On a chilly Sunday in late March, three Chinese teenagers gathered in a room in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood to present a research paper on New York’s bail reform law. They had known nothing about the subject until three weeks earlier, when they joined Appleseed, a youth leadership program launched by a Chinese parents’ network, Parents Group New York. Now they showed charts and arguments from both sides of the debate, concluding that, while the reform may have helped reduce the incarcerated population, it had fallen short of its original goal of reducing racial disparities. After the presentation, they shared more concerns. “The bail reform is good in theory but not good in practice,” said eleventh-grader Casandra Ng. “How can you be so sure [the suspects] are not going to go out and reoffend?”
Kevin Zhao, the founder of Parents Group New York, was pleased. Zhao became an activist in 2019, joining other Chinese parents to demand retention of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and of screened admission to middle schools. He launched Appleseed this past March to cultivate leadership among Chinese teenagers. Like many in the Chinese community, Zhao had grave concerns about bail reform, though he didn’t share his views with the children. Now they were questioning the measure themselves. “Political trends come and go,” said Zhao. “But what worries me most is that children are brainwashed by the waves and lose their own ability of thinking.”
Across the country, Chinese parents with similar fears are launching programs like these, from a new school in San Francisco to summer camps and leadership programs on both coasts. Mostly first-generation immigrants from mainland China whose political awareness dawned with protests against school-admission reforms, they worry that Asian children will be victimized in the current wave of racial politics. Seeking to defend traditional values like hard work and meritocracy, they bristle against what they see as left-wing indoctrination in schools and an ideology that reinterprets equality as a push for equal results instead of equal opportunities. Once a solidly Democratic group, Chinese-Americans are increasingly forging their own path.
The most ambitious such program might be the newly unveiled Bertrand D. Hsu American & Chinese Bicultural Academy, a K-12 private school in San Francisco, founded by Beijing-born entrepreneur Ann Hsu.
Though she knew little about politics until about two years ago, Hsu has been on an activist’s rollercoaster ever since. During the Covid pandemic, when online classes left many students struggling, including one of her twin sons, Hsu felt that some members of San Francisco’s school board were less interested in helping students than in symbolic measures, like changing school names and repealing the test-based admission policy of the city’s most prestigious public school. She won election to the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee of the city school board in summer 2021, and then successfully campaigned to oust three liberal school board members in early 2022. But while Hsu was appointed by San Francisco mayor London Breed to fill one of the vacancies afterward, the newly minted advocate lost her 2022 campaign for a full school-board term.
Contributing to her defeat was her frankness in a candidate questionnaire. “Especially in the black and brown community, I see one of the biggest challenges as being the lack of family support for those students,” Hsu wrote, adding that community organizations should help children from struggling families. Facing outrage, she apologized. But she still believes that parental engagement is a crucial factor to help children learn. Indeed, her new school, which will open in September, will require all parents to sign a contract promising to dedicate time to their child’s education.
Hsu’s stint on the school board reaffirmed her concerns for San Francisco’s public education system. “A big amount of funding and attention has been taken away from most students to help a small number of students in the name of equality,” said Hsu. “Yet the achievement gap is still there.”
Skeptical that change can come from the top down, Hsu has opted for the relative autonomy of a private school to realize her vision. Named after her late father, an intellectual put in a labor camp during China’s Cultural Revolution, the school will adopt Chinese and American teaching methods, offering, among other courses, Chinese classical philosophy and civic-engagement programs for older students. The school assigns a homeroom teacher to each class, who will follow students through multiple grades—a common practice in China, where Hsu’s mother served in that role.
The school’s model runs against current trends. Homework is a must because it helps “build the right habit,” says Hsu. No students will be allowed to skip homework for any excuse, including family hardship. The school “will try especially hard to help students from struggling families to learn how to set their priorities,” Hsu notes. And while not all students graduating from her school will be expected to go to college, Hsu is confident that graduates will be “contributors to society, and not like, ‘I am a victim and you all owe me.’”
