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Can the Chinese Diaspora Speak?

Inside the Overseas Chinese Museum of China

The Overseas Chinese Museum of China is home to around 15,000 artifacts that record the migrations of overseas Chinese. Credit: Zou Hong, “Story of Chinese voyagers in diaspora display,” China Daily, November 18, 2014.

Qiao Collective is a grassroots media collective of diaspora Chinese writers, artists, and researchers devoted to challenging imperialism.

In May 2017, Yang Shuping took the podium before a packed auditorium. Sporting a black commencement gown streaked by the University of Maryland’s gold sash, Yang stood by university dean Wallace Loh as he tried to pick out Yang’s parents in the sea of seats before them. “You must feel very proud of your daughter. We certainly are proud of her,” Loh remarked as Yang’s mother stood, holding a bouquet of red roses to audience applause.

Unbeknown to them, this simple commencement ritual would spark international controversy. In keeping with the genre of the graduation ceremony, Yang’s speech mobilized tropes of struggle, hardship, triumph, and almost maudlin optimism. But filtered through her experience as a Chinese international student, Yang’s remarks presented a highly politicized affirmation of U.S. exceptionalism and an accordant repudiation of her native China.

Yang’s coming-to-America story hinged on positioning U.S. liberalism as a welcome release from Chinese oppression. Recounting her first arrival at Dulles International Airport, Yang described her “first breath of American air,” contrasting the “sweet and fresh” air to her hometown in China, where she reported wearing a face mask whenever leaving the house for fear of getting sick. “When I took my first breath of American air,” Yang waxed poetically, “I put my mask away.”

Yang’s liberation from the ostensibly oppressive constraints of her face mask served as a metonym for her transformation from oppressed Chinese subject to liberated U.S. pupil. Recounting her childhood exposure to the U.S. concept of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Yang claimed these “strange, abstract, and foreign” words had little meaning to her—until she came to the United States. “The fresh air of free speech,” as Yang put it, was a privilege only to be found in the United States.

The speech—while lauded by peers and praised by a tearful Dean Loh as capturing “some of his deepest feelings” about the United States as an “American by choice”—nonetheless provoked backlash from Chinese netizens and media outlets who saw Yang’s embrace of U.S. exceptionalism as a “bolstering [of] negative Chinese stereotypes.” Yang was held to account not only by her ostensible compatriots but by fellow Chinese students at the University of Maryland: the Chinese Student and Scholar Association quickly released a video response titled “Proud of China UMD,” in which Chinese international students criticized Yang’s “stereotypical comments” and shared prideful stories about the culture, cuisine, and climate of their Chinese hometowns.1

Quickly, the backlash against Yang’s speech became the story itself. The Washington Post chastised “nationalist netizens” who “force[d]” Yang to make an apology; the BBC similarly derided these “angry student patriots” as the “new Red Guards.”2

In deriding the critiques of Chinese students and commenters who chastised Yang’s speech as that of hysterical nationalists, mainstream media’s backlash to the response was premised on its own policing of legitimate political discourse. The controversy exhibits the ways in which the political speech of overseas Chinese has long been circumscribed by the dictates of liberal universalism. Students such as Yang are compelled either to prostrate to an edifying project of assimilation to U.S. liberal democracy, or be branded as illiberal “Red Guards” unfit for serious political discourse. This discursive context has long mobilized overseas Chinese to affirm the universalism of Western liberalism in opposition to a Chinese despotism defined either by dynastic backwardness or communist depravity. The question: Can overseas Chinese speak for themselves in the face of what Mobo Gao has described as the West’s “hegemonic right to knowledge?”3 Or will all such speech that challenges U.S. presuppositions of liberal selfhood and Chinese despotism simply be tuned out as illiberal noise?

The controversy over Yang’s remarks signaled the accruing symbolic power of overseas Chinese students amid heightened Cold War antagonisms toward China. As of 2019, there were some 372,000 Chinese students enrolled in U.S. universities, 120,000 in the United Kingdom, and many more studying in Canada, Germany, and Australia. This sizable population exists at the intersection of multiple, often contradictory, geopolitical impulses. On the one hand, overseas education has long been seen as a route toward channeling technical and managerial skills toward China’s national modernization. The neocolonial regime of academic knowledge production means that Western degrees continue to bear social status for upwardly mobile Chinese professionals. On the other hand, Chinese overseas students have historically been framed as a target of Western liberal soft power—as proxies for a neocolonial project of molding China in the U.S. image.

