Posted on February 3, 2020

How Andrew Yang Quieted the Asian American Right

Noah Y. Kim, The Atlantic, February 3, 2020

Yukong Zhao wasn’t always a Republican. The Chinese American businessman and longtime independent started to drift to the right in 2014, when he led Asian activists in a campaign against affirmative action that culminated in a high-profile lawsuit against Harvard University. When the Trump administration came out in support of the cause in 2018, he started to give the GOP a closer look. In December, Zhao announced his bid for a Florida congressional seat on the Republican ticket.

The movement against affirmative action, spearheaded by Chinese Americans like Zhao, generated unprecedented levels of conservative activism among Asian Americans, fueling speculation that the community could be on the verge of abandoning its long-standing allegiance to the Democratic Party. But in recent months, a groundswell of Democratic activism has drowned out much of that conservative excitement.

The Chinese social-media platform WeChat, once a hub for anti-affirmative-action organizers, is now reverberating with blue-hat emojis and cries for universal basic income. The flip can largely be linked to excitement surrounding one particular presidential candidate: Andrew Yang, the 45-year-old entrepreneur and political newbie who is also among the most successful Asian Americans to ever run for president. With the high level of support that Yang is getting from Asian voters, he has quieted the vocal conservative Asian American contingent that had been pulling the community to the right.Yang has drawn this backing even as he openly supports affirmative action.{snip}

Zhao and his allies—many of them fellow well-educated, foreign-born Chinese Americans—believe that affirmative action harms Asian applicants by disproportionately benefiting black and Latino students. Though these conservatives are in the minority—polling consistently shows that most Asian Americans support race-based admissions and Democrats more broadly—they dominated the conversation, staging dramatic protests and flooding WeChat with anti-affirmative-action commentary. The result was one of the most vigorous grassroots movements to come out of the Asian American community in recent memory.

The Asian-driven campaign against race-conscious admissions began in 2014, when Chinese American groups successfully mobilized against SCA-5, a California bill which would have reinstated affirmative action in the state’s public colleges. That same year, Zhao’s organization, the Asian American Coalition for Education, partnered with more than 60 Asian American organizations to file a complaint with the Department of Justice, alleging that Harvard University discriminated against Asian applicants.


Just 18 percent of Asian Americans voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, according to one exit poll, but until recently, many members of the left-leaning silent majority haven’t been very politically engaged: Asian Americans turn out to vote at extremely low levels, a problem exacerbated by the fact that both political parties tend to ignore them on the campaign trail.{snip}But since entering the race as a virtual unknown, Yang has sucked up the grassroots Asian American energy. Though just over 4 percent of Americans support Yang, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, a Morning Consult poll from December found that he was getting support from 19 percent of Asian Americans, behind only former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The Asian American Yang supporters I talked with were initially drawn to him because they were thrilled to see one of their own mount a presidential run.


Yang’s success at blunting conservative Asian energy is even starker among donors: From July to September 2019, according to an analysis by the research group AAPI Data, Yang had received $1.4 million in Asian American contributions, more than any other Democratic candidate. Most of this money came from Chinese Americans, a striking fact considering that from January to March last year, Trump received 56 percent of all Chinese American political contributions. Six months later, the president had garnered just 18 percent, while Yang’s share of donations had skyrocketed from 9 to 44 percent.{snip}Although Yang has won over some Asian Americans, he doesn’t have a lock on them. Some progressives have criticized him for the way he talks about his Asian identity, alleging that he plays into the model-minority stereotype of Asians as nerdy and high achieving. At a Democratic debate in September, Yang quipped that, as an Asian, he knows “a lot of doctors,” and on the campaign trail, he often jokes that “the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”

Yang has also faced criticism for how his flagship policy proposal, a form of universal basic income called the “freedom dividend,” will affect Asian Americans. The policy wouldn’t apply to noncitizens, which include 42 percent of Asian immigrants. “A significant proportion of the Asian American community may not realize that they won’t be able to draw a UBI check,” says Jenn Fang.{snip}