Chinese Names Become Political Virtue Signals In San Francisco

Chinese Names Become Political Virtue Signals In San Francisco

Chinese Names Become Political Virtue Signals In San Francisco

Get ready for one of the strangest political debates that you will hear this election cycle, and it could only be coming from San Francisco.

In an attempt to signal some kind of “solidarity” with the Chinese community of San Francisco – which has a long history within the city, along with being a place where more recent immigrants settle in order to find common language and community – it seems that the very liberal and left-wing politicians of that city have decided to “adopt” Chinese names. Who can we thank for this? Apparently, Kamala Harris began the trend in 2003, in hopes of “connecting” with the Chinese-speaking community. And not only do they actually get people to help them choose names, these names have also APPEARED ON THE BALLOT. Why?

For months leading up to Tuesday’s primary election in San Francisco, debate has swirled around new rules allowing many, but not all, candidates to use authentic-looking Chinese names on the ballot. In the past, candidates have chosen names to communicate concepts, including political values and ethnic identity, to appeal to Chinese voters.

But when the polls open tomorrow, how much will the names actually affect voters’ decisions?

Probably not much, some experts say.

“Just having a Chinese name on the ballot, that’s not going to do it for you,” said Jim Ross, a San Francisco-based political strategist and consultant who leads focus groups studying local Chinese voters. “You’re not going to win or lose because of that.”

Having an authentic Chinese name can help someone secure votes in a close race if other information about candidates is scarce, recent research shows. By that logic, candidate names could be a meaningful factor in some local races this March. But San Francisco’s Chinese voters are likely to choose candidates for other reasons, Ross said, because they’re generally more up to speed on local politics than their counterparts in other cities.

That’s thanks in part to robust Chinese-language news coverage in San Francisco, he added.

It is possible that candidate names carry some weight this March in the local races for seats on the San Francisco Superior Court and the Democratic County Central Committee, aka the DCCC, which governs the local party. Ballots omit party affiliation for judge candidates, and DCCC candidates are all Democrats, so voters can’t use party affiliation to compare people.

That could mean a disadvantage for the candidates who could not get their preferred Chinese names onto the ballot because they failed to satisfy state guidelines by proving that they had been using the names for two years.

Nearly one-third of the people vying for DCCC seats had their Chinese names rejected, as did both of the candidates running for one of the Superior Court judge seats. For those candidates, ballots instead feature phonetically transliterated Chinese names that are unconventional and less memorable. They are lengthy strings of characters that, rather than conveying ideas like “kind” or “justice,” approximate the sounds of English names.

And because candidates’ Chinese and English names appear side-by-side on the bilingual ballot, voters can often figure out their true ethnic identities.

“People are going to be saying ‘Oh, look at that name, I can suspect that even though he has a Chinese name, he’s not going to be Chinese,’” said Josephine Zhao, who previously ran for the city’s school board and has connected politicians with people who helped them come up with their Chinese names.

Rather than being vital to a candidate’s chances, an authentic-looking Chinese name on the ballot may just give them a slight edge, said retired local political strategist David Latterman. If securing a name “takes no effort and costs no money and it can get you a single vote, it’s worth it,” Latterman said.

The most prominent example of a San Francisco politician who used a Chinese name that jumped out to me was former district attorney and radical leftist Chesa Boudin. While he was running for office and in office, Boudin had his Chinese name displayed on his Twitter/X account. And naturally, his explanation for this came off as totally and completely authentic. *snort*

Yeah, I can just sense that deeply personal connection to the Chinese community. It was clearly so deep and so meaningful that now that Boudin is no longer in office, his Chinese name has also disappeared off his Twitter/X account. Also, Boudin has no biological siblings, so is he referring to one of Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn’s sons as a brother in this instance? Who knows. It sounded good in the interview, right? Well, Boudin lost that recall election, and the Asian community in San Francisco was credited with tipping the scales toward recall, even though the community itself was split on the issue.

Community organizers say the result reflects the group’s simmering frustrations with progressive leaders for not taking seriously the trauma they’ve faced over the past two years. They themselves are split on the matter, with some campaigning for the recall while others opposed it, highlighting a widening divide in the group’s outlook on policing and crime.

Aarti Kohli, executive director of Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus, said that Asian Americans, though united in their concern about rising anti-Asian hate, hold a wide range of views regarding public safety.

“We need to acknowledge our communities’ fears while having a fact-based dialogue on what has and hasn’t worked,” she said. “Decades of policing and mass incarceration have not made us any safer.”