While international U.S. education has long been mobilized as a means of “making the world like us,” the presence of a growing body of Chinese international students willing to voice their political disjunctures with Western liberal truisms represents a unique threat to the ideological regimes of U.S. exceptionalism and the “civilizing mission” of overseas education.4 Amid broader generational trends such as the Chinese millennial turn away from U.S. culture and commodities, some have noted the apparent collapse of Chinese visions of the United States as the “lighthouse country” (灯塔国)—a beacon of modernity, technological prowess, and liberal governmentality to be imitated by Chinese bourgeois reformists.5 In particular, Xi Jinping’s doctrine of “four confidences” represents a canonized repudiation of longstanding currents of Chinese neoliberal political thought that viewed Western liberal democracy as a model for China’s modernization. Preaching confidence in China’s chosen path, its guiding theories, its political system, and its culture, this rearticulation of Chinese national self-confidence has been decried by Western onlookers as part of China’s ideological challenge to U.S. hegemony.

This increased confidence among Chinese overseas students in the legitimacy of the Chinese model has led to ideological clashes that trouble the neat presumption that exposure to Western liberal education will evangelize Chinese international students into the dogma of bourgeois democracy. In this context, Chinese international students have been transformed from a symbol of liberal edification into agents of Chinese communist infiltration. For example, when the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of California, San Diego, protested the selection of the Dalai Lama as the campus’s 2017 commencement speaker, other campus voices argued they were “doing the work of the Chinese government” and pledged not to allow Chinese government “propaganda” to encroach on academic freedoms.6

The international spotlight afforded to the Hong Kong protests of 2019 similarly sparked campus battles. At Australia’s University of Queensland, Chinese students clashed with pro-Hong Kong student protesters, some of whom hoisted signs reading “No ChiNazi” and occupied the university’s Confucius Institute, part of a network of cultural and language partnerships affiliated with the Chinese government.7 Once again, a serious engagement with the political speech of Chinese students was deferred in favor of a nationalist and racially charged narrative of “communist creep” into the liberal safe haven of Australian higher education. A parade of Western liberal commentators emerged to pontificate on how, exactly, Chinese overseas students dared to articulate their own understanding of Chinese politics rather than embracing the tenets of bourgeois democracy and “self-determination.” As one U.S. university professor bemoaned: “Chinese international students are studying for years in the United States without adopting democratic values.… Clearly, we’re not doing a very good job teaching them.”8

These flashpoints quickly fueled racist speculation that Chinese overseas students, far from being proxies to mold China into the Western capitalist model, were in fact duplicitous agents of the Chinese state intent on undermining the West itself. In a salacious article titled “The Chinese Influence Effort Hiding in Plain Sight,” the Atlantic compared Chinese students in Germany, the United States, and Australia to “mushroom tendrils spreading unseen for miles beneath the first floor,” invisible to European leaders yet growing in nefarious power.9

Calls for political action soon followed. In 2019, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs Marie Royce called on educators to contribute to “integrating international students,” bemoaning the fact that Chinese overseas students “live in a propaganda bubble” by nature of consuming Chinese media and using Chinese social media apps like WeChat.10 The following year, the Donald Trump administration issued an executive order canceling the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students and researchers in the United States who had ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army.11 Not to be outdone, Republican senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn unveiled even more onerous legislation to prohibit visas for all graduate-level Chinese international students in STEM fields.12

The starkly opposed receptions afforded to Yang Shuping and her fellow compatriots derided as “Red Guards” and “security threats” speaks to the binary construction of overseas Chinese people in the Western imagination. On the one hand, they represent the chance to affirm the hegemony of Western liberal ideology: by “liberating” Chinese subjects from the ostensibly repressive confines of socialist society, overseas Chinese people affirm the superiority of “fresh, American air” and serve as authentic mouthpieces for neocolonial agendas that seek to transform China into an object of Western intervention and modernization. On the other hand, when overseas Chinese rebuke the magnanimous hand of Western assimilation, they are framed by the trope of the Oriental invasion, infiltrating Western societies at risk to body, family, and nation.

If the branding of Yang Shuping as a “traitor” by Chinese “nationalist netizens” appears uncouth, it nonetheless speaks to an explicit strategy of the United States and other Western nations to instrumentalize overseas Chinese people in service of a paternalistic, antagonistic posture toward the People’s Republic of China. In this configuration, Yang’s story is representative of a broader genre of multicultural empire that wields the confessional speech of newly incorporated Chinese Americans as part of a campaign to delegitimize China’s socialist project. In an era in which a renewed Cold War posture toward China is obscured through the uplifting of ethnic Chinese testimonies of Chinese depravity and U.S. excellence, historicizing the machinations of multicultural empire and its strategic instrumentalization of the Chinese diaspora therein is a crucial prerequisite toward forging a discursive space in which the Chinese diaspora can speak for itself.