Hsu offers a tuition much lower than that of most private schools; she is not trying to build an elite school but a lifeboat. “The public education system in San Francisco is sinking like the Titanic. And the school board is trying to get the water out with buckets,” says Hsu. “Students who go to prestigious private schools have left on their yachts. And I want to rescue the students who are still struggling in the cabin.”
In New York, some Chinese parent leaders have also been discussing the idea of building their own charter school. Meantime, smaller-scale academic programs focus on building diligence.
An example is Youth4AM, a summer camp launched in 2019 by the New York Residents Alliance, a parent organization that came into being when former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio sought to eliminate the SHSAT, the sole criteria for admission to the city’s top public schools, drawing many Chinese parents into the world of politics. Youth4AM enlists high school and college students to help teenagers study for the test. Older students gain leadership experience by designing the test-prep course and managing and communicating with the younger students and their parents. Students also participate in debates on the merits of SHSAT and mask-wearing rules.
The name “Youth4AM,” according to Angela Hu, a co-founder of the New York Residents Alliance, stands both for “youth for Asian meritocracy” and alludes to a quote from late basketball star Kobe Bryant when he described his rigorous training schedule: “Have you seen Los Angeles at 4 am?”
Hu, an entrepreneur who came to the U.S. from China in 2000 to attend business school, showed little interest in American politics until joining the pro-SHSAT movement and backing political candidates who supported it. Hu said that she started Youth4AM to take the initiative rather than rely on others. “Yes, we were fighting hard to persuade politicians to help protect our children’s education rights,” observes Hu. “But I was thinking, ‘What if we fail? We need to do self-rescue.’” Her project has succeeded. According to the latest data, 91 percent of the middle schoolers participating in the program in 2022 earned a score higher than the minimum cutoff for entrance to specialized high schools.
Some older student tutors have benefited from the experience, too. Matthew, a Cornell University student starting his junior year this fall, participated in the program for two years and said that it helped him form his opinion about the SHSAT. “Before the program I didn’t really have a view on it. But after the program, I understand the importance of the test,” says Matthew, who asked to be identified by his first name only. “I am an advocate for more merit-based admission tests.” Edward Wu, starting his sophomore year this fall at New York University, participated in the program for four years when he was in high school and says that he has always been a supporter of SHSAT. But “one change I recognize in myself over my time at Youth4AM is my willingness to present alternative ideas,” he adds.
Parents who have set up related programs feel the same urgency that motivated Hsu and Hu when they kicked off their endeavors.
Kevin Zhao of Parents Group New York, for example, borrowed the youth group’s name, Appleseed, from his favorite Japanese cartoon film—one portraying a post-apocalyptic world in which humankind is near extinction and the key to survival is reserved in a set of data called Appleseed. “For those who are worried about the current school education, we want to offer some hope,” Zhao says.
To Steve Stowe, president of Community Education Council District 20, a parents-led advisory entity, the program is critical. Stowe, a financier, has been invited to provide advice to the Appleseed participants. Schools have been training children to be social-justice activists, he observes, and suffocating their independent thinking. District schools are “essentially brainwashing kids at young ages to think in certain ways,” Stowe maintains. “If the schools are pushing it on them, there has to be a balance of point of views.”
Similar concerns prompted San Diego Asian Americans for Equality (SDAAFE) to launch its new youth program recently, according to Frank Xu, a co-founder of the organization. Formed in 2014, as Asian parents fought a measure to reconsider the state’s ban on affirmative action, SDAAFE unveiled an annual legislative essay contest in 2017, inviting students to share their views on hot-button bills introduced by lawmakers—from restraining birthright citizenship to reducing the chance of punishment for certain petty thefts. Yet Xu found that students’ essays largely echoed progressive viewpoints. “In normal society, students’ views should be spread evenly on both sides,” says Xu. “When you see they overwhelmingly support one side, you know public education is brainwashing kids.”
