Population & Society

From “Over-Represented” to “Dangerous” Minority: A Comparison Between Chinese Americans and Soviet Jews

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

China’s technological prowess and growing superiority are often regarded with suspicion among Western observers, especially in the US. Sentiments towards Chinese American scientists have been compared to the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union. Drawing comparisons between the two groups, historian Dmitry Shlapentokh of Indiana University South Bend outlines the reasons why the US might be falling behind in the high-tech race.

From “Over-Represented” to “Dangerous” Minority: A Comparison Between Chinese Americans and Soviet Jews

Blame "the other": Protest outside the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, against investigation and prosecution of Chinese Americans, January 12, 2022 (Credit: United Chinese Americans)

China’s economic progress perplexes and angers Western observers. From conservative intellectuals to liberals and even leftist thinkers, most have refused to call China a socialist state, dubbing it instead a society of “state capitalism”. The reason for this was obvious: “Socialism”, or “true socialism”, should be democratic and benefit most citizens, especially the poor. “Socialism” in this reading implies special concern for ethnic minorities, as well as those who are not heterosexual. Present-day China does not fit the standard criteria. Thus, in this narrative, it cannot be called a “socialist” state, but is “capitalist” – something negative and even repulsive to leftists.

It is true that liberal and leftist historians present Stalinist USSR as a socialist state, and this was especially the case when leftist and liberal-leaning intellectuals dominated the field of Russian/Soviet studies in the 1960s and 1970s. In following prevailing trends and trying to see the USSR as an alternative to American capitalism, these historians and political scientists discovered in Stalinist USSR all the attributes of “real socialism”: Stalin was truly elected, terror was aimed against a corrupt bureaucracy (only because the people demanded it), and the leaders were mostly concerned about “diversity and inclusion”, e.g. the promotion and care of minorities. This vision of the Soviet regime, including during the Stalin era, was almost axiomatic, and quite a few of those who faithfully followed the “party line” had great academic careers.

Present-day China is hardly seen as democratic or concerned with “inclusion and diversity”. There are also other issues, according to leftist and liberal intellectuals. Traditional Confucianism, integrated into official Marxism, implicitly reinforced patriarchy, and clearly confronted the feminist agenda. Thus, China cannot be a beacon for the left. China also does not fit into the conservative image of the ideal society. To conservatives, China is not a “free market” society – with the term here having positive connotations – and they implicitly agree with the Left that China’s totalitarian regime will lead the country to a dead end.

Yet, the expectation of China’s “hard landing”, “decline”, and even collapse has been fodder for an endless stream of articles and libraries of books over the last 70 years, especially after the Tiananmen events in 1989. Yet, the Chinese economy has not slowed down – except during periods of global economic stress such as the global financial crisis in 2008-09 and of course the ongoing pandemic, though never falling (officially) into recession.

There have been several explanations. First of all, it was assumed that China’s progress was due to market reform. But if the market was the solution, then why would the US, the largest market economy in the world, be concerned with China, where the market still plays a limited role?

A second explanation was that technological progress depends on the development of science, and the freedom of intellectual discourse implies democracy. Since China has no democracy, its technological progress should have been stunted. Yet, China’s technological and scientific progress has continued. New ideas have emerged to explain this situation: China’s technological development is due to conniving actions such as spying and the unlawful transfer of information out of the US, the stealing of foreign intellectual property, or forced transfer of technology. In this context, not just the Chinese from Communist China, but also Chinese Americans have been cast in some quarters, particularly by the intelligence and security services, as an implicitly dangerous intellectual “fifth column”, not unlike how Jewish people were regarded in the Soviet Union.

Soviet Jews: Smart but “bad”

In Soviet Russia, Jews were identified as an ethnic group. In its early days, the regime was benevolent to minorities, including Jews. As time progressed, Russian nationalism, in its peculiar “National-Bolshevik” interpretation, became a truly functional ideology of the regime. The Kremlin was, in general, benevolent towards minorities, at least when it came to political sloganeering. There was constant emphasis on “friendship of the people” – harmonious, mutually beneficial relationships among ethnic groups int the USSR.

Later, however, the notion of “treacherous” minorities emerged. On the eve of World War II, Soviet Koreans were designated as enemies of the state, and deported to Central Asia from the Far East. During the Soviet War with Germany from 1941 to 1945, the same fate befell Chechens and Russian Germans. Jews, however, were regarded as benign minorities.