National Humiliation, National Rejuvenation

The United States has long viewed the Chinese diaspora—and overseas Chinese students in particular—as a vehicle through which to direct China’s development in favor of U.S. commercial and geopolitical interests. In the early twentieth century, as the United States jockeyed with European powers and Japan in the so-called scramble for China, the overseas education of Chinese elites was posed as a strategic avenue to advance U.S. interests. As Russian, German, and Japanese military incursions into China threatened to collapse the fragile “open door” system that preserved the appearance of China’s territorial integrity and, more importantly, the open competitive access for foreign commerce in China’s ports, the possibility that the United States would be compelled to force its own sphere of influence in China via military power appeared imminent. Yet, secretary of war William Howard Taft posed the Americanization of Chinese elites as a “more subtle and strategic policy than using gunboats to open China to American influence.”13 University educators such as Edmund James, the president of the University of Illinois, gave similar advice. Writing to president Theodore Roosevelt, James put forth a model of ideological, not military, intervention: “The nation which succeeds in educating the young Chinese of the present generation will be the nation which…will reap the largest possible returns in moral, intellectual, and commercial influence.… We should to-day be controlling the development of China in that most satisfactory and subtle of all ways—through the intellectual and spiritual domination of its leaders.”14

In 1908, President Roosevelt would heed James’s advice and institute the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program, remitting some $13 million to the Chinese government to be devoted to the U.S. education of select Chinese students. Described by Roosevelt as an “act of friendship” between the two countries, the measure was in fact an attempt to shape China’s destiny toward U.S. interests.

While such programs, alongside decades of missionary penetration of China, attempted to foster the “intellectual and spiritual domination” that reformers like James sought, efforts to paint the United States as a magnanimous great power alternative to European colonial encroachment were undermined not only by the growing U.S. role in the neocolonial China trade, but also by racist Chinese exclusion immigration laws that singled out Chinese migrants to be subjected to humiliating inspections, indefinite detentions, and outright bans on entry to the United States. In this context, overseas Chinese encounters with the humiliations of anti-Asian racism in the United States formed a politicizing crucible that connected racism abroad to the colonial domination of China at home. Far from evangelizing overseas Chinese people toward convergence with a U.S. model of modernity, these experiences created new movements for national self-determination and self-strengthening within and beyond the transnational Chinese community. These diverse emergent political currents—from Qing reformism to anticolonial nationalism and revolutionary republicanism—proved the capacity of overseas Chinese to mobilize a political identity in service of aims beyond the preordained machinations of U.S. aspirations. Far from neocolonial proxies of Western soft power, the overseas Chinese earned the honorific title of “the mother of revolution” in recognition of their role in fostering China’s 1911 republican Xinhai Revolution.15

The 1905 Chinese boycott of U.S. goods represents one moment on a longer timeline of transnational Chinese activism that mobilized experiences of overseas racism toward a nationalist, anticolonial project. Subjected both to “unequal treaties” at home that created segregated colonial concessions in port cities like Shanghai and to racist Chinese exclusion laws in the United States, Canada, Australia, and beyond, overseas Chinese sojourners, students, and laborers alike forwarded an analysis that linked both forms of racism to the weakness of a feudal Qing government that had become a glorified mediator of foreign incursions into China.

The humiliations of Chinese exclusion were circulated through political pamphlets, such as those of the Baohuanghui (保皇會) reformist party, which sought to mobilize readers toward a vision of reformist self-strengthening. As political thinkers such as Liang Qichao toured Chinese overseas communities in Hawai‘i, San Francisco, and beyond, they vividly depicted the ritualized humiliation of Chinese migrants subjected to body measurements, fingerprinting, and photography in the nude upon arrival to immigration detention centers such as Angel Island. As Liang wrote: “the Chinese immigrants coming to America have not yet committed any crimes, but they are treated as criminals.”16 These testimonies coalesced a transnational Chinese political identity on principles of national and racial pride and anticolonialism.

A song circulated by a Baohuanghui chapter in Burma in 1905 mournfully depicted the treatment of overseas Chinese, linking it to China’s own national weakness in the face of foreign imperialist powers:

Watch a European with a dog wagging its tail, both landed, walking away slowly.
Chinese should be grieving, lower than a dog.
Why so despicable, so disgraceful?
Our one country is too weak, no good,
Tears come down like rain
When looking at the general situation and our fatherland.17

In 1904, resumed U.S.-China negotiations threatened the indefinite extension of Chinese exclusion laws codified by the 1894 Gresham-Yang Treaty, giving rise to popular protests aimed at bolstering what reformers and revolutionaries feared would be the Qing court’s weak negotiating hand. Bringing together immigrant associations such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, overseas Chinese merchants, and Chinese reformists and revolutionaries, the 1905 boycott movement protested the humiliations of Chinese exclusion and called for national strength in the face of both colonial incursions and overseas discrimination.

The testimonies of overseas Chinese who bore the brunt of U.S. racism became a kind of transnational folklore that mobilized the boycott movement. Stories such as that of Feng Xiawei—a laborer from Guangdong who was wrongfully detained in an immigration raid in Boston and later returned to China before committing suicide in front of the U.S. consulate in Shanghai on July 16, 1905—spread the boycott through public remembrances of martyrdom. In a letter written before his death, Feng had warned of the mass movement to come if exclusion laws were extended: “many Chinese will follow me to die in protest if the treaty is not repudiated.”18 Similarly, Tom Kim Yung, the military attaché of the Chinese legation in Washington DC, was popularized as a martyr of the boycott movement after he committed suicide at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco in 1903, after having been arrested and beaten by local police.19 Through public vigils and commemorations throughout China and its diaspora, these fallen overseas Chinese became martyrs for the boycott and the nationalist movement it helped propel.

