow, I’m going to make the case that what groups like Occupy Central with Love and Peace actually have to say about Chinese sovereignty has a lot to do with contemporary Asian American and Asian Canadian politics around racialization, immigration, and community agency. What’s more, I’m hoping to show that while historian Tim Cheek argues that there still remains a ‘living Maoism’ in China, there is no natural Asian American or Asian Canadian solidarity with Beijing now because the post-Mao policies from 1978 forward go against everything the Third World Liberation Front stood for.

In other words, it’s time to move away from the whole ‘culturalist’ and ‘ethnic’ solidarity framework and start talking about the real political issues. I’ll start doing that tomorrow.

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