Out of frustration, SDAAFE terminated the essay contest last year. This year, it launched a new program with a partner organization, sending high schoolers to monitor California school boards and analyze how much money and energy is “wasted in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The organizers made their doubts on DEI practices clear to the participants from the start. “We told them our view may be different from what you’ve learned at school. But you should expose yourself to different views in order to make informed decisions,” says Xu.
Of course, conservative-leaning programs aren’t the only option for younger Chinese. Established advocacy groups and social-services organizations have long run initiatives organized around more left-leaning values. For example, in New York, the Asian American Student Advocacy Project (ASAP), a youth leadership program under the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), will celebrate its twentieth anniversary next year. CACF hopes to disaggregate achievement data among Asian subgroups and opposes single-test-based school admission.
A student from a top high school who didn’t make it to the Ivy League college he aimed for says that he no longer considered himself a failure after participating in ASAP. Another student claims that she ended up concluding that “our goal is to expand opportunities that contribute to the conversation on equity for everyone.” A few high schoolers from the program testified at a city council hearing in the spring to call for reducing discipline at school and redirecting funding for school cops to cultural programs. And some participants have now graduated from college and become advocates at CACF and other organizations. The program is “a safe space to tackle a lot of complex issues,” says CACF co-executive director Vanessa Leung. “When we talk about [an issue], it is not just about how it impacts me. We are a society. We need to understand how it impacts different people.”
Appleseed, too, has a counterpart on the progressive side: the Appleseed Network, an advocacy group for social justice in broader society, operates 18 centers in the U.S. and Mexico. It partners with the student-led Integrate NYC to promote integration in schools and has fought against screening processes for middle school admissions. “It’s about growing and having roots in social justice,” says Nyah Berg, the group’s executive director in New York. Berg brushed off the idea that the group pushes progressive beliefs on children, saying that New York Appleseed’s mission statement, which focuses on school integration, is based on concerns that students themselves raised. “Students, we sometimes as adults do not give them enough credit,” Berg contends. “They are seeing these solutions to problems within their lived experiences. They want equality. They want a welcoming environment.”
These programs may espouse different values, but in today’s polarized climate, they face a common challenge: that young participants could be targeted by opponents because of their views. CACF’s Leung said that a student from ASAP once shared her observations about racism on campus and was verbally attacked by other students. Her mother, though supportive, warned her not to discuss sensitive topics in public. On the other side, Zhao of Appleseed says that he has also counseled students to be careful about what they say in public because of reports about college applicants losing seats over past social-media posts.
Some programs, however, are showing openness to multiple perspectives. Zhao’s Appleseed plans to add debates between two teams of students presenting the opposing sides of the same topic. It is considering inviting students from progressive programs to participate, as well as politicians on both sides to sit as judges. “I oppose any single-minded indoctrination, from the left or the right,” says Donghui Zang, another co-founder of the New York Residents Alliance, who joined Zhao to develop Appleseed. “I am confident about our data and evidence. But if our team loses, we should reflect.”
Leung says that she doesn’t like debates, contending that the goal should not be to determine a winner but to reach agreement. But she is open to the ASAP students having conversations with people holding different views. “We want our young people to have critical-thinking skills,” she explains. “Being exposed to different thoughts is really important.”
Berg, from New York Appleseed, claims that she doesn’t worry about the programs run by conservative Chinese parents, as long as they won’t focus on sowing division. “I’m not naive to think we would sit down one time and suddenly we all agree on how to fix public school education,” she says. “But I think all of us could do a better job of coming to the table with understanding rather than fear.”
On a Sunday in mid-April in Flushing, Queens, the Chinese-run Appleseed invited Jim Quinn, a former Queens district attorney, to give a keynote address on bail reform. He presented data to back his conclusion that bail reform has contributed to rising crime rates in New York City. Vincent, a highschooler, who asked to be identified only by his first name, says that he was neutral about bail reform before, but after listening to Quinn’s speech, he was convinced that it does more harm than good. “He had a lot of persuasive data,” Vincent observes. But Jimmy Zhang, another student, was not so sure. “I need to listen to the other side,” he says.
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images