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Harvard on Trial: Chinese and Chinese American Responses to Affirmative Action

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The last few weeks have seen Harvard’s admissions process on trial. But the case — brought by Affirmative Action opponent Edward Blum and being tried by the Boston Federal Courthouse at the moment — is also being seen as a major test for Affirmative Action in general, with CNN stating that it has the potential to “end” the policy.

With one of the most famous educational institutions in the world at its heart, the case has captured the attention of audiences outside of the US, especially of those who may be weighing up an expensive attempt at applying to study there themselves. And with the treatment of Asian Americans and applicants from Asia a key part of the arguments in court, the story has naturally garnered attention in China.

For me, growing up as a Chinese American from a middle-class background, even though it did not necessarily directly impact myself or many of my peers, the principles of Affirmative Action were always around us whether we were in support of it or not. Now, those issues have come to the fore, with widespread discussion of the policy’s pros and cons.

Zhang Tianpu, a 2016 Juris Doctor candidate at NYU School of Law, wrote an op-ed for Foreign Policy about the discrimination against Asians in the American higher education system that appeared in both Chinese and English language outlets. In it, he argued,

“Asians are being discriminated against by the very same schools that were supposed to protect them in the name of the justice, freedom, and equality that they claim to espouse […] It’s truly laughable.”

Rong Xiaoqing, a reporter for the Chinese language Sing Tao Daily in New York, insisted in an interview with Party mouthpiece The Global Times that “fairness is a casualty in Ivy League Admissions”.

“They [Chinese parents] may admire the holistic considerations in the American system,” says Rong, “but at the bottom of their hearts, the fairness they are looking for in the education system should mean that those who work hard get what they deserve […] Many people outside of the US still mistake the heroic deeds and romance in Hollywood movies for the real lives and behavior of Americans. It just isn’t so.”

Even though admission into American universities as an international student (as in a non-US citizen) is incredibly difficult, Affirmative Action does not necessarily have a direct impact on non-US students in US universities. A 2004 study from Princeton University found that, “college administrators frequently code the race/ethnicity of foreign nationals simply as ‘foreign’ without specifying a race group.” So why does the issue still attract the attention of certain Chinese audiences?

One socio-cultural explanation is the fact that Chinese people are educated to believe that members of the Chinese race, regardless if they were born in or outside of Mainland China, are still under the same ethnic and cultural umbrella. It’s this idea of a unified and homogenous race that sets certain cultural expectations for people of the Chinese ethnicity. Subsequently, when Mainland Chinese media reports on the Chinese diaspora, they do not differentiate between the diaspora’s varied subcultures and the mainstream of Mainland China. To a degree, the Chinese see Affirmative Action as being directed at the “Chinese people”, despite the interlaced and differing cultural backgrounds of Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans.

The other explanation is the fact that for many second generation Chinese Americans, their parents are natives from Mainland China and are thus “closer” to the “motherland” in a cultural sense. They are the ones who often house a resolute desire for their children to attend elite universities. The first-generation Chinese immigrants to the United States still have a loud voice on WeChat platforms and receive attention from other Chinese media avenues. The parents of many younger Chinese Americans are generally against any sort of Affirmative Action policies. In compound with many other issues, the Republican attitudes towards Affirmative Action also explains why many first-generation Chinese Americans are supportive of Donald Trump.

Perhaps another factor is that China also has its own variation of Affirmative Action. The “Yōuhuì zhèngcè” (优惠政策), literally meaning “preferential policy”, has been a heated topic in Chinese society since its incarnation in 1949. In many dimensions, Chinese citizens of non-Han backgrounds are given preferential treatment such as subsidies, no-interest loans for businesses, and eligibility to receive extra weighting to their scores on the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (gaokao 高考) — though it is interesting to note that 15 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities do not benefit from the “minority gaokao curve”.

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Despite the largely negative reception towards Affirmative Action policies from many Chinese individuals, opinions vary in Chinese populations as they would anywhere. Mengyuan, a journalism student in China, believes that “preferential policies” are important.