Importantly, the totalizing force of global anti-Chinese racism helped transnational currents of Chinese politicization partially to transcend boundaries of geography and class. Merchants, activists, scholars, students, and manual laborers in China, Hawai‘i, the Philippines, and Singapore came together in unity to boycott U.S. goods. Liang Qichao described this spirit of camaraderie in Shanghai: “From millionaires to poor workers, millions of people are of one mind, and we must not stop until we win back our rights.… The foreigners in Shanghai have become worried, saying that China, the sleeping lion, has awakened.”20 Emblematic of the power and unprecedented nature of the boycott, U.S. newspapers described the movement as a “commercial menace” and speculated it may represent a “forerunner of an anti-foreign agitation.” The Baltimore Sun reported in September 1905 that even some of the wealthiest U.S. tycoons in Shanghai may not be “able to weather the storm.”21

The overseas network of Chinese merchants, students, sojourners, and laborers that mobilized the 1905 boycott would form the base for the dissemination of propaganda, financial support, and safe havens in the runup to the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing court in 1911. But later events of the twentieth century would prove the inadequacies of the bourgeois democratic model as a conduit for the liberation of China’s peoples. Having overthrown the monarchical system, the young Republic of China continued to face backward industry, a new capitalist class society, the influence of feudal warlords, and, most importantly, lacked real national recognition in an imperialist international system. Despite Chinese military support in Europe’s “great war,” China was marginalized from the Allied powers Paris Peace Conference in 1919. That conference’s transfer of German concessions in Shandong to Japan, rather than retrocession to China, proved the endurance of the colonialist domination of China and the persisting era of national humiliation. It was not until the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that Mao Zedong could credibly announce that the Chinese people had “stood up,” rejecting the colonial incursions suffered by its Qing predecessor and the foreign manipulation of which the rival U.S.-backed Kuomintang was long accused.

After decades of support for the exiled Kuomintang, the United States saw Communist Party leadership as a closing of China’s long-sought open door. Having now “lost” China, these changes fundamentally refigured the strategic significance of the Chinese diaspora in the eyes of U.S. officials. The racial regime of Chinese exclusion that had animated a transnational Chinese alliance in support of China’s national liberation gave way to Cold War tactics of contingent Chinese inclusion that sought to presage the U.S. battle for “hearts and minds” by symbolically integrating loyal Chinese Americans. Meanwhile, the lingering enforcement apparatus of the exclusion era was mobilized to target overseas Chinese with perceived loyalties to “Red China.” In this context, the precondition for Chinese diasporic political subjectivity was its allegiance to a hostile U.S. stance toward the new People’s Republic and an unquestioning loyalty to both the United States and the Kuomintang regime in Taiwan known by Cold Warriors as “Free China.” These early Cold War years enshrined new strategies of racial liberalism and multicultural empire that assimilated the Chinese diaspora into a militarized project of Cold War anticommunism.

The Cold War Mandate of Chinese-American Inclusion

Following liberation from Japanese occupation and the fleeing of Kuomintang troops to Taiwan, the United States emerged as the primary antagonist facing New China. As Mao identified U.S. imperialism as “the common enemy of the whole world,” racism against overseas Chinese was invoked as evidence of the hypocritical support the United States pledged toward “Free China.” In this context, the People’s Republic of China attempted to once again mobilize the racism faced by overseas Chinese in service of a project of national rejuvenation—now one of socialist development. For instance, a 1951 pamphlet published by the People’s Republic of China Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs included the testimony of a Chinese national living in San Francisco, describing the contradictions of a United States that preached a “special friendship” with the Chinese people that was never extended to Chinese nationals in the United States. As the pamphlet described: “Every Chinese in America has experienced mistreatment by the American Imperialist Immigration Authorities.”22

These charges of U.S. racism, white supremacy, and imperialism from Chinese, Soviet, and nonaligned third world nations chipped away at the U.S. self-designation as leader of the “free world.” Socialist, anticolonial revolution was the only way toward real self-determination and an end to the fetters of neocolonialism in a supposedly postcolonial era. Aware of the ramifications of these allegations for U.S. influence in the third world, the Cold War ushered in a new regime of racial liberalism—what Jodi Melamed has described as the “incorporation of antiracism into postwar U.S. governmentality.”23 Prototypical discourses of U.S. Cold War racial liberalism framed the Chinese diaspora in new ways: “overseas Chinese” emerged not as a politicized identity of transnational Chinese anticolonialism, but a category of targeted U.S. propaganda and strategic integration that, in the words of a 1954 U.S. Information Agency (USIA) memorandum, aimed to have the Chinese diaspora “be denied to world communism…and the Peking Regime.”24

The new paradigm of racial liberalism presented unprecedented opportunities for Chinese-American civic inclusion after decades of legally mandated exclusion, segregation, and discrimination. Chinese-American political elites—from elected officials to old Chinatown organizations such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association—exploited these newfound opportunities for political power and representation. But this civic power was predicated on a willingness to wield Chinese ethnicity and U.S. patriotism in service of U.S. foreign policy objectives—decisively wedding Chinese-American racial “progress” at home to a militarized regime of Cold War anticommunism abroad.

