Meet the Chinese American immigrants who are supporting Donald Trump

Ling Zeng got celebrity treatment at this week’s Donald Trump rally in Anaheim.

One after another, dozens of Trump supporters approached to snap pictures of Zeng and her friends, who wore matching T-shirts that read: “Chinese Americans love Trump.” 

After a campaign staffer invited the group to stand directly behind Trump's podium, the candidate took note.

"Look at this, Chinese Americans!" Trump bellowed as he shook Zeng's hand.

T-shirts notwithstanding, most Chinese Americans don't love Trump. Polls show that they, like Asian Americans more broadly, overwhelmingly disapprove of the brash businessman and presumptive Republican nominee, who has targeted illegal immigration, proposed a ban on Muslims, and frequently criticized China for stealing jobs from U.S. workers.

Still, there is a small but vocal group of Chinese Americans who passionately support the candidate, brushing aside criticism from some Democrats that his rhetoric is racist. And while their numbers are slight, they represent significant trends in some parts of the Chinese immigrant population. 

Like Zeng, an immigrant from China who lives in San Diego, many of Trump's Chinese American supporters are relatively recent arrivals from mainland China with strong nationalistic leanings, a certain reverence for wealth and a firm belief that U.S. immigration laws should be followed.

Many say they have been politicized by recent battles over affirmative action on college campuses, where some Chinese Americans fear their numbers are being held down by efforts to advance other ethnic and racial groups. That issue, along with a recent controversy over the police shooting of an unarmed man by a Chinese American police officer in New York, has opened fissures in the Chinese American community between older, more progressive generations and newer, more conservative arrivals. 

“You do have an undercurrent of conservatives in the Chinese American community, specifically among first-generation Chinese," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science at UC Riverside. His research shows that foreign-born Chinese Americans are more likely to embrace conservative views on issues such as affirmative action and race in general. 

“There's a heightened sense of ethnic nationalism, and Trump's rhetoric resonates with them," he said. 

“I like that he tells it like it is," said Zeng. "And he worked hard, and gave his kids a good education. That is the Chinese way."

"The Chinese like a strong leader,” said Zhaoyin Feng, a reporter with Hong Kong-based Initium Media who has covered Chinese American support for Trump. The candidate's tendency to offend isn't a problem for many of them, Feng added.

“Political correctness isn't a thing in China," she said.

Support for Trump from Chinese immigrants may seem contradictory, given that China has been a frequent target for Trump on the campaign trail. He often attacks the country, along with Mexico, for taking jobs from U.S workers. 

“We can’t allow China to rape our country,” Trump said earlier this month. “And that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”

But some Chinese-born Trump supporters say his focus on China invokes pride in their native country’s economic prowess.

"We are very proud of China," said Jay Ding, who first learned about Trump when she read his book "Art of the Deal" while working as a real estate agent in China. Now that she lives in the U.S., she agrees that some manufacturing jobs should be brought back from overseas. 

“Now that we're American, we’re concerned about America,” she said. “We hope both countries win.”

Ding and others say they are also drawn to Trump because of his promise to deter illegal immigration. While an estimated 300,000 immigrants from China are living illegally in the U.S., many who arrived in the U.S. by legal means take pride in the distinction.

“I think he is the one brave enough to differentiate between illegal and legal immigrants,” said Jennifer Hu, an investor who immigrated from China. “I support his policy on protecting American interests first.”

Those sentiments about Trump remain a minority view among Chinese Americans, polls suggest. 

A survey released this week shows Chinese American voters are flocking to the Democratic Party.

The survey, which was conducted by several groups, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, indicates that the percentage of Asian Americans who identify as Democrats has increased over the last four years from 35% to 47%. 

It also found that 61% of Asian Americans surveyed had an unfavorable view of Trump. Just 26% of Asian Americans had unfavorable views of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, the poll found.

The number of Asian American voters has nearly doubled in the last decade from 2 million in 2000 to 3.9 million in 2012, according to the Center for American Progress. President Obama won Asian Americans over Mitt Romney in 2012 by roughly 3 to 1, exit polls found.

Daniel Deng, an attorney in the San Gabriel Valley who supports Clinton, says some newcomers who like Trump’s resume and brash style don’t realize that the Chinese were once the target of the same kind of exclusionary rhetoric that Trump has embraced. 

He and others see parallels between Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that banned virtually all immigrants from China.

“They don’t know what Chinese Americans have gone through," Deng said of newer arrivals. 

Shirley Xiayi Zhang, who works for the Chinatown Business Improvement District, says she is also unnerved by Trump's repeated characterization of immigrants from Mexico as criminals.

“It’s hard for me to imagine any of us immigrants supporting him," she said. "But I guess that's why we’re in America, so we can support whoever we want." 

Zhang's godparents, small-business owners who immigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1990s, recently told her they are voting for Trump. 

“They think he is very smart and successful," she said. "And they think he is the only one brave enough to say these things."

One group supporting the Republican, Chinese Americans for Trump, was formed earlier this year by David Wang, a 32-year-old who says he came to the U.S. from Bejing as a teenager on a student visa.

Wang cannot vote in the November election because he is not a citizen. Still, he sees himself as a leader of the modern movement for Chinese American civil rights.

His interest in politics was sparked by a recent proposal to restore affirmative action in the state's higher education admissions process, which he and others believe hurts Asian American college applicants.

Wang helped organize an effort to defeat that proposal and this year helped organize thousands of protesters to oppose the prosecution of Peter Liang, the former New York police officer who shot an unarmed black man in a case that drew allegations of racial injustice from both African American and Asian American activists.

Wang mostly organized those efforts via WeChat, a smartphone application popular in Chinese communities. He has also used the application to organize Trump supporters.

“I've got access to millions of people on my iPhone,” Wang said. "It's our job to educate them.”

Wang says some Chinese Americans have criticized him for supporting Trump.

“Some say, ‘He's a loudmouth.’" Wang said. "I say, ‘Well, strong leaders are loudmouths.’”

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kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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