Before last year’s presidential election, Chinese-language media in Southern California were surprisingly abuzz with news and commentary voicing support for then-Republican nominee Donald Trump.
Now, those voices often are silent.
A December phone call from the Taiwanese government, accepted by Trump, plus the president-elect’s choice of an extreme China hawk to head a new foreign trade council and lots of post-election tweets against the Chinese government are casting a pall on one of Southern California’s most important foreign relationships — with China.
That, in turn, could sting financially and culturally. Any big change with China has the potential to alter everything from commercial projects in downtown Los Angeles to new neighborhoods in places such as Irvine and Moreno Valley to the enrollment rolls at UCLA, UC Riverside and USC.
For now, the mood for many Chinese Americans — including some who supported Trump — is cautious.
“We try to block the bad stuff Trump says about China,” said David Wang, a 33-year-old Diamond Bar resident who founded Chinese Americans for Trump and now serves on Trump’s Asian American advisory board.
“To be honest, I think he’s just testing the waters.”
That last idea was widely held just a few weeks ago.
Before the election, while polling showed Asian Americans generally favored Democrat Hillary Clinton — and as Trump used China as a foil in his stump speeches and in national debates — his brash style and positions on issues like education and immigration nevertheless galvanized support from some in the Chinese and Taiwanese enclaves of the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County, among others.
His Chinese American fans were small in numbers but often loud. They offered public support at his rallies and flooded the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat with pro-Trump discourse. That, in turn, captured attention in Southern California’s vibrant Chinese-language media, which include several newspapers and websites.
“Before the election ... there were newspaper articles saying that he would be good for China. There were groups of Chinese people for Trump who bought billboards,” said Long Liu, a San Gabriel lawyer whose firm primarily serves clients in Southern California’s ethnic Chinese community.
“It had an impact,” Liu added. “There were a lot of Chinese people who ended up voting for Trump.”
But since Trump’s surprise victory — and more specifically, since he accepted a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan in early December — the president-elect’s Chinese-American supporters have largely gone silent.
“After the phone call, it was like all of those people, all of those articles, magically disappeared,” Liu said. “No one talks about him anymore.”
The silence is not surprising. In addition to the phone call with Taiwan, the president-elect has doubled down on the anti-Chinese rhetoric he campaigned on, making it clear his administration might take aggressive steps to curtail Chinese-U.S. trade.
Trump has so frequently provoked the Chinese government on Twitter that China’s state news agency demanded this week that the president-elect stop using the microblogging platform to conduct foreign policy.
And last month, Trump appointed UC Irvine economist Peter Navarro, a fierce critic of China’s economic policies, to head a newly created White House council tasked with overseeing global trade.
For Trump’s Chinese American supporters, many of whom are first-generation immigrants from mainland China, the president-elect’s aggressive posturing toward China has come as a surprise and injected a degree of uncertainty about the candidate whom they rallied around during the campaign.
“Being Chinese American, you are always in the awkward position of deciding who you are loyal to,” said Wang.
Trump also is inspiring unprecedented engagement in a community that has often seemed indifferent to American politics.
“This is an issue that will impact everyone in every community,” said Yulan Chung, who runs the South Coast Chinese Cultural Association and Irvine Chinese School in Orange County.
“Everyone is trying to figure out what’s going on and what (the Trump administration) stands for.
“This is a country of immigrants,” Chung added. “But everyone wants to protect their own interests.”
Increasingly, the interests of Chinese Americans, Chinese investors and Southern California’s economy are entwined.
China has replaced Mexico as the country sending the most immigrants to California — including 33,000 in 2015, according to federal data. China also is the leading source of foreign students at California’s public colleges.
California is a top destination for Chinese foreign investment, taking in $25.5 billion between 2000 and 2016, according to the Rhodium Group, which tracks global economic trends.
“There’s a lot at stake when it comes to California’s engagement with China,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at UC Riverside who directs the National Asian American Survey.
“Everyone is in a state of uncertainty now, waiting to see what Trump will do on trade, on immigration, on foreign policy.”
Trump’s recent remarks on China, Ramakrishnan added, have “heightened that policy uncertainty.“
“A lot of people who didn’t take Trump’s anti-China rhetoric seriously during the campaign have been sort of rudely awakened.”
Any policies the Trump administration pursues are likely to have an outsize impact in Southern California, and particularly in Los Angeles.
The county is home to the largest ethnic Chinese population in the country — 421,665, according to census data — much of which is centered in the San Gabriel Valley. Chinese communities are also growing in Orange County and the Inland Empire, according to U.S. census data. (Based in part on immigration from China, Irvine recently became the largest city in the mainland United States with a plurality of Asians.)
Chinese investment and tourism also is a major driver of economic growth, specifically in Los Angeles, with Chinese investors spearheading several downtown real estate development projects.
“There are lots of people in California who are making money off of our relationship with China,” said Jerrold Green, president of the Pacific Council on International Policy. “Chinese tourism to California is absolutely enormous. There are lots of Chinese students here; there are lots of Chinese businesses interested in being here.”
Trump’s administration could put that relationship in jeopardy, Green added, particularly in light of his hardline stance on issues like immigration and trade.
Still, for now at least, many others believe changes in U.S.-China relations under Trump aren’t likely to impact the flow of people and money from China to California.
“There’s a fundamental confidence among Chinese Americans that the U.S. is stable, politically and socially,” said Yong Chen, a history professor at UC Irvine.
“The road to a better relationship between the two countries will be more bumpy, because it’s so uncertain. But it won’t stop people from wanting to live and study here.”