“Diversity amongst different minorities and peoples constitutes Chinese culture,” she says. “If there were no such policies in place to help these underprivileged groups, then they are in a position where they may have to separate themselves from their homelands and culture. These policies are in place as a way to allow minority culture to be accepted.”

Nevertheless, the view that Han Chinese in China are being hurt by the “preferential policy” and are having to make compromises for minorities who do not have to work as hard, is a prevalent one. The idea put forward by some in the US that (Han) Chinese Americans are being impacted negatively by Affirmative Action guidelines has therefore resonated in China.

But as with any issue, there is still nuance and a variety of opinions.

“I am 100% for Affirmative Action,” says Reanne Wong, a Chinese American senior at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I think the existing system needs to be improved and restructured — such as de-aggregating ‘Asian’ to reflect Southeast Asian, and not considering Asians to be more privileged than white people — but ultimately given the circumstances of our society it’s necessary.”

Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, recently captured many misgivings among Asian Americans when he wrote on Vox about recognizing that Affirmative Action benefits all students, but also emphasized that the lawsuit highlights Asian American discomfort in American society. He noted that it is, “angering to witness the dismissive, sweeping way that admissions officers discuss ‘Asian-American’ applicants.”

Jessica Li, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, is another to have discussed the “pain” involved, but writing in The Daily Pennsylvanian, she still voiced her support for Affirmative Action,

I do not sympathize with the privileged Asian Americans that turn to a lawsuit as a result of this rejection, who feel that they personally are entitled to an acceptance from a certain school. Rejection from a school you think you deserve to be accepted to stings, but that does not mean Affirmative Action is the reason you were not accepted.“

Huang Xiaomin, a private English teacher in Beijing, is another who generally views Affirmative Action in a positive light.

“I believe that schools should be a place of tolerance and diversity. To protect one group of people does mean that you may have to inevitably compromise the interests of another group […] Meritocracy is beneficial for those who are already at the top and have plenty of resources but for people who do not have access to these resources, they will not have the same kinds of opportunities so the gap between the elite and poor will only continue to expand.”

A Chinese national who graduated from the University of Virginia (and wishes to remain anonymous) supports the idea of Affirmative Action but still holds reservations regarding certain details, recognizing Affirmative Action’s positive aims but arguing that, “by allocating resources based on race, it almost reinforces stereotypes and unjustly discriminates against people that are of the so-called ‘privileged race’”.

It’s clearly a complex, emotive issue, leading to mixed feelings for many. Daniel Cuesta, a Berkeley graduate who has worked for NYU Shanghai and for various educational agencies in China, describes himself as being “in-between” on the issue.

“Overall, I’m in favor of anything that helps to address, remedy, and put an end to the systemic racism that continues to exists across our American institutions. Does Affirmative Action do that? Sort of. It is addressing and attempting to remedy America’s history of discrimination, but current Affirmative Action policies are certainly not putting an end to it, and we can see there are unexpected outcomes.“

Cuesta also states that at most, universities should collect data on background but it should not be a determining factor in a person’s chances for admission. Having worked with many Chinese students, he believes that they should be “more concerned” by other policies coming from the White House, not so much with Affirmative Action,

“I’m definitely not against Affirmative Action, but after noticing the negative impact on Asian-Americans, it’s a good idea to revisit these policies and the situation around it,” he says.

Within and outside of the United States, the idea towards Affirmative Action varies. Social progression, justice, and equality requires these kinds of discussions to take place. Overall, it is a good sign that societies on both sides of the Pacific are having these kinds of discourse. It may take years to finally smooth out the best way to manage Affirmative Action, but the amount of self-reflection present amongst many individuals is an optimistic sign for a better future for all sides of the equation.

Photo: Good Free Photos on Unsplash

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Victor Zheng
    Victor Zheng is a Chinese-American who grew up Virginia. In China, he has acted in web series, produced videos, written articles about various topics, and appeared on a Chinese reality show. He hopes to use his experiences and media influence to strengthen mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world, whether that be through conversations at the gym or by dancing on Chinese television. Victor currently resides in Shanghai.

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