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wang INTERVIEW WITH LING-CHI WANG, APRIL 1997


Wang is professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He lectures and writes extensively on Asian American history, civil rights and education issues affecting Asians in the U.S.

Q: What's been your reaction to the campaign finance controversy?

I am very much troubled by the race card that has been played and the whole history of how this race card has been used in the Democratic Party. It began with the DNC in the wake of Jimmy Carter's defeat. The DNC decided to abolish all the so-called interest groups within it. Meaning the Black caucus, the Asian caucus, the women's caucus, the gay caucus, the Latino caucus...The Republicans were able to attack the Democrats by saying that they were just beholden to special interests. Only in this case,"special interests" was synonymous with racial groups and women's groups, not with corporate interests. The DNC got very defensive. They had a change of leadership and abolished all of these groups.

Then,when Ron Brown came in as the head of the DNC, he slowly, and without much publicity, reinstated most of them, without calling them caucuses. Instead he called them the "outreach clients." The DNC developed different outreach strategies for each group and called them Outreach Plans. But essentially they all targeted Jews, Asians, blacks, women, labor, what have you.

The Outreach Plan targeting Asian Americans was created in early 1996--or maybe`95--by a group of about six or seven people, chaired by Congressman Bob Matsui's wife, Doris Matsui, who is on President Clinton's staff in the White House. And apparently, the report was essentially written by John Huang. The interesting thing is that of all the outreach plans, none of them carried a price tag except for the one targeting Asian Americans.

Q: Meaning what?

The plan called for $7 million dollars to be raised from Asian Americans. The other plans did not include such a price tag, and John Huang was asked to carry out this plan. Now, I read that document. There was nothing wrong with the actual content of that document. But I think that the intention behind the drafting of that document was wrong, as was the implementation of it.

"Intention" meaning that the intention was to use this perfectly legitimate plan to get Asian Americans to participate more so that they could become part of American Democracy. Just like motherhood and apple pie when you read it. But obviously the people who drafted that plan had every intention of using it to reach their target of $7 million.

But the implementation phase went wrong. To begin with, Asian Americans don't have that kind of money. A lot of the money that John Huang raised-- about $3.5 million--came from foreign sources, not from Asian Americans.If they had asked me, I would have told them that there is no such money in the Asian American community.

Q: Do you think there was an intention to solicit foreign donations from the very beginning, before they drafted that plan?

I don't know. Nothing in the plan itself indicated anything about raising money from foreign sources. But obviously, it looked like there was a lot of pressure on John Huang to produce the money. Whoever selected him may have had the intention of using him to reach out to foreign sources.

Because if John Huang knew the Asian American community, he would have known that there was no way that it could contribute that kind of money.

Q: Not even from among our wealthiest constituents in the Asian American population?

Well, there are such people, but there is no history of that kind of contribution. And asking a millionaire to contribute $100 is a lot of money if the millionaire has never made a political contribution. But I've been around long enough on the political scene to know how much you can raise and how much you cannot raise in the Asian American community. And that big $1 million fundraising event that took place in Century Plaza in Los Angeles last year--if you looked at the [news] picture with Clinton sitting in the middle at the head table, you could see he was flanked by two people who were not even American citizens.

Q: Do you know much about who attended that fund-raiser? Were they leading players in the Asian American community or were they mostly business people?

No, they were mostly business people. You have to be. You have to come from fairly well-to-do backgrounds to be able to make contributions of $5,000, $10,000, $12,000, or in some cases, $100,000 and $200,000.

Q: There is this notion that, because of the Pacific Rim explosion, Asian Americans are inherently tied to this explosion and that there is a lot of money pouring in as a result. In fact, the latest census shows that the largest percentage of wealthy households is among the Asian American population.

