Secretary Chao’s Self-Inflicted Sinophobia

Image Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Image Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Elaine Chao has come under public scrutiny recently, first making national headlines for resigning as Secretary of Transportation under the Trump Administration in the wake of the insurrection at the Capitol. Born in Taiwan, she immigrated to the United States at the age of 8. The Chaos appear to be the classic Asian-American success story – Chao’s father founded the Foremost Group, which would grow into a major shipping company (and a center of controversy in her political life). Chao grew up on Long Island and attended Mount Holyoke University and then Harvard Business School, before working in a number of financial institutions, eventually rising through the ranks of the Department of Transportation under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. After making history as the first Asian-American woman and the first Taiwanese-American to be appointed to a cabinet position, Chao married the notorious U.S. Senator, right-wing extremist and oligarch Mitch McConnell. She served as Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush and then Secretary of Transportation under President Donald Trump. A fantastical, trailblazing life, filled with historic firsts, going where no Asian-American woman had gone before.

That is, until she threw her community, culture, and heritage under the bus to justify her alleged corrupt and illicit business dealings. While serving as Secretary of Transportation, the Inspector General of the department found several instances of Chao abusing her office, using her power to promote and advance her family’s shipping business. The Inspector General released their report, which cited Chao for four types of ethics violations. She had committed such offense as holding on to stock she had pledged to sell, and directing the media attention that came with her office to her family’s business.

Despicable, under any circumstances. Elaine Chao – just like any other politician – is a public servant, even in the makeshift oligarchy masquerading as a democracy that many are proud to call the United States of America. What is particularly unforgivable was the statement her office released:

“In defense of her actions, Chao’s office sent a memo dated Sept. 24, 2020, citing “filial piety.” The memo states, “Anyone familiar with Asian culture knows it is a core value in Asian communities to express honor and filial respect toward one’s parents, and this ingrained value of love, respect, and filial piety always takes precedence over self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.””

It went on to say, “As the eldest daughter, she is expected to assume a leadership role in family occasions that honor her father and her late mother.”

If Chao’s actions violated political and corporate ethics, I don’t think that saying that she has violated every moral boundary is a dramatization. In one apathetic statement, Elaine Chao has undermined the credibility of every Asian-American woman. She has confirmed every stereotype, crudely painted over all the women before her who have fought for our community. To excuse her blatant corruption with filial piety – a Confucian principle that has parallels in most Asian cultures – not only degrades the concept of filial piety, but conveniently excuses her actions. She’s not just another overpaid, corrupt D.C. bureaucrat with the morals of a squirrel and the greed of a magpie, she’s part of the other. Filial piety is, in essence, a creed to respect your parents. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that she’d do anything to get herself out of her trouble – the circumstances under which she is under scrutiny have proven that doing the right thing isn’t high on her list of priorities, if at all. But this weaponization of her culture is particularly atrocious. Elaine Chao has gone through life as an albeit privileged Asian woman – but she knows, firsthand, what it is like to be an immigrant in this country. To look different, to have parents who speak and live differently from those of your peers. Many of us know that the only allies we have are other Asian women – and without knowing anything about her social or professional circle, I know that Elaine Chao reached the heights she did on the backs of other Asian women. Those who mentored her, nurtured her, supported her, recommended her, defended her. Not only has Chao pulled the ladder up behind her, she has stomped on the hands holding up the ladder, and then burned the ladder for good measure. 

Her words are particularly galling considering the massive wave of anti-Asian sentiment that has gripped the country since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen a frightening surge in the past two months. At a time of intense public mistrust towards Asians manifesting itself in oft-fatal hate crimes, characterizing them as untrustworthy and deceitful is akin to incitement of violence. 

“Since the start of the pandemic last spring, Asian Americans have faced racist violence at a much higher rate than previous years. The NYPD reported that hate crimes motivated by anti-Asian sentiment jumped 1,900% in New York City in 2020. Stop AAPI Hate, a reporting database created at the beginning of the pandemic as a response to the increase in racial violence, received 2,808 reports of anti-Asian discrimination between March 19 and December 31, 2020.”


We strongly condemn this sinophobic, xenophobic, atrocious statement from Secretary Chao. 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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