Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

Slowly but surely, Chinese Americans are getting political

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-05-25 10:37

The Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans founded in 1990 by I.M. Pei and Yo Yo Ma, has two goals: to advance China-US relations and ensure full inclusion of Chinese Americans into American society.

At their annual gala in Washington last week, Ambassador Cui Tiankai commended the group for making good use of its "unique edge as a cross-border, cross-culture and cross-ethnic group organization to create more than 100 ways to connect China and the US".

They also presented their NextGen Leadership Award to a group of up-and-coming Chinese Americans who have been pursuing the goal of promoting positive relations with China and working toward equal justice for Chinese Americans in American society.

Among the recipients was Yale-educated ophthalmologist/novelist Andrew Lam, who has been advocating Asian-American "civic-engagement" issues for years, including a thoughtful segment on affirmative action in college admissions that aired on the PBS News Hour on March 31.

Lam recently joined the board of 80-20, an organization that he says "is trying to promote political maturity among Asian Americans, not just Chinese Americans".

Asian Americans, he said in a phone interview, are the fastest-growing minority group.

"There are more than 17 million Asian Americans," he said. "That's like 5.6 percent of the American population. There is so much potential to have civic engagement, but there's a relatively low degree of engagement like voting, running for office and representation in our government, whether appointed or elected positions."

80-20 comes from the realization that no politician will pay attention to a group that cannot generate votes.

"So if all Asian Americans are 50 percent one side and 50 percent the other side, then there's no reason for a politician or the government to pay attention to what you actually advocate," Lam explained. "So if could get Asian Americans to vote in a swing block vote - that's non-partisan; it could be Democrat or Republican - then that would mean something."

Lam said their group researches the candidates of any race - federal, state or even local - sending each a survey (in the last two presidential races Obama and Clinton actually returned the surveys 80-20 sent to them). Delegates then meet to decide who to endorse.

"We have built the largest Asian-American database, with 150,000 emails going out every week, so that's basically how it works," he said. "We help identify which candidate in a race is better for Asian Americans, supports Asian-American issues, and then we try to encourage people to vote for that person."

So 80-20 versus 50-50? "Yes, basically, we want 80 percent of Asian Americans to vote for the candidate who best represents Asian-American interests," Lam said.

80-20 is divided into two parts: an educational foundation that tries to get people out to vote and keeps key issues - like college admissions quotas or bamboo ceilings in corporate America - in front of them. Being a 501c3 charitable organization, it cannot endorse political candidates or tell people how to vote.

The other half is the political action committee, which does the research and endorsing.

80-20 was founded in 1996 - "not to say this was all because of them", Lam said - but in 1992, Asian Americans voted for the first Bush by 24 points. In the years since, the margin has narrowed and moved in favor of Democrats.

Every year, more Asian Americans vote for the candidate 80-20 endorses, Lam said.

"We've seen the impact in recent presidential elections where the candidate that 80-20 endorsed had increasing advantage over their opponent," Lam said. "When they endorsed Obama in 2012 over Mitt Romney, the Asians' vote was 47 points for Obama over Romney. It was huge. Obama got 73 percent versus Romney's 26 percent."

"They did endorse Hillary Clinton," Lam added.

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