The rise and fall of a front group: the National Chinese Welfare Council, 1957-1991.

Author:Brooks, Charlotte

From its founding in 1957, the National Chinese Welfare Council (NCWC) portrayed itself as a defender of Chinese American rights and as Chinese America's sole voice at the national level. In reality the NCWC's main goals were always to support the Chinese Nationalist regime in Taiwan and to condemn any U.S. government attempts to abandon that government and recognize the communist People's Republic of China (PRC). Perhaps the group could have found a way to balance the two aims, for during the 1950s and 1960s many moderate and liberal Chinese Americans remained skeptical about the PRC. (1) But the exclusive and controlling behavior of the NCWC's Chinese Nationalist (Guomindang/GMD) leaders reminded politically savvy centrists and liberals of why they disliked the Republic of China (ROC). By alienating these kinds of effective but independent-minded activists, the NCWC undercut its own ability to lobby not only for its overt but also for its covert goals.

GMD leaders had long practiced an assertive brand of transnational politics in the United States. Starting in the early 1930s, U.S. GMD officials gained leadership positions in Chinese American community groups, fundraised for the ROC, published criticism of dissenters in the party press, managed the GMD's youth corps, organized boycotts of leftists, and even physically attacked opponents. (2) This activity continued and even intensified after the GMD's 1949 defeat in the Chinese civil war and its retreat to Taiwan. Because so many Chinese Americans were unlawful immigrants, GMD leaders with local knowledge also enjoyed an additional degree of power, for they could often turn dissenters over to the U.S. authorities. (3)

But a wide-ranging 1956 federal investigation into alleged Chinese immigration fraud transformed the way many Chinese Americans viewed the GMD's political activism. In cities across the United States, GMD members generally controlled the boards of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Associations (CCBAs), which long claimed to lead and represent local Chinese American communities. In 1956 the overlapping leadership of the U.S. Guomindang and the major CCBAs of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago proved unable to protect unlawful Chinese immigrants from the nationwide probe. Making matters worse, U.S. officials who claimed that a major goal of the investigation was to prevent Chinese communist infiltration not only rebuffed ROC government attempts to stop the probe but even investigated anti-communist organizations and arrested leading GMD members. The U.S. government's actions thus undercut the value of transnational politics and traditional community leaders in the eyes of many Chinese Americans.

The GMD activists who led the nation's most important CCBAs responded to the crisis in a manner very similar to how they had acted in the past. In the 1930s, GMD leaders sought to recruit Chinese Americans directly into the party or its affiliates, such as the San Min Zhu Yi (Three People's Principles) Youth Corps. During World War II and the Cold War, though, U.S. government and civic leaders increasingly characterized loyalty and patriotism in exclusive terms. GMD leaders thus began to work less openly, sponsoring "American" groups that the party still dominated: during the Korean War, for example, leading CCBAs organized local anti-communist leagues, and in 1954 the All-American Overseas Chinese Anti-Communist League at the national level, to prove that Chinese Americans felt no sympathy for the PRC. Although they claimed that such groups were independent of any political party, the organizations' leaders were invariably GMD members closely connected to Chiang Kai-shek's regime in Taipei. (4) In 1957 GMD officials followed the same blueprint. To win back disaffected Chinese Americans, they formed the NCWC, which they crafted to look like an independent ethnic organization but which they intended to keep firmly in the grip of the Guomindang.

Although the NCWC was probably the first national Chinese American organization, few scholars or activists today know about or remember it, in large part because it not only lacked grassroots backing but in fact purposely avoided seeking or cultivating such support. (5) Unlike other ethnic and civil rights organizations, the NCWC published no newsletters or journals to keep Chinese Americans informed of their rights and threats to them. (6) Ordinary Chinese Americans could not join the NCWC, because the group consisted only of CCBA leaders. The NCWC did not even rely on membership dues from regular citizens the way other ethnic and civil rights organizations did. Instead, the group received payments from various CCBAs across the country, and possibly from the government of Taiwan. Furthermore, the NCWC played almost no role in the burgeoning non-white civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; in fact, it occasionally stood in opposition to those Chinese Americans who did. That such a group could claim to be the one national organization representing all people of Chinese ancestry demonstrates just how deeply the relationship between the United States and Taiwan affected Chinese American politics during the early Cold War years. At the same time, though, the simultaneous growth of independent Chinese American political activism--and the NCWC's inability to stop it--reflected a community increasingly unwilling to submit to GMD control.