The political ascent of Hiram Fong, the first Asian-American U.S. senator and a Republican representing occupied Hawai‘i, is illustrative of the opportunities to be found under the auspices of a multicultural Cold War empire. As speaker of the Hawai‘i House of Representatives, Fong yoked the movement for Hawaiian statehood to the Cold War “battle for hearts and minds” in Asia. Like others, Fong recognized that granting statehood to Hawai‘i, with its majority-Asian population, would help dispel suspicions in Asia about U.S. racism—particularly anti-Asian immigration quotas that remained on the books until 1965. In a 1950 testimony before Congress, Fong argued that Hawaiian statehood would do in Asia what the Marshall Plan did in Europe—“win friends for our democratic way of life” by refuting communist allegations of U.S. racism, without incurring the equivalent costs of the Marshall Plan.25

Fong’s political success was no doubt grounded in his ability to wield his ethnic identity as proof of U.S. racial tolerance in the face of propagandized communist “totalitarianism.” As Newsweek put it amid Fong’s first senatorial run in 1959: “Imagine a Chinese in the U.S. Senate—how would Red China like that?”26 Once in office, Fong made good on the promise of instrumentalizing his ethnic identity to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives. In October 1959, Fong embarked on a diplomatic tour of U.S. allies in Asia, in what was described in the New York Times as a “one-man people-to-people program” designed to “promote Asian appreciation of democracy as practiced in the United States.”27 It was a delegation only Fong could accomplish, for “the color of his skin and the shape of his eyes tell his story to an Asian audience before he begins to speak.” Fong himself described his tour’s mission of preaching to ethnically Chinese people in Southeast Asia on the question of national loyalties and inclusion: “They say that a picture tells more than 10,000 words. I hope that my appearance in the flesh will do the same.” On the heels of the genocidal U.S. intervention in Korea, Fong’s delegation speaks to the uses of “diversity” in rendering U.S. Cold War imperialism as a project of “spreading democracy” rather than a militarized project of anticommunist invasion and occupation.

Fong’s foreign diplomacy was part of broader efforts to sever the political linkages between socialist China and overseas Chinese populations. By the mid–1950s, the State Department and CIA had both identified the overseas Chinese as a strategic target for psychological warfare and anticommunist propaganda. In the eyes of the U.S. government, the sizable population of ethnic Chinese living in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore was considered a latent “fifth column” of communist mobilization. Identifying the “critical importance” of overseas Chinese to U.S. Cold War efforts, ethnic Chinese in the United States were mobilized to produce and disseminate testimonials of U.S. exceptionalism to encourage Chinese diasporic allegiance to their host countries and not “Red China.” For instance, the USIA launched a popular Chinese-language magazine called Free World Chinese, which featured success stories of Chinese and other Asians in the United States as evidence of free world liberal exceptionalism.

Voice of America, a radio broadcast unit of USIA, similarly tapped Chinese-American figureheads to perform the ideological work of U.S. empire. Chinese-American screenwriter Betty Lee Sung was tapped to write a Voice of America series titled “Chinese Activities,” depicting a rose-tinted view of life for Chinese people in America. As Sung would later recount: “What would interest the Chinese in China and Southeast Asia more than learning about how their compatriots lived and were treated in a country that represented to them the ‘mountain of gold,’ the ‘land of the beautiful,’ and presently archenemy of the Chinese communists?”28

Beyond token individuals, Chinese-American communal institutions were also courted to cooperate with the goals of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its geopolitical allies. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), a longstanding intermediary between the Chinese-American community and U.S. immigration authorities, emerged during the Cold War as an avatar of both Kuomintang and U.S. anticommunist repression in the Chinese diaspora. For pledging loyalty to “Free China,” many CCBA executives were rewarded with positions in the Kuomintang party and the Nationalist government. These loyalties were tapped to crush any political sympathies in the Chinese-American community with the People’s Republic: when Chinese Americans in San Francisco hoisted the People’s Republic of China flag in celebration of China’s founding in 1949, pro-Kuomintang thugs disrupted the celebration and beat the attendees.29 The following day, posters were plastered throughout Chinatown listing some fifteen diaspora supporters of the People’s Republic and offering a $5,000 reward to anyone willing to kill them.30 In New York, the consul general of the former Republic of China complained to authorities of the “hoisting of the new flag of the bogus regime in Chinatown.”31

