New York Chinese Confused by Leland Yee Case

A Leland Yee campaign sign from 2011 when he ran for mayor of  San Francisco. (Photo by Steve Rhodes)

A Leland Yee campaign sign from 2011 when he ran for mayor of San Francisco. (Photo by Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons license)

The unexpected arrest and suspension of California state Sen. Leland Yee shocked the entire Chinese community in the nation. In New York, where Yee held fundraisers in the past and had many supporters, people are even more stupefied. Some related this case to that of former City Comptroller John Liu’s struggle during his mayoral campaign last year, and complained about “the unfair treatment” of Chinese elected officials. But community leaders as well as Liu himself called on the community to be reasonable and to not mix the two incidents together.

Yee was arrested last week and charged with weapons trafficking and corruption in a multi-year undercover investigation of the FBI that led to the arrests of 25 other suspects as well. The California State Senate has decided to suspend him. Although he has built up his political career in California, Yee is not a stranger to the Chinese community in New York because of his fundraising activities here. In addition, the FBI affidavit for this case read like a script of a Hollywood gangster movie. All of this has triggered great interest in the New York Chinese community.

Eddie Chiu, counselor of the Lin Sing Association, said since the news broke, many people came to Lin Sing holding the newspapers and shared their thoughts. Some people said this case reminded them of Liu’s travails last year when the matching campaign funds he expected were withheld because of problems with his fundraising. “They said, see, another Chinese public official was set up. They just want to get rid of all the politically competitive Chinese,” said Chiu.

But Chiu said people who think this way don’t really know what’s going on. Chiu said when Yee was running for mayor in San Francisco in 2011, he came to Lin Sing to ask for help. Chiu said Yee didn’t leave much of an impression on him other than he was a political orator. But since the FBI has spent so much time on the investigation, and if the evidence is concrete or if he is found guilty by the court, the Chinese should take it calmly. “You cannot say whenever things like this happens, it is against the Chinese. You have to analyze them case by case,” said Chiu.

Liu himself agrees. “It is shocking and difficult to believe that Sen. Yee is now facing this. But if the charges are true, it is a massive betrayal of the public trust,” said Liu. “The standards for elected officials are high and getting higher. And that’s the way it should be. The public deserves it. That is true for Chinese-American elected officials as it is for others.”

When asked about his own case in which he sued the Campaign Finance Board for withholding his matching funds, Liu said: “How do you use his case and my case in the same sentence?”

Frank Yee, counselor of the Yee Family Association which has been supporting Yee since 2001 when he ran for senator, remembers Yee well. He said Yee is “a very family-oriented person. This might relate to his background as a child psychologist. At the same time, he is very politically ambitious.” As for his arrest, Frank said, “He might be lured by bad people around him.”

Frank said there are many outstanding Chinese elected officials in this country including Judy Chu, congresswoman from the same state as Yee, and Kimberly Yee, the first Chinese-American senator in Arizona who shares the same family name. Their contribution to this country should not be overshadowed by Yee’s mistakes.

Jimmy Cheng, co-chair of the United Fujianese American Association said every community has corrupt officials. And with more and more Chinese getting into the political field, it is not surprising some of them turn out to be corrupt. “The mainstream shouldn’t generalize about Chinese politicians, and, more importantly, we Chinese shouldn’t look down on ourselves,” said Cheng.

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