China and the World

An officer and a felon

How a police officer’s trial sparked rare Chinese-American protests

Protesters hold a rally in support of former NYPD officer Peter Liang in Brooklyn

Chinese-Americans are irate

The Chinese-American community has been no stranger to discrimination since a large number of its forefathers moved to the US to build the American railroads. In 1882 their kin were banned from entering the country to work by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was only repealed in 1943.

Even so the Chinese-American community has a reputation for being meek and non-vocal about its treatment.

Somewhat unexpectedly the cause they have now found to rally around is the case of an American-born Chinese police officer facing jail time for the shooting of an innocent man.

The case of Peter Liang began in 2014 when he and his NYPD partner were patrolling the stairwells of a public housing complex in Brooklyn. While inspecting the darkened area, the 27 year-old Liang had his gun drawn and his finger on the trigger. When a sudden noise startled the rookie (Liang was 18 months into his job at the time) he fired. The bullet ricocheted off the far wall and into the chest of Akai Gurley, a black man who had just entered the stairwell a floor below.

Gurley died at the scene.

Liang was later sacked and prosecuted for charges including manslaughter and official misconduct. A jury of seven men and five women found him guilty of those two charges on February 11, and some observers suggest he may face up to 15 years in jail time.

But following the ruling, large numbers of the Asian-American community came out to demonstrate against it.

“Tens of thousands of people rallied Saturday in more than 30 American cities to protest the conviction,” Global Times reports. “Saturday’s demonstration showed that Chinese-Americans have realised they also face these double standards and that they are determined to stand up against any unfair treatment.”

The ‘double standard’ in question is the issue of racial discrimination within America’s police force. According to the New York Daily News, 179 people have been shot by on-duty New York police officers since 1999 – 86% of the victims were black or Hispanic – but only three cases were brought to court.

Only two, including Liang, were convicted.

Many of Liang’s supporters feel that he is being used as a scapegoat by the American judicial system, to excuse its inaction in a number of high profile cases where black citizens have been killed by white officers.

While newspaper outlets from mainland China do not expressly suggest that their readers should support Liang, the tone of their coverage is generally sympathetic, with some reports on Sina praising the Chinese-American protesters for speaking up for their rights.

The Beijing Times meanwhile points out that a number of African-Americans have also come out to protest – but in their case they are calling for a more severe sentence for Liang.

The English-language version of the Global Times observes that “a majority of Chinese-Americans are not active in politics and have relatively low voting rates. This means they are easily overlooked or discriminated against”. The nationalistic-in-tone newspaper adds that “If they are motivated by Liang’s case, they should start to make their voices heard, go into politics and fight for what’s theirs.”

With the Republican nomination looking ever more likely to be won by Donald Trump – who has called the outsourcing of labour to China “the single biggest theft in the history of the world” – the ethnic Chinese community may become more politically vocal should the candidate actually manage to get into the White House.





Keeping track: Peter Liang was sentenced on April 19 to five years probation, three months house arrest and 800 hours community service. His conviction was also reduced from manslaughter to criminally-negligent homicide. April 19 happen to also be election day for the New York primaries. John Chen, president of the New York Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights said, “Today we are advocating every Asian-American to vote in the local and state elections […] We all have to vote for the representative who can fight for our rights.” (Trump and Clinton both enjoyed victory that day.)

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