by Sean Deng
In California, a bill aimed at restoring affirmative action in California’s public university admission process has encountered strong oppositional responses from the Chinese American community. The bill, titled Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (SCA5), was introduced to repeal California Proposition 209’s ban on considering race as a factor in California’s public university admission processes. Ever since its introduction, many Chinese Americans have been furiously opposing this bill. To many, the Chinese Americans’ response appears difficult to understand. –After all, aren’t the Chinese Americans minorities themselves? Why would they oppose an affirmative action bill that purports to improve the condition of the minority?
I believe it is necessary to provide some cultural background and context to shed some light on the reasons for the Chinese Americans’ sentiment toward SCA5.
China has its own version of affirmative action in higher education admission: students of minority ethnic groups have bonus points added to their scores in the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. In China, the Han people is the majority while fifty-five other ethnic groups are considered the minorities. By being a minority, a student may enjoy 20 additional points – a large bonus considering the white-hot competition in the Higher Education Entrance Examination. This preferential policy has only been explicitly implemented since the 1980s, making it a very modern product in terms of China’s thousands of years of political heritage.
To understand the impact of this preferential policy, one must first understand the significance of the National Higher Education Entrance Examination on the Han people’s collective cultural consciousness. For more than a thousand years, the dynasties of the Han people (the “China Proper” or core China) had an “Imperial Examination” system to select the intellectual elite. The National Higher Education Entrance Examination is considered to be a modernized successor of the ancient Imperial Examination. Both exams are legendarily difficult.
For the majority of its history, the Imperial Examination system had never incorporated any preferential treatment policy, not even towards relatives and acquaintances of the government officials. Indeed, the Imperial Examination was regarded as almost divine, an event even the Emperor must pay his respect to. This impartial treatment is quite extraordinary considering that in ancient feudal China, the government officials generally enjoyed all kinds of privilege. Therefore, the preferential treatment toward minorities for the modern Higher Education Entrance Examination is widely viewed by the Han people as a violation of that cultural tradition.
Now let’s get back to SCA5. The main force that opposes SCA5 is first-generation Chinese Americans of the Han ethnic group. Since the 1980s, these individuals came to the U.S. from China mainly through attending U.S. universities as graduate students. Before entering the U.S., almost all of them went through the notoriously difficult Chinese Higher Education Entrance Examination, in which they must outcompete their minority group classmates by a large margin. For many of these students, the difficulty of that exam, combined with the preferential policy that defies tradition gives rise to an almost subconscious resistance to the affirmative action policy in the proposed SCA5.
The proponents of SCA5 are pushing for a broader conversation about improving higher education access to minority students through affirmative action. If any constructive conversation is to be had, the Chinese Americans’ cultural heritage, as discussed above, must be taken into consideration.