Okay, but a lot of these people are, at best, permanent residents. Many of them are just so-called treaty port merchants under immigration law. Let's say I were Mitsubishi in Japan and I want to establish a subsidiary in America. I could hire some lawyer to get myself set up here as a subsidiary of Mitsubishi in California, register in the USA and then, under the immigration law for treaty port merchants, I could have an internal company transfer. Then a lot of my employees at Mitsubishi in Japan could be transferred into the United States to work for my subsidiary here. And these people, of course, would live, and they'd send their children to our schools, and they'd pay taxes, and everything else. But they are not citizens of the United States. They may not even be permanent residents of the United States.

Q: So, the question is, given that Asian Americans supposedly have so much money, perhaps the Democratic party targeted Asian Americans specifically to get at that money.

There is certainly that impression. And I think there are enough of these transnational business people that are coming and going constantly between here and Asia and, of course, like all sound business people you have to know the local customs, local politics. It does not take long for anybody to know that to do business successfulLy in America you have to get involved in politics. If you want to put up a high-rise office building, you need a zoning variance. How do you get that except through lining the pockets of politicians?

So, it is very easy to learn these skills, and everybody does it. The people who contributed through John Huang are not the only people that are doing this. Ask the chairman of Seagram's. The owners are Canadian citizens but they have made more contributions and done more fundraising in America than the Asians have.

Q: One of the other questions that has come up is identifying what the cultural underpinnings of Asian giving is. Are there different expectations about reciprocity and favors?

Well, it's just that there are different institutional channels through which you can bribe your way. In America, we set up a very elaborate legal system where you can do bribery without penalty. If I contribute a million to the Democratic Party and a million to the Republican Party, I'm making a business investment--to buy, further down the road, certain legislation, tax relief, loop holes, or exemptions from some environmental impact thing. We never call this a bribe. That's because in America we have these very elaborate schemes; we have laws.

In Asian countries, they don't have lawyers; they don't have very elaborate legal systems because the societies are organized differently. A lot of business is based upon personal relations, especially family relations. There are certain social relations that you establish and these are the social institutions through which you extend favors and expect them in return. For instance, you might take on powerful politicians--or their children, wives, or cousins--as business partners as a way of gaining political advantage or access to power and resources. That's the only difference I see between the American way of bribery and the so-called Asian way of bribery.

Q: Could you talk a little about the history of Asian American political involvement at the state and national level since the Second World War.

First of all, before the Second World War, there was virtually no Asian American participation in politics because federal laws prohibited Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. Therefore, they had no right to vote. Basically, the government sanctioned discrimination against Asians. So, for a long time within the Asian American community, they saw the government as being the greatest oppressor of all.

The biggest example of this would be the 110,000 Japanese Americans they put away in concentration camps during the Second World War, in total violation of the United States Constitution. Because of this, even after the Second World War, when Asian immigrants could become naturalized citizens and participate in the electoral process, there was still a lot of doubt and suspicion about the government being the oppressor and that you could not really trust the it.

Then, in the 1970s, the younger generation of Asian Americans said, "Hey look, we do not want to be treated as foreigners. We do not want to be accepted only as second-class citizens." And that's when Asian Americans, at least the younger people, began to participate in the electoral process.

But as that was happening, in the early `70s, there were these tremendous changes in American foreign policy. After Nixon came back from China in 1972, we basically said that our Cold War policy of containment of China was completely wrong and that we would abandon it. That policy, of course, had led us to support all of the military dictators from South Korea to Vietnam. So, when we changed our policy, we also stopped supporting these dictators. As a result, all the countries throughout East Asia become politically unstable. The middle classes and the well-to-do classes saw nothing but a bleak future ahead and figured that if they could get out, they would.

That's why in the beginning of the 1970's you saw a massive influx of immigrants from Asia. There were two types of immigrants that came in. The immigrants who were quite well off and brought with them money to invest in America and in their families. And then there were the poorer refugees. The more affluent immigrants essentially marginalized the original Asian-American movement.

Q: How do you mean?