This article argues that the NCWC's structure, choices, and limitations, which reflected those of its parent government, undercut its effectiveness as a defender not only of Chinese American rights but also of the ROC itself. As a front organization, the NCWC took its orders from a party unwilling to share power even with anti-communists outside of it, and these dynamics played out within the NCWC as well: U.S. GMD leaders tightly controlled the group and discouraged the involvement of anti-communists who disliked the Chiang regime or just wanted to focus on domestic issues instead of the ROC's future. At a time when Chinese Americans, especially on the West Coast, were venturing into electoral politics, GMD rigidity and exclusivity thus alienated the most politically astute and involved segment of the Chinese-ancestry population. (7) Without the support and involvement of such people, the NCWC persevered merely as a club for aging GMD members and, presumably, as a box on the organizational chart of a party still consumed with maintaining Leninist-style structures. Once the GMD's authoritarian impulses declined, the NCWC swiftly collapsed.


When the NCWC first emerged in 1957, its leaders promised to focus on immigration policy because of the importance of the issue to so many Chinese Americans. The United States excluded almost all Chinese immigrants between 1882 and 1943, but even after that time Congress gave China a ridiculously small annual quota: only 105 Chinese could immigrate each year. (8) Thousands of Chinese during and after the exclusion era immigrated unlawfully, usually by claiming to be the children of Chinese American citizen fathers or of Chinese merchants, one of the few groups still allowed to enter the United States. Most of these men (and almost all the unlawful immigrants were men) were related to their fathers only on paper and thus became known as "paper sons." Frequently they were part of larger, multigenerational paper families. (9) In 1955, Everett Drumright, the U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, issued an inflammatory report to the State Department claiming massive fraud in Chinese immigration and arguing that some unlawful entrants might be Chinese Communist agents. In February 1956 the Department of Justice opened a national probe into Chinese immigration fraud, while the Immigration and Naturalization Service expanded its ongoing investigations into the Chinese American population. Both agencies justified their actions in anti-communist terms. (10)

The CCBAs that attempted to defend their communities from this investigation struggled not just to thwart the probe but also to overcome the cynicism of the Chinese American public. The overlap between the Guomindang and the CCBAs had eroded the prestige of the latter after the Nationalists' defeat in the Chinese Civil War. Only the involvement of the new People's Republic of China in the Korean War against the United States helped revive the power of the CCBAs and the U.S. GMD; many of their leaders assisted federal officials in targeting Chinese American leftists, some of whom the U.S. government deported. (11) By the mid-1950s, the CCBAs, although newly powerful because of their official connections, had stoked anger and distrust in many communities. Furthermore, the INS and Department of Justice's willingness to subpoena the records of apolitical or conservative community groups suggested that these CCBA machinations had been fruitless. (12) Over the next few months, Immigration and Naturalization Service agents not only rounded up hundreds of ordinary Chinese immigrants but also briefly arrested two top GMD officials in San Francisco and the New York CCBA leader, Shing Tai Liang, whose passport verified his status as an ROC official. (13)

Harassed by their former federal allies, CCBAs and the GMD across the country could no longer keep a lid on their detractors. The pages of the independent Chinese-language press, an increasingly significant part of the postwar community, began to fill with the angry and frustrated voices of ordinary community members. (14) Writing to the editor of the Chinese-American Weekly, a reader rejected his local CCBA's claims to represent him: "American law includes freedom of association and assembly, and therefore you cannot compel any person to register with some group, nor even force them to contribute to it.... Wasn't the CCBA just established to seek the limelight for the sake of a few people?" (15) The Taiwan regime's initial decision to...

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