First and second-generation Chinese Americans in Wisconsin have proactively been engaging with the 2020 presidential election, most with the common goal to cast Trump out.
Mingtao Jiang and Sarah Gao are making efforts to reach out to their fellow Chinese American voters in the Badger State, in response to President Trump’s repeated xenophobic slurs towards them and his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which they see as incompetent.
However, there is a generational division towards their outreach tools. First-generation Chinese Americans prefer to use a Chinese social app to mobile fellow Chinese Americans whereas the second-generation immigrants tend to engage with the Biden Campaign directly.
Mingtao Jiang, a ginseng farm owner in Marathon County, Wisconsin, started a messaging group with the name “WI Asian Americans for Biden 2020” on WeChat, a social app connecting him with friends and family in China and also within the Chinese American community.
Sarah Gao, a health solution engineer at Epic who was born in the US to first-generation Chinese immigrants, moved to Wisconsin in September this year. Two weeks later, on her arrival in Madison, Gao signed up for the Biden Campaign as a phone-bank volunteer to reach out to Chinese American voters in the state.
Jiang’s messaging group has less than 60 members, most of whom are well-educated working professionals across the state. They text in both Chinese and English, share photos, videos, and news articles through the all-in-one social media tool.
Like Chinese Biden supporters, Chinese Trump voters also use the same app which is favored by more than 3 million Chinese immigrants in the US, mostly first-generation and recent Chinese immigrants.
Jiang’s group members follow up polls in several swing states and make comments on posts by Chinese Trump supporters. They discuss the purchase of campaign billboards in Wisconsin but are cautious about complying with the campaign rules.
Some group members are hesitant to embrace the wording, “WI Chinese-Americans for Biden,” Jiang said. They are reluctant to grab the attention of anyone, particularly of Trump supporters. They fear that they are likely to be the targets of increasing hate crimes since the start of the pandemic.
“Over the past six months, we’ve been scared to go out in public. We’re very cautious about hate crimes against [Asian Americans],” Jiang said.
According to a study published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, Asian Americans reported a surge in racially-motivated hate crimes involving physical violence and harassment during the pandemic. Moreover, institutional-level support from the president who has repetitively and publicly used the terms “China virus” or “Chinese virus” has reinforced these xenophobia and anti-Asian hate crimes.
Jiang used the word “devastating” to describe the conditions of his ginseng business. First, with the escalating trade war between China and the US, Jiang needs to pay additional tariffs of 50% for the products he exports to China. Then, this year, due to the pandemic and the ongoing trade war, his retail sales have dropped 60% compared with the same period last year.
“Are we still being the model minority, no talks, no complaints?” Jiang said. “We need to speak up for this election.”
Like her fellow Chinese Americans, Gao felt the urge to vote Trump out for this election.
Four years ago, she cast her ballot for the first time when she was a college student at Washington University in St. Louis. Before the vote, Gao said she had watched all the debates between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump.
“[Trump] was walking around the stage and tried to intimate Hilary,” Gao recalled. “It just turned me off.”
Gao felt the election result was disappointing, but later she found that her father had voted for Trump, making her very sad. The election result imprinted in her mind; Gao finally found the evidence of Trump’s xenophobic approach to immigrants in 2019 when she interned with a health advocacy organization for the Asian Pacific community. In August 2019, the Trump Administration published a final rule applying to immigrants applying for visas or green cards in the US. Immigration officials can deny their visas and green cards if applicants are using forms of Medicaid, housing subsidies and cash assistance.
“I was studying and not paying as much attention to what was happening in politics. As an intern, I [got to] know the harmful stuff that Trump is doing,” Gao said.
Gao said that many folks in the diaspora don’t identify themselves as either Democratic or Republican. However, the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will probably boost voter numbers.
“China and a lot of other Asian countries handled it better,” Gao said.
The disappointment she felt for the 2016 general election, Trump’s hard-line immigration policy, and how he fumbled for the public health crisis have made this election significant for Gao.
The result of Wisconsin is crucial to the outcome of the presidential race. Hilary Clinton lost it in the 2016 election but just 22,000 votes. Some critics say that she overlooked Asian American voters who make up 2% of electorates, equal to 85,000 votes, and their turnout rate was 54.5%, according to a study conducted by the Center for American Progress.
Chinese Americans reported the lowest level of voting participation among all Asian ethnic groups, with 48% voter registration and 41% voting participation, according to AAPI Data, a nationally recognized publisher of demographic data on Asian Americans.
“I’ve heard that Asian [American] voters are likely less to be reached out to. There is research showing that phone-banking helps both to get voters to the polls and vote,” said Gao.
In October, Sarah Gao signed up two Chinese Americans for Biden Phone Bank events. Not every single phone call was pleasant. She got hang-ups and sometimes hostility, but she said she had prepared to be in the right state of mind to call in. Yet, she was also able to walk some voters through different voting deadlines in Wisconsin: deadlines to register, vote by mail, and in-person vote.
Wendy Y. Li, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UW-Madison, was more optimistic about phone banking outreach to Chinese American voters in Wisconsin.
Li, also a second-generation child of Chinese immigrants, tweeted her first-time experience as a volunteer for the Biden Campaign: “I’ve phone banked so many Chinese-Americans who are undecided…and a few Trump supporters.”
She went on to tweet about the importance of reaching out to Chinese American voters in Wisconsin: “I think these calls can be effective. A lot of people seemed surprised to be getting this outreach, and for some, it seems like a first step towards understanding that Chinese-Americans can be a political force and that our political voices are relevant.”
As the presidential campaign heads into its final days, Jiang and his group members have figured out disclosure and disclaimer requirements for political campaign ads. They have purchased political billboards in Wausau — a community with a significant Hmong population — as well as Green Bay and Milwaukee, with six words written on them: “UNITE NOT DIVIDE. VOTE FOR BIDEN!”
Predicting the election result, Jiang said, “I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m confident that Biden will take Wisconsin.”
Gao shared the same vision, but added, “We have to keep fighting until the end and keep reaching out to voters.”