The crowd of contenders seeking to unseat Donald Trump in 2020 includes one radical outsider who hopes to become the first Asian-American President of the United States.
Andrew Yang, a 43-year-old lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, was one of the first candidates to enter the Democratic race.
While the son of Taiwanese immigrants recognises that his candidacy is a long shot – especially against political heavy-hitters like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden – he believes his candidacy will allow him to fly the flag not just for Asian-Americans but all those who are marginalised and excluded.
The New York native is a newcomer to the US political scene, and it shows.
Taking time out from more obvious campaign hotspots such as Iowa and New Hampshire, he spoke to the South China Morning Post during a visit to Hong Kong where he was attending various policy and investment talks.
His team of eight campaign staffers had accidentally double-booked him for two interviews, forcing him to dash between two of Hong Kong’s poshest hotels dressed in his blue suit with a “Yang 2020” sticker on his left shoulder.
“This trip’s a little bit off message for me,” he continued, “in the sense that my message is like hey, American workers are going to get blasted out of existence … but I’m hanging out at an Asian investment conference”.
Yang admits he needs a head-start in the presidential race so he can introduce himself and his platform to Americans.
While Trump rode to electoral victory with inflammatory rhetoric blaming the loss of jobs on China – Yang says the real threat to American workers comes from robots.
His campaign rails against the “rise of the machine”, which he argues has killed millions of American manufacturing jobs, and paved the way for Trump’s victory in 2016.
“There’s a direct correlation between the adoption of industrial robots in a voting district and a movement towards Donald Trump,” he said.
“America’s going through the greatest technological and economic transition in human history, and its dealing with it in one of the worst ways possible: by pretending it’s not happening.”
His tirade against automation is aimed at everyday Americans – the truckers, retail workers, and food service employees that will see their jobs recast by machinery – as he raises a battle cry to “put humanity first”.
“The revolution will happen either before or after the breakdown of society,” Yang wrote in his book The War on Normal People. “We must choose before.”
One of Yang’s solutions is a universal basic income policy, giving every American between the ages of 12 and 65 a guaranteed US$1,000 a month regardless of whether they work.
“What we need to do is we need to put consuming power and buying power into the hands of the American people to help them through this transition, but also to keep the consumer market strong and give people the economic power to be able to keep buying things to keep the economy going,” he argues.
Supporters of the policy say it will provide an economic safety net in times of uncertainty and encourage entrepreneurship, but it is an expensive pitch.
Hillary Clinton once considered adopting it but discarded the plan when she “couldn’t make the numbers work” without adding US$3 trillion to the federal deficit.
But Yang argues that his ambitious plan, funded by a value-added tax on corporations, will stimulate more domestic spending and grow the economy by US$2.5 trillion by 2025, citing research by the left-leaning think tank the Roosevelt Institute.
“The opportunity is there for us to transition America into the next stage of capitalism,” he said. “The fact that Donald Trump and the Republicans have mismanaged the federal budget does not mean that the resources are not there.”
As the second son of Taiwanese immigrants, Yang and his ideas reflect a stark contrast with Trump, who often employs the image of an immigrant bogeyman to stir up his political base.
Yang’s own parents met as international students at the University of California in Berkeley, with his father becoming a researcher at tech giant IBM and his mother a university systems administrator.
He remembers being bullied in middle school, subjected to racial slurs and unimaginative stereotypes about kung fu.
“I grew up a skinny Asian kid in upstate New York who was often ignored or picked on – like one of the kids from Stranger Things but nerdier and with fewer friends,” he wrote in his book.
“It stuck with me. I’ve never forgotten what it felt like … to feel like an alien, to be ignored or ridiculed.”
The anger it generated, he said, made him want to stick up for the excluded and the marginalised. After graduating with an economics degree from Brown University and a law degree from Columbia, he abandoned his career as a corporate lawyer to run a national education company, then founded the non-profit Venture for America, which provides entrepreneurial fellowship programmes for young graduates in 18 cities across the country, including Cleveland, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh.
“I understood the power of entrepreneurship to generate economic growth,” he says on his campaign website. “I decided to take my earnings and committed myself to creating jobs in cities hit hard by the financial crisis.”
“The country has given me and my family so much,” he said on Monday. “I’m very, very proud of being an Asian-American. I think having an Asian-American in the White House would be a tremendous statement on the part of the American people about where we want to go as a society … I think it’s quite overdue myself.”
But while many in Washington have turned their focus on the escalating trade war with China, growing more hawkish about Beijing’s trade and intellectual property practices, Yang is less concerned.
The trade war with China was not the right approach, as the tariffs were being implemented “very quickly and haphazardly and abruptly”, he said.
“One of the great dangers of the future is that the US and China engage in some sort of rivalry that ends up being really counterproductive,” he said. “The danger is that you get into an arms race or a cold war.”
He said that in some areas “America needs to take some pages from the Chinese playbook”, for example by making major government investments in artificial intelligence to match Beijing rather than relying on the private sector, which may not be able to match the scale of China’s spending.
His platform has also proposed a Department of Technology to regulate artificial intelligence and emerging technologies, along with a slew of other progressive policies on immigration, education, health care, and climate change, as well as a social rewards system to encourage community volunteerism.
Yang is not the first Asian-American presidential candidate, but he is the first male Democrat to aim for the White House.
Others who took the plunge include Chinese-American senator Hiram Fong who ran as a Republican in 1964, Japanese-American congresswoman Patsy Mink in the 1972 Democratic race, and former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal in 2016.
Yang has never held elected office and acknowledged that his candidacy was a long shot, but said he hoped it would give him a platform to push his ideas into the mainstream and allow him to contribute to society in whatever role was possible.
“I announced my candidacy earlier this year because I’m still new to most Americans, and so I needed the time to introduce myself,” Yang continued.
But he insisted his campaign was gaining momentum, with the filmmakers behind Linsanity, the 2013 documentary about NBA star Jeremy Lin, recording his campaign and an unnamed Silicon Valley leader set to endorse him.
He has also been active on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, the starting line states for most candidates and had raised US$354,000 in donations as of June, according to the Federal Election Commission.
So will America see an Asian-American president any time soon?
“It’s quite possible we see an Asian American president in 2020, or 2024, or 2028,” he said. “I think [my] chances go up and up every day.”
Additional reporting by Kinling Lo
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