The Celebrated Immigrant

Sonia Shah

Labor and civil rights
groups were outraged at Bush’s nomination of anti-affirmative action,
anti-minimum wage Linda Chavez for labor secretary. But strangely, when Bush
quickly replaced Chavez with anti-affirmative action, anti-minimum wage (and
anti-feminist) Elaine Chao, nary a peep was heard. Chao sailed through her

For one thing,
Elaine Chao is the first Asian American woman to hold a cabinet-level
position. The Organization of Chinese Americans supported her on the grounds
that her selection would help the Bush administration “represent the diversity
of the nation.” Union leaders John Sweeney and Morton Bahr gave the thumbs-up
because they had worked with her at the United Way; unions help fund that
organization by soliciting contributions from workers (to the tune of $2
billion last year), in exchange for free trainings, staff, and other support.
Chao has no tell-tale paper trail of right-wing blather, as Chavez did. The
rest of us were lulled by spin—of a uniquely Asian American nature.

Throughout her
career, Chao, a Harvard MBA, has been loyal to her Republican patrons. In
1988, as a young White House fellow with a background in banking, Chao chaired
Asian Americans for Bush/Quayle. In 1989, then-Transportation Secretary
Elizabeth Dole paved the way for Chao’s appointment as deputy secretary of
transportation. In 1991, Chao opposed the Civil Rights Act because it promoted
“quotas.” In 1993, Chao married Kentucky’s anti-campaign-finance-reform
Republican senator Mitch McConnell, named by Congressional Quarterly
and the now-defunct George magazine as one of Washington’s most
powerful people; he was present at her confirmation as labor secretary. In
1998, now a Heritage Fellow, Chao publicly denounced affirmative action. In
March 1999, she opposed the confirmation of Asian American Bill Lan Lee as
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of
Justice because he supported affirmative action. In this past presidential
campaign, she raised more than $100,000 for George W. Bush.

Even when Chao
hasn’t been working under or raising money for Republicans, she’s found ways
to publicly announce her support for the Republican party line. In a 1992
appearance on “CBS This Morning,” she recalled the “great work of President
Reagan and President Bush.” In a 1994 CNN interview on the United Way’s
fundraising campaign, she  pronounced that “There’s overall, universal
agreement that the current welfare system does need to be revamped….
Obviously, the tenets and cornerstones of any future welfare reform must also
rest on self-sufficiency, self-reliance.”

During her
inexplicable 1998 appearance on a panel of race scholars and journalists
discussing former President Clinton’s “Dialogue on Race,” Chao interrupted her
own obvious platitudes (“…when we talk about diversity, what a wonderful
notion it is. Of course, most of us support it. I for one definitely support
it,” she said) to veer off topic to introduce her overriding theme:
affirmative action is bad.

given how loyal Chao has been to Republican color-blind politics, both the
news media and conservative elites have fallen over themselves extolling the
virtues of her race, gender, and immigrant status. Almost every article ever
written about her, and at almost every political event she’s spoken at, her
story of immigrating to the U.S. from Taiwan as a non-English-speaking
8-year-old has been celebrated and elaborated, with varying degrees of
irrelevance. The Christian Science Monitor led its 1997 story about her
appearance at a women’s leadership conference with a somewhat exaggerated
version: “Elaine Chao began her life in this country with nothing,” it starts.
A 1999 profile of her that ran in Heritage Today titled, “An American
Success Story,” (underlining the fact that for Heritage, at least, an Asian
woman being “American” and a “success” is particularly noteworthy) repeats the
poor immigrant story: her family came to America with “little more than the
clothes on their backs.” The sob story came into full effect after Bush’s
announcement of her nomination as labor secretary, in which he said, “Elaine
Chao believes deeply in the American dream because she has lived it. She came
to America at the age of eight not knowing a word of English. Her successful
life gives eloquent testimony to the virtues of hard work and perseverance,
and to the unending promise of this great country.”

Chao has, by
all accounts, not intervened in the starry-eyed media portrayal of her as the
embodiment of the American Dream. But by repeating this story ad nauseum,
weighing Chao’s accomplishments against her immigration, Bush and company
imply that immigration itself (or learning English at age 8 rather than age 2)
is a disadvantage. This is a demonstrably false assumption given the thousands
of wealthy elites that immigrate to this country every year.