These acts of anticommunist repression were coupled with public displays of patriotism for both the United States and the Kuomintang regime. Various CCBA organizations officially condemned Mao’s leadership, denounced China’s entrance into the Korean War, and protested against potential People’s Republic of China representation in the UN General Assembly. Partisan publications like the Chinese Nationalist Daily urged Chinatown leaders to “prove to the American people that we are against communism.” Chinatown leaders met the call—in 1950, the CCBA helped establish the Chinese Six Companies Anti-Communist League and declared that “99.7 percent” of Chinatown was on the right side of the Korean War.32 The League formed with the express objective to support the U.S. intervention in Korea and “cooperate with Americans in general and help them differentiate between friend and enemy among the Chinese.” Doing so entailed public performances of patriotism, such as a February 1951 fundraising rally in which participants carried signs proclaiming “Down with Red Imperialists,” “Chinese Americans Are Loyal Citizens,” and “Help Free China.”33 With their knowledge of the community landscape and their shared interest in suppressing the diaspora left, the CCBA increasingly took on a role as community broker for state repression. For instance, when the Kang Jai Association, a local organization for men from Hainan, declined to sign a CCBA declaration of loyalty following China’s entrance into the Korean War, their headquarters were raided by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and eighty-three of its members were detained.34

In differentiating “friends and enemies,” Cold War Chinese-American inclusion was premised on a binary between “model minority” anticommunist allies and “yellow peril” communist sympathizers. While Cold War racial liberalism afforded new opportunities for civil inclusion for Chinese Americans willing to embrace the legitimizing fictions of U.S. imperialism, it also created conditions for state-sanctioned anticommunist repression for those alleged to have the wrong international sympathies. Programs such as the Chinese Confession Program, overseen by the INS from 1956 to 1965, are illustrative of the binary of assimilation and repression that governed U.S. mediation of Chinese diasporic communities during the Cold War. Sparked by a Hong Kong embassy official’s concerns that the longstanding “paper son” system utilized by Chinese migrants to evade Chinese Exclusion restrictions could become a “criminal conspiracy” to be exploited by Chinese communists, the INS called for Chinese-American paper sons and their descendants to come forward to “confess” and normalize their immigration status. In this way, officials hoped to close the books on the paper son system through which Chinese migrants used fraudulent family immigration records to evade onerous exclusion laws and, later, national quotas that remained in place until 1965.

The Confession Program attempted to reconcile decades of distrust between Chinese Americans and immigration officials with the benevolent promise of normalizing the status of paper sons and their families “if at all possible under the law.”35 And yet, under the spirit of McCarthyism, the program was also wielded to uncover and reprimand potential communist activities in the Chinese-American community. As the 1954 FBI report Potentialities of Chinese Communist Intelligence Activities in the United States claimed, leftist diaspora groups such as New York City’s Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance were “alleged to be under Communist control.”36 Based on these tenuous associations, membership lists of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance and subscription lists for their affiliated Chinese Daily News were used as evidence in immigration hearings, leading many to cancel their subscriptions and leave the group. Two prominent Laundry Alliance members committed suicide because they could “no longer endure the constant FBI harassment.”37 While the INS promised that it would “assist [paper sons] to adjust their status if at all possible under the law,” it exercised no such benevolence when it came to those affiliated with left-wing organizations. Paper sons such as Louie Pon, a member of Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, were routinely denied relief and stripped of citizenship “as a matter of administrative discretion.”38 While the confession program was posed as a program of racial liberalism and inclusion, its anticommunist bent revealed its lingering racism. INS reports boasted of the agency’s “special attention” to the “problem of the subversive class of Asiatic origin”—selectively transposing the nineteenth-century figure of the unassimilable alien onto the Chinese communist.

In a telling juxtaposition, the targeted repression of Chinese-American leftists was coterminous with refugee relief programs that sought to “rescue” Chinese refugees who, in “voting with their feet,” had spurned Chinese communism and represented a symbolic coup for the United States. Organizations such as Aid Refugee Chinese Intellectuals, which launched with $50,000 in CIA seed funding, sought to resettle Chinese refugees with professional and technical training with a “plea to the American people…that these people must be saved for service to Free China.”39 In a confession of the class character of the refugee program, Aid Refugee Chinese Intellectuals leaders compared the “hundreds of coolies” entering the United States “simply because they have relatives” to the legislative obstacles encountered in their efforts to relocate elite intellectuals. Dramatic solicitations for financial support were supplemented with moralizing calls to support families who “thought enough of freedom to hazard the agony of exile rather than bow to Communism.” A “gift of $350,” one advert read, “will save one Chinese for freedom.”40

Once resettled in the United States, Chinese refugees were assumed to owe a debt to the United States. A declassified CIA document from 1964 titled Windfall from Hong Kong described a program “exploiting the emergency mass admission of Red China refugees” that had presented the intelligence community with an “exceptional opportunity” to collect information. As the author of the brief curtly described: “When the government pays for the transportation and arranges for the livelihood of a political refugee, it has the right to ask certain things of the refugee in return.” In this case, that meant “providing information of value” about the nature of China under Communist leadership that might advance Cold War aggression toward the United States’s “most difficult intelligence target.”41 Once more, the Chinese diaspora’s price of admission for the “American dream” was their instrumentalization before the mandates of U.S. Cold War foreign policy.

