Elaine Chao is from a wealthy Chinese shipping family with Taiwanese roots.  

Chasing Chinese Influence

With neither Secretary of State Colin Powell nor National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice putting in an appearance at this week's Republican national convention in New York, the Bush administration is taking pains to present the Republican Party as an inclusively happy home for diverse and assorted Americans of all colours, creeds and gender - and not just the party of affluent, middle-aged white men.

Perhaps that's one reason why US President George W. Bush's Labour Secretary, Elaine Chao, was pushed into the limelight and up on to the podium to make a brief speech during the week-long political gala. When Ms Chao spoke on Wednesday, her topic - job-creation programmes - hardly mattered. More important was the fact that Ms Chao is both female and ethnic.

Although Ms Chao is the first Chinese-American ever to hold a Cabinet post, many Chinese-Americans say that both Republicans and the Democrats take Chinese-American voters for granted. Such sceptics say the 51-year-old, Taiwan-born, Harvard MBA-holder Ms Chao actually wields more power through marriage to her influential husband, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, than in her role as labour secretary.

Of the 4,853 delegates at the Republican convention, 17 per cent are minorities. But even that modest number is a 70 per cent increase over the 2000 convention, when minorities constituted only 9 per cent of Republican delegates. Minority delegates at the recent Democratic national convention numbered more than 40 per cent.

But whether Republican or Democrat, the lion's share of minorities involved in US politics are either African-American or Latino. And it was not a fluke that Ms Chao was appointed by Mr Bush as his labour secretary only after Latino Linda Chavez, his first pick for the post, withdrew her name.

One reason Chinese-Americans receive so little attention from politicians is that they can't be counted on to vote in blocs. And misconceptions abound about who they are, and what they want. Being the sons and daughters of recent immigrants, it's often assumed that most Chinese-Americans are Democrats. Not true, says Susan Au Allen, a Hong Kong-born attorney and active member of the Republican Party. An avid supporter of Mr Bush, Ms Au was offered several posts in the administration of the former president George Bush Snr, but chose to stay with her law practice in Washington, DC.

"The perception that the majority of Asian-Americans vote Democrat is inaccurate because they have been fairly split in voting patterns," Ms Au says. "In the 1992 election, 55 per cent voted for Mr Bush [Snr] and 31 per cent for Bill Clinton. In 1996, 48 per cent went for [Republican] Bob Dole, and 43 per cent for Clinton." The 2000 election saw a similar split.

"The idea that the immigrant experience leads one to vote for a Democratic candidate is fallacious," Ms Au says. "Today's Asian-Americans are quite different from those of yesteryear. They've been around for several generations. They are comfortable being Americans and proud of it. They are educated, and the majority of them are happy with their lot in life. They are articulate and think for themselves."

Ms Au dismisses the idea that Chinese-Americans will ever vote en bloc. Principles and issues, she says, will be the deciding factors.

In Honolulu, Hong Kong-born Johnson Choi agrees with Ms Au. As president and executive director of the Hong Kong Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, Mr Choi is actively involved in Chinese groups with origins in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland.

"Chinese-Americans don't vote as a bloc," Mr Choi says, "and they don't vote as a bloc for many reasons. Chinese from various countries in Asia tend to take a different stand in American politics. As a result, they can't combine to produce a bloc vote for either the Democratic or Republican parties. In fact, votes for Republican and Democratic parties tend to cancel each other out."

Mr Choi says that in heavily Democratic Hawaii, Democrats get a slight edge with Chinese-American voters, "except for those who own businesses - they tend to vote Republican, no matter where they're from originally".

Lee Lai-sin, president of the politically neutral, non-profit Hong Kong Business Association of Hawaii, says: "Recent generations of Chinese-Americans tend to vote in an independent fashion. So it's difficult to categorise voting patterns based upon their ethnic background. In Hawaii, the majority of the [overall] voter population is Democrat. The Chinese-American vote here is more likely linked to the length of one's residency in the state. The more recent generations and immigrants are likely to have a more evenly split vote."

In America's deep south, committed Democrat Lani Wong was born in Indonesia, and spent 11 years in Taiwan before moving to Georgia, 27 years ago, where she served as chairman on Georgia governor Roy Barnes' "Asian-American Affair Commission for a New Georgia".