Chao’s gender
has come under scrutiny as well. The Christian Science Monitor
described her as “subdued” and “petite.” A conference director was quoted
calling Chao “this little woman.” The Los Angeles Times called her
“willowy” and described her outfit. Chao admitted that her gender and race
clouded people’s judgments of her: “I am a woman,” she said. “I am a minority.
I am young. I get past this by just letting people get to know me.”

But all of
these accolades for being an Asian immigrant woman may have gone to her head.
So much so that this Republican woman of color who thinks that racial identity
doesn’t matter, that her gender and race is something one should “get past,”
has herself waxed eloquent about the virtues of her race, gender, and
immigration status. Unlike someone like Linda Chavez, who is unapologetically
ideological, Chao has shrouded her right-wing stances and hard-core corporate
mindset in soft-core identity politics.

At a 1997
conference on women and leadership, Chao gave homage to her femininity and
Asianness—not her merit, of which she has plenty—in explaining her success.
Women, she said, are “better at building alliances, better at listening, and
hearing what other people say.” The success of women like her doesn’t flow
from their high-ranking Republican patrons or their business and banking
savvy. It flows from “women’s natural managerial skills—focusing consensus,
seeking compromise, motivating, cajoling,” which she said was “much more
important now.” In fact, these skills she sees as so intrinsic to femininity
are equally intrinsic to her own Asianness: “Traditional women’s managerial
style is very emblematic of how Asians manage—not top down, very conciliatory,
very polite, very group-oriented. So as [the nation] becomes more
international and part of a larger community…[these] skills are very
valuable,” she said. According to Chao’s retrograde definitions, then, her own
success stems from being the ultimate Asian American woman.

Chao has been
appointed to positions in which a corporate bureaucrat has been called for,
whether for political or business reasons—and she (and her handlers) has
rationalized these appointments with her Asianness and her immigrant status.
In late 1991, Chao, an ambitious government bureacrat with a background in
banking (a Los Angeles Times reporter found her “suited, crisp, and
ever the polished MBA”), was appointed by former President Bush to direct the
Peace Corps. Her appointment to one of the last at-least-nominally idealistic
government organizations probably signified the low regard the Republican
administration had for the Corps’ humanitarian mission.

Yet when taken
to task for her lack of humanitarian or development work experience, Chao
claimed her immigrant status gave her “profound understanding” of Third World
poverty. Standing before the celebrity photographs that adorned her Washington
office suite, Chao proclaimed that her “memories of living in a developing
nation are part of who I am today and give me a profound understanding of the
challenges of economic development.” She couldn’t have helped people in poor
countries before, she said, because “if you’re of a minority background, you
have obligations to your family to support them financially.” Here Chao
equates minority status with poverty, negating the reality of her own middle
class or better family, which far from needing her to work for money, had to
be persuaded to let her work a summer job (one of which was an internship).

manufactured image as a by-the-bootstraps humanitarian has gotten a lot of
mileage from her brief stint at the Peace Corps. In her address to the
Republican National Convention in July 2000, Chao mentions just one of her
myriad work experiences: her brief and 8-year-old experience at the Peace
Corps. “In my travels as Peace Corps director to remote reaches of the world,
untouched by the Internet, television or even electricity, I found universal
recognition of the word ‘America.’ In any language, it means freedom and

One would be
misled to believe Chao’s work at the Peace Corps was all idealistic
humanitarianism. In fact, her few months at the Corps were dominated by a
controversial Republican-mandated transformation of the Peace Corps from
humanitarian development work to capitalist development in former Soviet Union
countries. In her remarks to the National Press Club, Chao elaborated on the
MBA mindset she brought to the organization. “What’s really needed” in the
former Soviet Union, she said, are “managerial skills,” which she considered
“basic skills by which free people live and make their living in peace with
one another.” Chao sent to Russia and other former Soviet countries hundreds
of “business consultants” with MBAs or at least five years experience in
business, marketing, or finance. These business professionals were given free
language and other training, as well as medical benefits, housing, and
stipends that allowed them to live at the same level as the business
professionals in their host countries.

Having helped
usher in a capitalist plunder of the former Soviet Union, Chao was tapped to
take over as CEO of the United Way of America in November 1992, which at the
time was falling apart after her predecessor, William Aramony, was removed for
misusing funds.

