China-US / Chinese Community Leaders

Chris Zhang: Issues of pivotal importance

By Chang Jun (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-05-09 11:47

Chris Zhang: Issues of pivotal importance

 Chris Zhang: Issues of pivotal importance

Chris Zhang said he's proud that he has been fighting for a better world for children to live in. Chang Jun / China Daily

While his wife Fu Rong was delivering their second child on Feb 23, Chris Zhang, founder of United Asian Americans for Activism (UAAFA), would periodically step out of the maternity ward to manage a bombardment of emails and phone calls he called "of pivotal importance".

Zhang and his fellow UAAFA members were making last minute arrangements for a March 2 town hall meeting on a subject that many Asian-American families regard as racial discrimination and unfairness for every student in California: Senate Constitutional Amendment No 5, better known as SCA-5.

The proposed amendment was passed by the state senate on Jan 30 by a two-thirds majority. Written by Senator Ed Hernandez, the bill would allow public education institutions such as the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) systems, as well as K-12 schools, to use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a consideration for admitting students or hiring employees.

Zhang shared many parents' concerns that the proposed amendment would profoundly shake the foundations of higher education in California and cast a shadow on the futures of thousands of Asian-American school-goers.

"Our Asian families value the importance of education, so I felt the UAAFA needed to stand up and do something," said Zhang, by profession a patent law attorney based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The town hall meeting, featuring a panel discussion among opponents and supporters, drew an audience of around 300 and created a ripple effect though the local Asian-American community.

"We've never seen a turnout like this in the 14-year history of APAPA," said Albert Wang, moderator of panel and Bay Area chairman of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association (APAPA), another organizer of the meeting.

The SCA-5 issue not only inspired Asian Americans in California to take to the streets to express their objections, but it also helped accelerate a political awakening among local Chinese Americans and got them to reconsider the importance of public and civic affairs, said Zhang.

On March 17, State Assembly Speaker John Prez returned SCA-5 to the Senate, meaning the bill "is dead at least for the year". Hailing the outcome as a temporary victory, Zhang said the Chinese community should still prepare for more arduous battles against discrimination and prejudice down the road.

Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, are traditionally portrayed as a silent and obedient minority, said Zhang, "we usually don't complain. We tend to abide by the rules and forebear our anger and complaints as foreign immigrants in the United States."

Chinese Americans easily fall victim to racial discrimination, said Zhang, citing the offensive remarks of "kill everyone in China" on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel talk show aired on Oct 16, 2013.

In the show, Kimmel was speaking with a group of children, aged 5 and 6, about how the US government should pay back the $1.3 trillion debt owed to China, "Kill everyone in China," one boy said.

"Kill everyone in China? OK, that's an interesting idea," Kimmel said. He then posed the question: "Should we allow the Chinese to live?"

It's hard to believe that ABC and Kimmel would have attempted to raise the same kind of question with any ethnic groups other than the Chinese, said Zhang.

"Would ABC air a program saying 'Should we allow the Latinos to live?' or 'Should we allow the African Americans to live'?" asked Zhang. "Of course they dare not."

However, they can, without even a second thought from even one individual on the whole production and administrative ABC team, said Zhang. "Why? They have long known it's safe to joke about Chinese people."

Since October, ABC and Kimmel have come under a firestorm of criticism from Chinese-American groups, including protests and petition drives. In San Francisco, which has the most concentrated Chinese-American population in the US, Zhang could not find an organization that focused on political campaigns or organized protests.

"Chinese in the Bay Area would join professional networks, school or university alumni associations or town fellowship organizations," said Zhang.

Chris Zhang: Issues of pivotal importance

Leveraging his law background, Zhang learned about civic and civil codes, and eventually launched UAAFA in late October.

In response to the Kimmel controversy, UAAFA orchestrated three large-scale protests in downtown San Francisco and San Jose, joining a national movement on Nov 9 when Chinese Americans in major US cities took to the street simultaneously.

"On that day, we marched around the Civil Center shouting slogans," said Zhang. "We wanted our voices to be heard that we are good and responsible citizens. We are Chinese and at the same time we are Americans."

Zhang's interest with public and civic affairs comes from his law school days at the University of Virginia. An LLM Buddy coordinator with the JB Moore International Society, Zhang volunteered to assist international students in adapting to the new environment through orientations.

When he returned to the Bay Area in 2007 and started to practice patent law in Cupertino, he joined several organizations concerned with public and civil affairs. "I wanted to learn from these pioneers and work on good causes," said Zhang.

He joined Shin Shin Education Foundation, as a counsel, to learn how the grassroots organization had integrated resources since 1997 in order to fulfill a long-cherished goal of improving the learning environment for children in some of the remote and impoverished regions of rural China.

Albert Wang from APAPA told Zhang to "be a man of integrity first before success", which became Zhang's guiding light.

"I've benefited so much from these people with big hearts," said Zhang. "They never cared about personal loss or gain."

Having relocated to the US in his high school years from China's Liaoning province, Zhang still speaks his hometown dialect and said he would "force" his two-year-old daughter and his son to learn Chinese. "They should feel proud to be Chinese and inherit our profound Chinese culture when they grow up," said Zhang.

As a father, "I'm proud that I've been fighting for a better world for my children to live in", he added.

(China Daily USA 05/09/2014 page11)

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