Well, they saw that certain groups like the Jewish Americans could make a tremendous impact [on furthering their own interests] by contributing money. So the new Asian immigrants decided to do the same thing. Instead of organizing and mobilizing voters, they did it the quick way, through money. Because they so quickly understood the relationship between money and politics, they effectively marginalized the Asian Americans who emerged in the late `60s and early 70s to mobilize and educate the community to participate in the electoral process.

Q: From what you are saying, there are some class differences being played out here.

Of course. Very much so. The first wave of Asian American immigrants came from the background of farm workers, laundrymen, and restaurant workers.

Q: ... Who didn't have that kind of power.

...Or the resources.

Q: But as the new immigrants become part of the American political process through campaign contributions, does that make them vulnerable to the foreign business and political interests of their homelands? This is what the implication is with John Huang and the Lums, that they are taking advantage of this new wave of immigrants and their desire to become part of the American political process.

Right. The problem in John Huang's case is that all the big donors were not US citizens. What you have are foreign Asians who wanted to use Asian Americans to advance their own agendas. They have little or no interest in or commitment to the Asian American political agenda.

You know,I've spent the last 30 years trying to get the American public to understand the distinction between Asians and Asian Americans. That there are foreign Asians and there are Americans of Asian descent. Somehow, white society has a problem making that distinction. When they bump into a Chinese American who is a descendant from the Gold Rush, they automatically assume that person is a foreigner. And depending on who happens to be the villain of the day, whether it be Japan or China, that person is automatically a Chinese or a Japanese.

I think that John Huang has single-handedly undone what we in the Asian American movement have been trying to do for three decades. He completely redefined us as foreigners once again by the way he conflated foreign Asian contributions with Asian-American contributions--you know, purposely blurring the line between the two groups, which we had worked so hard at convincing the American public not to do.

In some ways, I cannot really blame the media entirely. I think John Huang must share some of that responsibility for conflating the two groups.

Q: Going back to the question of foreign Asians advancing their own interests, what's your take on the allegations that China tried to influence the US elections?

Well, that's the new spin. There was a USA Today article that came out right when Bob Woodward came out with his article about how China had been trying to influence the American elections. USA Today interviewed several China scholars who suggested that this new spin could be the work of the old China lobby.

Q: The China lobby. Really?

Yeah.

Q: And you think Woodward just bought into it?

No. See, Woodward's article was based on a leak from the Justice Department. Now, he did not identify who leaked that information. To me, there are three possible sources. One, that the Justice Department is indeed undertaking a serious investigation based on a credible claim that China, had tried to influence the American election by laundering money. That's possible, although I find it very strange that Justice would make such a leak

when there is not a single shred of evidence.

Secondly, which is my theory, is that somebody in the Clinton Administration wanted to deflect all the political attention.

Q: From the White House?

Yes. By suggesting that, yes, there may be some wrong-doing, but Clinton and the DNC are innocent victims of these Communist subversives trying to influence American policy..

The third possibility is the one suggested in USA Today,that Taiwan [through its China lobby] engineered that leak through the Justice Department to deflect attention from itself because the real foreign Asian contributions have been coming from Taiwan for years. Next to the Jewish lobby, no other lobby spends more money or greases the Congressional wheels more than the China lobby.

Q: Seems like a lot of red herrings are being thrown out. How much money were the Chinese supposed to have laundered?

The dollar figure that I had heard was $2 million.

Among the people "targeted" to be the recipients was Nancy Pelosi, who annually sponsors a resolution condemning China [for its human rights violations]. Obviously, whatever amount of that $2 million Pelosi was "supposed" to get would not only have been poorly spent but actually would have had no effect!

Q: One last question.If you were involved in the campaign finance investigations, how would you go about it?

In the last federal election, $1.7 billion was spent. I would go after that whole $1.7 billion right away. I would figure out how the PACs, corporations, wealthy Americans launder their money to buy influence. You see, it's really money for policy, for tax credits, what have you. I think the American people would be upset if they were to find out the extent of it. You know, in a New York Times poll, 80 percent of Americans said they wanted campaign finance reform. But when asked what they thought the chances are of this happening, an overwhelming majority said there's no chance.

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