Boudin’s relationship with the city’s Asian American community has long been fraught. Last March, he came under fire for calling the murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant, the result of a “temper tantrum” and declining to pursue hate crime charges.

Prominent liberal Asian American organizations campaigned for the recall. “We’re tired of having attacks on our seniors dismissed, delegitimized, ignored,” the Asian Pacific Democratic Club tweeted. “It’s not progressive or Democratic to talk at, instead of listen to, communities of color.”

According to a poll conducted last month by the local paper the San Francisco Standard, more than two-thirds of registered Asian American voters said they favored the recall — the highest level of support of all racial groups.

The support of the Chinese community has become such an embedded part of local elections that the Department of Elections has begun cracking down on the practice of using Chinese names – which has caused other problems.

In a memo by the San Francisco’s Department of Elections director dated Nov. 29, the department is adopting a policy that requires candidates to submit evidence that shows an established use of a Chinese name.

Traditionally, candidates for elected office, even those who aren’t Chinese, have picked Chinese names with certain personality traits and in turn, boosted their image and campaign.

Tu told NBC Bay Area Thursday that she got an email from the department. According to Tu, because she submitted a character-based name with her nomination documents, the department told her that they needed more verification.

She added that they told her that an old business card and her mother’s letter, testifying to her given Chinese name wasn’t enough.

“It’s extremely upsetting and quite frankly, it’s absolutely absurd,” she said. “I’ve always had this name. This name has been given to me and the fact that I need to constantly prove myself and what my name is not OK.”

In the letter, the elections department stated candidates are required “to demonstrate their use of their name or transliteration within the public sphere for the preceding two years when filing nomination papers.”

The letter goes on to say if supporting documents are not submitted, “the Department will provide the phonetic equivalent of the syllables of the candidates name in English.” That’s all needed before Wednesday.

Which leads us to the present level of crazy. Meet Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, who was going to hold a press conference to announce her Chinese name. At least, until she canceled the event.

News of the press conference — and its abrupt cancelation — sparked immediate backlash as critics accused the black DA, who is facing a recall election in November, of cultural appropriation.

“I think it’s ridiculous. It’s cultural appropriation and pandering at the highest level,” said Charles Huang, who heads the local National Asian Pacific Islanders Prosecutors Association.

Local TV reporter Dion Lim also said she had to convince people it was real.

“Someone messaged me to ask if this was an April Fool’s joke. I then sent this person the press release that came from the DA’s office!” Lim tweeted.

Price was quickly mocked online by locals, too, given her rocky past with the Asian community.

“She is trying to cheat and lie to the Asians, especially, the Chinese community so the nice and friendly communities will not vote her out in November,” one user raged on X.

Another wrote: “An epic pandering move. In the Trump years, this would be called cultural appropriation. But yes, a number of Asians will change their votes not to recall her based on this move. There are many good, better, district attorneys out there, waiting in the wings, willing to do the job properly. What is so special about Pamela Price?”

Hey, if Kamala Harris could get away with it (even though she is half Indian, and likes to pull that Asian card out when it benefits her), and if Chesa Boudin could do it for years, why would Pamela Price NOT think that this was acceptable? After all, other politicians have now done this for some twenty years! The naked pandering was totally okay until now!

As the target demographic for this entire political strategy (my parents didn’t give me a Japanese middle name for the ethnic brownie points, though – I was named after my grandmother), this is, quite frankly, off-putting and downright weird. It is one thing to translate a ballot (though that really should not be a thing, either – if you are a naturalized citizen of the United States and you don’t read English well enough to know who you are voting for on Election Day, then we have other problems), but it is another thing to have the Democrats in San Francisco taking on Chinese names solely to try and game votes from the Asian American community. Is the Asian American community of San Fransico and Alameda County waking up to the fact that public safety is much more important than ethnic pandering? Given the reaction to the Pamela Price’s canceled press conference, I certainly hope so.

Featured image via Pixabay, cropped, Pixabay license

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1 Comment
  • GWB says:

    So, the real problem is that the local “Asians” are racist, and the local political (and cultural) establishment has catered to that racism. If the answer had been given long ago that “you live in America and are supposedly American, so your name will go on the ballot in English characters for people who speak/read English and nothing else” there wouldn’t be this problem. The rest of it is just pathetic pandering to the racists.

    (And, yes, the Chinese can be extremely racist, even in America.)

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