Emigré power: Rally in San Francisco in 1983 in support of Jews in the Soviet Union (Credit: American Jewish Historical Society)

Emigré power: Rally in San Francisco in 1983 in support of Jews in the Soviet Union (Credit: American Jewish Historical Society)

That changed after the war for several reasons. First was Israel’s emergence. The USSR’s support of Israel changed as it turned toward the West, especially after the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. While Soviet Russia accused Koreans, Germans and Chechens of working with the enemy, spying and fighting for foes, or potentially becoming spies or soldiers for their enemies’ armies, Jews were implicitly seen, by both the authorities and the masses, as being sly and “too smart”. The perception was that there were too many Jews in good colleges and universities, who then took well-paid, prestigious jobs, earning a comfortable living.

After increasing tensions with Israel, new problems emerged. Jews, in the view of Soviet officials, had benefited from the free, superior Soviet education and by emigrating to Israel and later the US, contributed to the technological and military potential of their foes. This gave the USSR more reason to limit their numbers in top universities and research institutions. As a result, the number of Soviet émigrés increased, contributing to the stagnation in technological and economic progress at the time.

Chinese Americans – the “Soviet Jews” of the US?

Some observers have noted a striking similarity between Jews and Chinese. Both typically value family ties, tradition, and attachment to their historical motherland. Both have strong respect for education. Both have suffered waves of discrimination and periodic pogroms against them.

Take the Chinese experience in the US. Chinese immigrants began arriving in the 19th century and became actively engaged in American life. Chinese, for example, played a considerable role in building the transcontinental railroad. While doing the same work as Caucasians, they were paid less. The fact that they worked for much small remuneration than White workers led to anti-Chinese violence and laws to limit the numbers of Chinese entering the US.

After a century of living in the country, Chinese and other Asians were still not seen as “good” minorities, and this could well be seen in how Chinese were treated in “affirmative action” programs. Emerging in the 1960s, the programs presumably addressed the discrimination of racial minorities and, to a lesser degree, women. In addition to addressing discrimination, the supporters of affirmative action asserted that bringing more black and other minority students and professors into the campuses of leading universities would improve research and teaching.

University administrations were eager to find any qualified minorities. While race was supposed to be just one criterion used in admissions selection, hiring and promotion, in most cases, it was the only criteria. The desire of educational and other institutions, particularly elite universities such as Harvard, to admit or hire minority candidates and women was perceived to be so strong that it often led to abuse and fraud. Take the case of Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose claim of being of “American Indian” ancestry on forms such as her registration for the State Bar of Texas came under scrutiny, forcing her to apologize.

There was one notable exception to the minority selection drive in recent decades: At major universities and institutions, there has typically not been any shortage or “under-representation” of Asians, particularly Chinese, whether students, faculty or employees. They became “special” minorities, for they – like Jews in the late Soviet era – were regarded as “over-represented” and there was an implicit drive to “regulate” their numbers in elite schools.

Chinese and often other Asians frequently came to be resented not just by the White elite for being “over-represented”, but also by other minorities, especially African Americans. The prosperity of the Chinese and other Asian minorities demonstrated that not everything could be attributed to racism. The 1992 riots in Los Angeles were an example: The mainstream press presented the protests as an unfortunate but justifiable revolt against racial injustice and police brutality, with rioters targeting the police and upper-class residents, mostly living in White neighborhoods. Instead, they vandalized and lotted mainly the districts of the city populated by Koreans and Korean-owned businesses.

From “over-represented" to “dangerous" minority

Jews in the USSR were not just deemed to be “over-represented,” but were also often reckoned to be agents of foreign powers. Yet, the Soviet government did not regard the US and Europe’s technological achievements to be the result of Jewish émigrés who might have “stolen” secrets or brought their knowledge to the West.

The story is different with Chinese: American leaders cannot explain how totalitarian China experienced such rapid technological progress to the extent that they have sometimes surpassed the US. Since totalitarian and authoritarian regimes supposedly doom science and technology to stagnation, to them, the only explanation has had to be espionage.

Top American academics have been accused of sending results of their research to China, or even of simply helping the Chinese government to recruit talent. Chinese students, even those born in the US, have become regarded not just “over-represented” minorities but potentially dangerous ones who transmit valuable knowledge to China to support its economic and technological rise. Chinese Americans often come under additional pressure to prove their loyalty by castigating the regime in Beijing. In this respect, their treatment was similar to Soviet Jews, who felt pressure vigorously to denounce Zionism and Israel. While it is true that Chinese espionage exists, as is the case with any other major power, it hardly explains China’s technological progress.