Ms Wong says the Asian-American community is very fragmented.

"I think it's our culture - we all have different languages, different religions, and come from different government systems," she says. "People from Taiwan are likely to vote Republican because Taiwanese feel that Republicans are more sympathetic to the plight of Taiwan. [But] as with the general public, age and income levels also play a role in who Chinese-Americans will support - the well-to-do seem to vote Republican, while younger generations tend to vote Democratic."

Washington DC travel agent Anthony Yu is a registered Republican who moved from Hong Kong in 1971, and still has family in the SAR. Though a long-time Republican - "[Ronald] Reagan was my first presidential vote" - he's not sure whom he'll vote for in November. But Mr Yu readily grants that, when compared with other minority voters, Chinese-American voters are not easy to herd into one pliable group.

"It is easier to organise events targeting Latino voters, just by using the Spanish language - because whether young or old, poor or wealthy, most Latinos will likely speak Spanish," he says. "[But] I can't say that about Chinese-American voters. If Chinese-Americans don't understand English, or their own dialects are not used, they just don't care and they won't show up."

Mr Yu also says that because many Chinese-Americans are economically better off than Latinos, they're more independent when it comes to politics, because they rarely depend on government financial support.

Perhaps too independent. "Chinese-Americans are very fragmented in many areas, even outside their involvement in US politics," Mr Yu says. "Just look at the Chinese-American associations across the country, they are often splintered down into associations of people with the last surname, or from the same village of origin. As a result, it's very hard to have unity."

Aside from being splintered in their political beliefs, perhaps the key obstacle that the Chinese-American community faces in trying to gain more influence in politics is the simple fact that only a small percentage of the community actually turns out to vote.

"As a group," says Mr Choi, "Chinese-Americans have one of the lowest percentages of voter turnouts. And first-generation Chinese, especially those from mainland China, have the least tendency to vote. This is a fact known to most politicians."

A July editorial in the US edition of the Sing Tao Daily reflects Mr Choi's thinking. Noting that Asian-Americans have not received the attention that other minority groups have from politicians, the paper says: "The Asian community also needs to have a self-evaluation in the area of electoral participation. Have we done our share? Politicians are aware of the low rate of Asian-American voter participation."

While the Chinese-American voters are fragmented and infrequent, political leaders from both parties are intensely aware that the 2000 election was won by less than 600 votes in Florida. So both campaigns are toiling hard to get the vote out, knowing that even minorities such as Chinese-Americans could play a role in who wins the White House this November.

According to the non-partisan Washington DC-based Organisation of Chinese-Americans (OCA), the 2000 US census pinpoints the number of Chinese-Americans at 2,879,636. Of that number, about 1.4 million are of eligible voting age. How many are actually registered, however, is not known.

The largest population areas of Chinese-Americans, with more than 100,000 residents each, include New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu - all heavily Democratic. But in recent years, there has been rapid growth in several states, including Texas, New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois and Washington State, each with sizeable numbers of Republican voters.

OCA executive director Christine Chen says politicians have long ignored the political clout of Asian-Americans. But in a close election, their vote could spell the difference.

"We are part of the American fabric," says Ms Chen, whose organisation includes Chinese and other Asian-Americans. "The issues that we are fighting for are some of the same issues other Americans are fighting for." - by Steven Knipp    SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST    2 Sept 2004

WASHINGTON- Wading into an emotional political debate touched off by the Enron debacle, the Bush administration sent Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao to Capitol Hill today to defend the president's plan to protect workers from catastrophic losses in retirement accounts.

Ms. Chao warned today that Democratic proposals to restrict the amount of company stock held in 401(k) retirement plans would limit workers' freedom to invest their pension funds. She also defended the administration's plan to allow corporations to require that workers retain company stock in their retirement accounts for as long as three years.

She said the Bush plan for changes in pension funds balanced worker and corporate interests. Companies encourage employees to hold company stock in retirement accounts to foster loyalty and keep large amounts of stock in friendly hands.

Democrats argued that limiting retirement holdings in a single company would help protect workers from devastating losses like those suffered by thousands of Enron workers, whose 401(k) plans were virtually wiped out when the company's stock price collapsed.