As a skilled
fundraiser with a demonstrated pro-business attitude, Chao was a logical
choice for United Way, one of the nation’s largest charities with one-quarter
of its funds raised from businesses. In an article entitled “United Way CEO
Knows About Being a Charity Recipient,” Chao claimed that her newly-immigrated
family was “helped” by the Salvation Army. At the United Way, she further
capitalized on her Asianness to persuade Asian Americans to contribute money
to her new organization. “We Asian Pacific Americans have a rich and strong
tradition of helping our family members,” she said. By giving money and time
to the United Way, she claimed Asian Americans would “have the opportunity to
let others unlike us understand our cultural background, our heritage, and our
philosophical thinking.”

Not only is
Chao’s reliance on her immigrant status (and her silence when others use it)
inconsistent with her anti-affirmative-action, color-blind political stances,
it rests on some shaky assumptions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with
being an upper-middle-class professional woman from an educated, middle-class
background. But Chao has implied her origins are otherwise. At the Republican
National Convention in July 2000, she spoke of “hardships” in America; at an
interview in Cleveland, of being “helped” by the Salvation Army; at her
nomination for labor secretary, of her young parents’ having “so little”; in
an interview with the Los Angeles Times, of having to play with red
clay, because nothing else was available, and of having to eat ducks’ eggs
instead of chickens’ eggs.

Yet the
evidence points to a fairly privileged background. The Chao family, like so
many other Chinese immigrants, settled in New York City. But unlike the
thousands of other Chinese immigrants there, who toil for decades in dead-end
restaurant and sweatshop jobs, Chao’s father worked his way to a higher
degree. He moved his family to Long Island’s North Shore, where Elaine
finished high school. And unlike many Chinese immigrant children and youth who
must work long hours in family businesses, Elaine had to beg her father to let
her work. “I had to convince him that to be American, I had to get a summer
job,” she said in a 1996 interview. Her father established a successful
shipping business and moved the family to affluent Westchester County, New
York. Elaine was sent to Mt. Holyoke for her bachelor’s degree and then to
Harvard for her MBA.

At the United
Way, Chao was able to do what she seems to do best: fundraise and network. She
paved the way for her uncontested confirmation as Bush’s labor secretary by
networking with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and president of the
Communication Workers of America Morton Bahr, and raising billions of dollars
for the United Way from union members. Bahr later said he thought she would be
“responsive to the needs of working families,” despite the fact that she
slashed one-third of the United Way of America’s staff. She was rewarded for
her loyalty to right-wing and Republican causes in 1997, with a fellowship at
the conservative Heritage Foundation. A year later she was named chairman of
the foundation’s Asian Studies Advisory Council, a “trans-Pacific group of
leading scholars in the region,” despite having no published work (nor
substantive work experience) on Asia, save having famously immigrated from

But in the case
of her confirmation as labor secretary, a post which Republican presidents
have bestowed upon other well-connected political wives with little or no
labor experience—even her admirers had to admit she had no appropriate
experience for the job. Senator Patty Murray rationalized that Chao was a
“quick study”; “I know this is new territory for you,” said Senator
Christopher Dodd, but “you will quickly learn the issues.”

patchwork career is more a jumble of opportunistic leaps than a dreamy
trajectory to success. “The way she uses her Chineseness to undermine
affirmative action is particularly offensive,” says Dian Chin of Chinese for
Affirmative Action. “Her acceptance speech was alarming enough, yet completely
predictable, considering the Bush administration’s politics of sham diversity
based on skin colors. It was perfectly in line with ‘model minority,’
‘hardworking immigrant,’ and ‘American dream’ narratives,” said another Asian
American feminist.

Calling her an
inspirational humanitarian based solely on her immigrant status—and in sharp
contrast to the actual work she has done—is a fake-out that progressives
should see through. Chao’s subterfuge—in addition to her general
self-mythologizing, she’s been caught in a few blatant if minor
misrepresentations—adds a chilling new twist on the right’s cooptation of the
politics of identity.

Here is an
ambitious businesswoman who married big, attached herself to the right
mentors, aggressively furthered the capitalist cause, shrouded her history and
race in myth, and ended up leading the world’s most powerful country in its
war against its workers. Perhaps Elaine Chao is exactly what she claims to be:
the American Dream come alive.      Z

Shah is an author and long-time staff member of South End Press. She is
currently working as a freelance writer and editor.