Homeland origins and political identities among Chinese Americans.

Author:Lien, Pei-te
Position:4C Paper

The Chinese population in the United States consists of persons with multiple origins and diverse histories. In what ways do Chinese Americans of various ancestral homeland origins identify themselves politically in the United States? How does homeland origin explain the ethnic group identity and other political preferences for immigrants and their descendants in the adopted homeland? Through analyses of individual political behavior, this paper seeks to understand the scope and sources of political identities among U.S. residents of Chinese descent whose families originated from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in Asia. After profiling the contemporary Chinese American population with U.S. census and immigration data and brief accounts of its recent trans-Pacific community formation, we discuss the nature and types of identity formation for a heterogeneous, transnational, and nonwhite minority population in the United States. Then, we use a large-scale opinion survey of Chinese Americans in Southern California to examine the direction and sources of ethnic, national, and political ideological identities and their relationship to homeland origins, transnational ties, and adaptation experiences in the United States.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were close to 2.9 million Chinese persons in the United States in 2000. Individuals of full Chinese descent accounted for 23.7 percent of the national Asian population. Including the 447,000 Chinese of mixed-race descent, about one in four Asians in the United States could claim to be Chinese. A full seven in ten Chinese were foreign-born in 2000. Among them, only 24 percent arrived before 1980; about a third arrived between 1980 and 1990; and 43 percent arrived after 1990. Between 1971 and 1980, close to 238,000 immigrants arrived from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong; another 445,000 and 529,000 arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. (1) The recentness of their immigration directly affected their rates of language use and citizenship acquisition. In 2000, about 85 percent of all U.S. Chinese reported speaking at least some Chinese at home; exactly a third of the U.S. Chinese reported not having acquired U.S. citizenship yet.

The sudden and persistent rise of the Chinese immigrant population after the mid-1960s can be attributed to factors found on both sides of the Pacific. Key actions include the liberalization of the U.S. immigrant policy in 1965, the restructuring and transformation of the Pacific Rim economies after World War II, the fall of Saigon and the exodus of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, the anxiety over the future of Taiwan after the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979, the anxiety over the future of Hong Kong after the Chinese takeover in 1997, and the deterioration of Taiwan's international status and internal social order. (2) Different from the nineteenth-century labor migration, which was dominated by uneducated males from Guangdong, China, many in the post-1965 wave of Chinese migration originally arrived as college-educated students pursuing advanced graduate studies in U.S. institutions. Others arrived as skilled workers or professionals who were able to either bring their own families along or sponsor the entry of their direct and extended family members under the family reunification provision of the 1965 Immigration Act. These immigrants brought with them not only their labor skills and capital but social networks, cultural practices, and lingering political tensions. The close transnational ties of these immigrant parents inevitably affected the ethnic identity and political behavior of the U.S.-born generations. (3)

Because of the divided status of the homeland in Asia for Chinese Americans, three sets of immigration statistics are reported by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. In fiscal years 1989 to 2003, immigrants born in China represented 70 percent of the nearly one million legally admitted Chinese immigrants to the United States; those born in Taiwan represented 18 percent, and those born in Hong Kong represented 12 percent. Among persons who became legal permanent residents during fiscal year 2003, California was the top state of permanent residence for 28 percent of the China-born, 43 percent of the Hong Kong-born, and 51 percent of the Taiwan-born. New York was the second most popular state of residence for 21 percent of the China-born, 18 percent of the Hong Kong-born, but only 7 percent of the Taiwan-born. Among the China-born, 54 percent were admitted as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, 25 percent were admitted under family-sponsored preferences, and 18 percent were admitted under employment-based preferences. In contrast, only 15 percent among the Hong Kongborn and 29 percent among the Taiwan-born were admitted as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Moreover, about seven in ten of the Hong Kong-born and just over one in three of the Taiwan-born were admitted under family-sponsored preferences. Another indicator of differences among immigrants from the "three Chinas" is their occupation. Whereas about one in four among the Taiwan-born and one in five among the Hong Kong-born held managerial or professional jobs, only one in eight among the China-born was in a similar occupation.

The sharp differences in immigration history, population share, place of settlement, admission classification, and occupation status among the three groups of Chinese immigrants who became permanent residents in 2003 give a snapshot of the current sociodemographic divide within Chinese America. It raises the question of whether it makes sense to lump together these persons of diverse origins and disparate social standings under a single umbrella--a (pan-) ethnic label. A major purpose of this study is to empirically assess the meanings of the term "Chinese Americans" as compared to other self-identities in the contemporary U.S. Chinese population.


Although the issue of identity formation is of prime importance to the study of any ethnic group, studies on overseas Chinese identity, including Chinese American identity, have largely remained qualitative and discursive in nature and seldom engage rigorous social science research methods. (4) When social investigations are involved, most focus on the experiences of the U.S.-born generation. (5) Adopting the theory of and research on transnationalism in Asian American studies, we posit that the process of ethnic identity formation for individuals in an immigrant majority community of color may be influenced by forces on both sides of the Pacific, such as U.S. domestic racial and social conditions; U.S. immigration, citizenship, and racial categorization policies; and transnational, homeland-related cultural identities, practices, and politics. Thus, ethnic self-identity labels preferred by individuals of Chinese and other Asian descents may be varied and the negotiated outcome of several competing forces, such as between assimilation and ethnic attachment, or between ethnic specific and panethnic, racialized identification.

That the nature of ethnic identity is fluid and multilayered is observed by anthropologist Franklin Ng (1998) who comments that, like Chinese from elsewhere, migrants and their descents from Taiwan can consider themselves either as Taiwanese American, Chinese American, Asian American, and American, and the identity choices depend on the situation, the community, and the individuals involved. (6) Another anthropologist Melissa Brown (2004) emphasizes that identity is really a matter of politics, and its formation is based on common social, cultural, economic, and political experiences, which can be "passed down from one generation to the next as oral history, with events that have been especially important or galvanizing handed down in more detail and for more generations." (7) One galvanizing event for many Taiwanese people was the brutal crackdown of the 2/28 Incident in 1947 by the Chinese Nationalists who took control of Taiwan after the retreat of the Japanese colonial power at the end of World War II. (8) Although the Nationalists were able to effectively suppress this political uprising and halt any immediate challenge to its rule, the 2/28 Incident symbolized the mistreatment of the Taiwanese by the Chinese mainlanders. (9)

Despite the fact that nearly all residents in Taiwan can trace their ancestral origin to the Chinese mainland, memories of these Taiwanese grievances proved to be a powerful tool used by supporters of...

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