Mr. Bush's pension proposals are a political gamble in which he appears to be trying to convince Americans that he is responding decisively to the Enron collapse. But in hearing after hearing this week, Congressional Democrats, also angling for public favor, have criticized the president's proposals as timid and too friendly to corporations

On many levels the pension debate parallels the debate over privatizing Social Security. Mr. Bush and most Republicans want to give Americans far more individual control over their Social Security investments. But many Democratic lawmakers favor continuing government control over Social Security investments because they believe that under a privatized system many Americans could invest unwisely and end up with little in their retirement accounts.

Many Democrats say one lesson of the Enron collapse is that caps on how much of any one company's stock can be held in a 401(k) plan are needed to protect the many American workers who have more than 60 percent of their 401(k) plan invested in their own company.

Democrats also criticized Mr. Bush's proposal to let workers sell any company stock that their employers contribute to 401(k) plans after three years, ending the practice by some businesses requiring workers to hold stock in their employer's company for decades. Many Democrats called Mr. Bush's proposal too friendly to companies, saying that employees should be allowed to sell their company stock far sooner.

In her appearance today before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Ms. Chao, noting that many employees like to invest heavily in their own companies, criticized the idea of limiting such investments. Senators Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Barbara Boxer of California, both Democrats, are scheduled to testify Thursday before a Senate committee to defend their proposal to cap investment in a company's stock at 20 percent of an employee's 401(k) plan.

Ms. Chao said that was a bad idea. "Restricting workers' choice won't necessarily make their investments safer. It will just reduce the freedom that workers have to shape their own financial futures."

She praised President Bush's proposal to allow workers to sell company stock in three years, saying it was a compromise between what employees and employers want. Many companies want their workers to hold onto large amounts of company stock for years because it helps ensure dedication to the company.

Representative George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House committee, sought to turn the tables on the Bush administration by arguing that its proposal interfered with employees' freedom to invest. Mr. Miller said that if Mr. Bush was serious about promoting freedom for investors, the plan should favor allowing employees to sell company stock in 401(k) plans within a year of obtaining it.

"Obviously someone can get hurt when they have to hold stock for a three-year period when markets are moving at the speed of light," Mr. Miller said.

In a sharp exchange, he asked Ms. Chao why the administration was punishing workers by forcing them to hold stock for three years.

"That's not the intent," she responded.

In today's debate, Republicans and Democrats seemed to want to position themselves as the best friend of the 42 million Americans with $2 trillion invested in 401(k) plans. Republicans emphasized giving individuals freedom of choice. Democrats favored some government intervention, like the proposed cap, to protect workers from poor investment decisions, as well as from corporate coercion.

Ms. Chao and other Republicans warned that the Democrats' proposals, like the 20 percent cap, were excessive government intervention. They warned that the Democrats' proposals could hurt employees by discouraging many companies from matching workers' 401(k) contributions with company stock.

At today's hearing, Ms. Chao explained other administration proposals, including one that would require companies to give a 30-day warning before they impose a moratorium on employees' selling company stock in their retirement plans. Another Bush proposal would bar top company executives from selling any stock when moratoriums bar lower ranking employees from selling stock in their retirement plan.

Lawyers suing on behalf of 15,000 participants in Enron's 401(k) plan say these employees lost $1.2 billion because of fraud by the company. These lawyers also assert that the moratorium on stock sales for several weeks last fall hurt thousands of Enron employees because Enron's share price plunged.

Republicans said there was a simple way to avoid the financial devastation suffered by many Enron employees giving them more investment advice.

Representative John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, has proposed a bill to give companies more freedom to hire financial firms to advise employees on investment opportunities. The House approved the Boehner proposal last November, and today he called on the Democratic-controlled Senate to do likewise.

"Enron's employees are the victim of an outdated federal law that continues to needlessly deny rank- and-file workers access to quality investment advice." Mr. Boehner said.

Democrats warned today that Mr. Boehner's proposals could backfire because of possible conflicts of interest in which financial firms steer workers into investments with high administrative costs or in which the firms have a stake.

But Republicans defended the Boehner proposal, saying workers would be adequately protected because the financial firms would be required to disclose any conflicts. - by Steven Greenhouse & Adam Clymer     NEW YORK TIMES       7 Feb 2002


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