To Asian Americans, Campaign-Finance Flap Smacks of Bias

Allegations of questionable contributions made by Asian corporations to the Democratic Party - and the intensive media coverage they've received - have prompted an angry reaction among some Asian Americans.

A wide coalition of Asian Pacific American groups has charged that Asian Americans are being unfairly singled out and subjected to racially tinged hints questioning their loyalty. The attention, they say, could have a chilling effect on the participation of Asian Americans in the political process.

"A few questionable contributions have been turned into a smear campaign against an entire racial minority group," says law professor Frank Wu of Howard University in Washington, who writes for AsianWeek, a San Francisco-based weekly.

The controversy over what New York Times columnist William Safire labeled "the Asian Connection" focuses on the relationship between President Clinton and James Riady, the scion of a wealthy Sino-Indonesian family that controls the Lippo Group, an Asian conglomerate. On the basis of charges that appeared originally in The American Spectator, a conservative journal, Mr. Safire claimed that the Riady family used its connections to influence US policy toward Indonesia. Press accounts since have raised questions about contributions to the Democratic Party linked to the Lippo Group.

The allegations have become part of the stump speech by GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, who talks about foreign money being illegally funneled to the Democratic Party for use in the Clinton campaign. Republicans have focused attention on the activities of Asian American John Huang, who formerly worked for the Lippo Group. Various reports have suggested that Mr. Huang may have violated federal campaign finance laws in carrying out a successful fund-raising campaign for the Democratic National Committee.

WHATEVER the truth of those accusations, Asian Americans are concerned that they are being held to a standard not applied to other ethnic groups. They say, too, that the distinction between Asian corporations and Asian Americans is being blurred - both in the news accounts and in the political charges.

"When Caucasian Americans raise money from other Caucasians, it is called gaining political power. But ... when Asian Pacific Americans participate in providing financial support for candidates and causes..., we are accused of being foreigners attempting to infiltrate US policymaking," says Jocelyn Hong of the National Conference of Korean Americans.

Asian Americans are the victims of "perpetual foreigner syndrome," suggests AsianWeek editor James Carroll. Even if their families have been here for generations, Asian Americans are often still viewed as foreigners, he explains.

This controversy comes at a time when Asian Americans are participating in US politics at unprecedented levels. They are the fastest growing ethnic group, by percentage, in the nation, but until recently they have been conspicuously absent from politics.

Spurred in part by anti-immigration movements and by their growing assimilation, Asian Americans have sharply increased their activism. The Organization of Chinese Americans and other Asian American groups spearheaded a voter-registration drive this year that picked up 40,000 new voters.

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