“Free Speech” in a Discursive Cage

The contemporary escalation of Cold War aggression on China—heralded by the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” and intensified by both the Trump and Joe Biden administrations—retains the twentieth-century ideological configuration of the Chinese diaspora. The tactics of racial liberalism that mandated the easing of explicit anti-Asian immigration policy in favor of selective civic inclusion for patriotic Chinese Americans and anticommunist Chinese refugees have only become more sophisticated in an age of neoliberal multiculturalism. Where 1950s Cold Warriors spoke of the “special relationship” between the United States and China to justify the U.S. embargo on China and the propping up of Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan regime as “Free China,” contemporary Sinophobia is structured by a similar profession of solidarity with an abstract “Chinese people” posed alongside righteous opposition to the Chinese state and the leadership of the Communist Party.

Rampant targeted prosecution of Chinese nationals in the STEM fields now coexists with the elevation of Chinese-American government officials, journalists, and researchers as foot soldiers of Cold War Sinophobia. The roundup of Chinese-American scientists such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Chen Gang, accused of grant fraud for receiving research scholarships from Chinese entities, can be defended as “race neutral” in a multicultural system in which trade hawks such as Katherine Tai, the Biden administration’s U.S. trade representative, is heralded as the first Asian-American woman to hold the role.42 The value of the confessional speech of ethnic Chinese willing to testify to the “depravities” of the Communist Party of China is reflected in the growing prevalence of Chinese-descent journalists and researchers who pepper the staff directories of corporate media China bureaus and defense industry think tanks. While vapid multiculturalism poses these native informants as authentic affirmations of U.S. superiority, historicizing the Cold War roots of such confessional speech betrays a more complicated truth: the political subjectivities of the Chinese diaspora have long been shaped not by a liberal ideal of “free speech,” but by the illiberal confines of Cold War anticommunism that uplifted a Chinese-American brand of U.S. exceptionalism while silencing all dissent.

In the midst of a sharp rise in anti-Asian violence in the United States over the past year, the severe curtailment of Chinese-American political discourse has become all the more evident. This violence, above all, has been structured by Sinophobia: countless victims of racist violence have recounted being told to “go back to China” or being labeled as carriers of the “Chinese virus.” In a telling convergence, the Georgia police chief who described the Atlanta spa shooter as “having a bad day” was linked to Facebook posts depicting T-shirts declaring COVID-19 as “imported…from Chy-na.”

Yet, the liberal response to Sinophobic violence has not been a critique of U.S. empire’s Cold War posture toward China, but instead the deployment of claims to American belonging that reflects a fervent reinvestment in U.S. liberal democracy as the only legible framework for a viable Asian-American future. This rehearsal of Asian-American belonging and calls for civic inclusion in the face of “perpetual foreigner” tropes strips anti-Asian violence from the discursive and political conditions from which it arises. Rather than rejecting the fictions of U.S. liberalism and multiculturalism, this political genre professes a deep faith in their future realization, reifying American exceptionalism and its inexorable capacity for liberal progress.

The colliding political projects of institutionalized Sinophobia and a neoliberal promise to “Stop Asian Hate” has circumscribed the possibilities for Chinese-American political speech in new ways. Increasingly, the confessional genre of the Chinese-American political essay is predicated on a repudiation of Chinese national affiliation as one of guilt and shame. As one essayist wrote in the wake of the Atlanta massacre, “to live conscientiously as a Chinese person is to assume a perpetual state of guilt.”43 The performance of Chinese liberal guilt enables the reification of U.S. exceptionalism in a moment of crisis: in the face of anti-Black police executions and the persistence of the U.S. settler state, it is Chinese “authoritarianism” that Chinese Americans are tasked with denouncing.

It is a trope within this genre to say that Chinese people in the United States who exercise the right to political speech are engaged in a freedom they would not be allowed in China. The irony is that despite being held up as exemplars of freedom, tolerance, and opportunity, Chinese diasporic figureheads of U.S. liberalism remain deeply circumscribed by Cold War anticommunism and its racist undertones. “Freedom” to speak has only been afforded to those willing to stake their right to speak on the backs of those crushed by an increasingly aggressive U.S. empire. As the confessional testimonies of Chinese Americans are rallied once more to reinvigorate U.S. Cold War imperialism, seeing through the ruses of multicultural empire is paramount. Until the Cold War binaries of “free world” liberalism and Chinese “authoritarianism” are undone, the Chinese diaspora will not be able to speak on its own terms.