The more things change...: "Anti-Chinese Wall" cartoon from 1882 showing and American wall going up as China's comes down (Credit: Bettman Archive)

The more things change...: "Anti-Chinese Wall" cartoon from 1882 showing and American wall going up as China's comes down (Credit: Bettman Archive)

Why the US is falling behind

Military and industrial espionage have existed for a long time – all major powers have engaged in it. It is also true that attracting foreign-born specialists is often important to technological progress, as has been the case with the US. Mainstream publications assert that conditions in the US are favorable for the development of knowledge, presumably because the US is a “free” society. This is typical Western liberal dogma.

While Western scholars are free to express their views, Western, especially American, censorship is quite strict – “Market forces”, i.e., the views of the scholarly community, government, or public typically define scholarly discourse. For example, in 1989, the political scientist and philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote the article “The End of History?”, which implied that Western capitalist democracy is the ultimate, terminal station for humanity. It would be wrong to assume that everyone, even in the US, subscribed to this premise. Still, they watched Fukuyama’s spectacular academic career unfold, aware that top publishers, newspapers and magazines wanted manuscripts that reaffirmed Fukuyama’s thesis. Consequently, in the 1980s and early 1990s, not a single book from any respected publishing house presented an alternative vision. In the realms of hard sciences, humanities and social sciences, appointments, tenure, promotions, even in “research universities”, often depend on departmental and bureaucratic intrigue, personal likes or dislikes, race, gender, and similar matters unrelated to a candidate’s qualifications and actual work.

Several decades ago, there was a popular adage: “Publish or perish”. This meant that members of academia must publish high-quality, peer-reviewed works to be employed and promoted. A new model has since emerged: “Publish and perish”. That is, one could publish and still be unemployed, not promoted, or marginalized. Non-producing top “mandarins” from research universities could not only preserve their jobs, but see no reduction in their salary or increase in teaching load. One might argue that aggrieved persons could challenge the university in court, but universities have “war chests” of financial resources, and instances when individuals prevail over universities, big corporations and major institutions is so rare that they can well be ignored.

The financial wellbeing of universities does not depend heavily on faculty productivity. Rather, their reputation is attributable to generations of hard work, and, often, university administrations are mostly invested in maintaining this image through advertisements, new dormitories and similar amenities, not on real productivity. One might argue that US universities still have faculties which produce clear technological breakthroughs. Still, these technological achievements often have no implications for actual production. The reason is simple: The translation of these technological discoveries into a new way of producing goods requires huge investments and yields little if any returns. Most tycoons prefer to engage in financial speculation over investing in the production of real goods. All of this implies that, despite enormous amounts of money spent on science and technology, either directly or indirectly, the actual result is extremely modest.

A culture of inefficiency

While the scholarly and scientific process in the US is remarkably inefficient and wasteful, it is hardly the exception: Many aspects of American society follow the same model, including the military. In Afghanistan, US troops – an all-volunteer force – did not lose a single major battle or suffer any humiliation as the American military did with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The US lost 2,401 military personnel in the 20 years of the war in Afghanistan. Compared to the 800 people killed in Chicago neighborhoods in 2021, that number is minuscule. Like other parts of the US’s societal and economic functions, the war was fantastically wasteful and inefficient, costing the nation US$300 million per day.

Why has nothing changed? Change would require massive government involvement and dealing with economic interests – not just one group, but possibly with the entire US society. A “government for the people and by the people” could not risk “China-izing” the US. At the same time, the American masses, convinced that the US is the world's technological and scientific leader, seek an explanation for why totalitarian China is quickly catching up during what should instead be a time of “stagnation”. A convenient explanation emerged: Whether they are an “over-represented” minority or agents deployed by a Communist adversary, like the Jews in Soviet Russia, the Chinese in the US may be smart, but they must also be “bad”. It is easier to blame “the other” when you yourself are responsible.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Dmitry Shlapentokh

Dmitry Shlapentokh

Indiana University South Bend

Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Indiana University South Bend. Born in Ukraine, then part of the USSR, he received his PhD from the University of Chicago. He teaches world and Russian/Soviet and Post-Soviet history. He has been at IU South Bend since 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

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