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  2. Carrie Gracie, “The New Red Guards: China’s Angry Student Patriots,” BBC, May 26, 2017.
  3. Mobo Gao, Constructing China: Clashing Views of the People’s Republic (London: Pluto, 2018).
  4. See Liping Bu et al., Making the World Like Us: Education, Cultural Expansion, and the American Century (Westport: Praeger, 2003).
  5. He Huifeng, “China’s Millennials, Generation Z Leading Nation Away from Hollywood Films, American Culture, US Brands,” Southern China Morning Post, March 20, 2021.
  6. Elizabeth Redden, “Chinese Students vs. Dalai Lama,” Inside Higher Ed, February 16, 2017.
  7. Christian Harrison and Georgia Forrester, “Heated Hong Kong Protest at Auckland University,” Stuff, October 2, 2019.
  8. Jonathan Zimmerman, “My Chinese Students Don’t Want You to Talk About Hong Kong. Clearly, We’re Failing Them,” USA Today, November 13, 2019.
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  13. Madeline Hsu, The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 44.
  14. Hsu, The Good Immigrants, 42.
  15. For more on this contested framing, often attributed to Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen), see Jianli Huang, “Umbilical Ties: The Framing of the Overseas Chinese as the Mother of the Revolution,” Frontiers of History in Modern China 6, no. 2 (2011): 183–228.
  16. Quoted in K. Scott Wong, “Liang Qichao and the Chinese of America: A Re-Evaluation of His ‘Selected Memoir of Travels in the New World,’” Journal of American Ethnic History 11 no. 4 (1992): 16.
  17. Quoted in Jane Leung Larson, “The 1905 Anti-American Boycott as a Transnational Chinese Movement,” Chinese America: History and Perspectives (2007): 194.
  18. Sin-Kiong Wong, “Die for the Boycott and Nation: Martyrdom and the 1905 Anti-American Movement in China,” Modern Asian Studies 35, no. 3 (2001): 571.
  19. “Arrest and Death of Tom Kim Yung May Bring International Trouble,” San Francisco Call, September 15, 1903.
  20. Larson, “The 1905 Anti-American Boycott as a Transnational Chinese Movement,” 193.
  21. “Chinese Bitter in the Boycott: Believe That Hundreds of Chinese Have Been Killed in America,” Baltimore Sun, September 14, 1905.
  22. Quoted in Meredith Oyen, “Communism, Containment, and the Chinese Overseas,” in The Cold War in Asia: The Battle for Hearts and Minds, ed. Zheng Yangwen et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 77.
  23. Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
  24. Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Making of the Model Minority (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 171.
  25. Hawaii Statehood: Hearings on H.R. 49, S. 156, S. 1782, Before the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, U.S. Senate 81st Cong., 2nd Session (1950) (statement of Hiram Fong, speaker of the Hawaii House of Representatives and Cochairman, Hawaii Legislative Hold-Over Committee of 1949), 187.
  26. Quoted in Wu, The Color of Success, 37.
  27. Robert Trumbull, “Senator Fong Shows Asia the Twain Meet: U.S. Senator Fong On A Visit to Asia,” New York Times, October 11, 1959.
  28. Betty Lee Sung, Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America (New York: Macmillan, 1967). U.S. consulates in Singapore and Hong Kong similarly arranged in 1952 for the Chinese-American artist and memoirist Jade Snow Wong to tour ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. U.S. Information Agency officials made clear their intention: Wong’s success in the United States “would be a much-needed testimonial to the opportunities our society offers to citizens of so-called ‘minority races.’”
  29. “Chinese Split Brings Row in San Francisco,” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1949.
  30. Charlotte Brooks, “Numbed with Fear: Chinese Americans and McCarthyism,” PBS, December 20, 2019.
  31. “Communist Flags Fly in Chinatown: Consul Protests, but Display Is Held Legal,” New York Times, October 11, 1949.
  32. Wu, The Color of Success, 115.
  33. Wu, The Color of Success, 116.
  34. John Edward Torok, “‘Chinese Investigations’: Immigration Policy Enforcement in Cold War New York Chinatown, 1946–1965” (dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2008), 119.
  35. Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Washington DC: Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1957).
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  37. Renqiu Yu, To Save China, To Save Ourselves: The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 198.
  38. Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Washington DC: Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1965).
  39. Hsu, The Good Immigrants, 144.
  40. Hsu, The Good Immigrants, 142.
  41. Charles F. Turgeon, “Windfall from Hong Kong,” Central Intelligence Agency, Studies in Intelligence 8 no. 1 (1964): 67.
  42. “Katherine Tai Unanimously Confirmed as First Asian American US Trade Representative,” Guardian, March 17, 2021.
  43. Yangyang Cheng, “The Grieving and the Grievable,” SupChina, April 9, 2021.
2021, Volume 73, Issue 3 (July-August 2021)
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