Social-media criticism aimed at an Asian-American candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council has provoked a strong community response in her defense.
The candidate, Hongbin Gu, was criticized on the Orange County Local Facebook group for her immigrant background and her campaign’s emphasis on diversity. Many commenters defended Gu.
There are seven candidates running for the council. They are Gu, Allen Buansi, Rachel Schaevitz, Karen Stegman, Carl Schuler, Maria Palmer and Ed Harrison. Palmer and Harrison are incumbents. Early voting in Orange County opens Oct. 19.
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Douglas Roberts, a member of the Orange County Local Facebook group, posted that he found it “stunning” that “homegrown Americans” were facing opponents like Gu, who are foreign-born, for political office in Chapel Hill.
The Orange County Local Facebook group’s description says it is a “transpartisan” forum for Orange County residents to discuss issues and concerns but doesn’t allow personal attacks.
“She’s not US born,” Roberts wrote. “What’s happened to us?”
Roberts, when asked in a comment whether Gu living in the U.S. for 22 years was enough for her to be considered American, said, “born in the USA works, born a North Carolinian is better.”
In an interview, Gu said: “I think when people have preconceived ideas of you, that everything is colored by that. I think that is unfortunate, and I think many other people have pointed that out.”
Barbara Beard, another Orange County Local group member, commented that it was “a shame” residents couldn’t find “more qualified” candidates to run for office. Beard criticized Gu for focusing on “diversity” in her campaign statement, which she said “placate[s] the leftists.”
Efforts to reach Roberts and Beard for comment were unsuccessful.
“We try to rein in commentators from calling other people names and attacking the person instead of their ideas,” said Ashley Campbell, an administrator for the Facebook group. Roberts’ criticism “walks a fine line,” she said, “because what he’s trying to draw attention to is not necessarily this person but what his interpretation is of a larger problem.”
Fourteen commenters defended Gu. Mary Ayers listed off seven celebrated, foreign-born U.S. citizens including former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. Ayers pointed out that according to Beard’s criticisms, these well-decorated Americans shouldn’t have held office.
Molly McConnell defended Gu’s character and leadership abilities. America is a nation of immigrants and all Americans, except for Native Americans, are technically immigrants, she wrote.
Gu, 49, responded to the social media criticism by posting her immigration story.
She was born during the Cultural Revolution in China, she said, and her parents were sent to labor camps when she was barely a month old.
Gu remembers seeing photos of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square that brutally put down student protests in Beijing in June 1989. Gu said she was a student in Shanghai at the time and participated in similar marches and protests as part of the nationwide pro-democracy movement led by students.
“I think my experience, especially coming from an authoritarian state, makes me appreciate even more this democratic system we have over here,” Gu said.
Gu came to Chapel Hill two decades ago with just $50 in her pocket, and now has a family and researches autism as a faculty member in the psychiatry department at the UNC School of Medicine. Gu has a Ph.D in mathematical psychology.
“As an immigrant, I actually appreciate more about how valuable our system is, what it really means, and what kind of sacrifices people have made to actually make this system happen in this country,” Gu said.
Candidates for municipal office do not have to be born in the United States. They do need to be U.S. citizens, at least 21 years old, registered to vote, live in the municipality and not be a convicted felon, according to the Orange County Board of Elections.
Gu became a U.S. citizen in 2015, she said.
The most recent 2015 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census estimates that Chapel Hill’s population is 13 percent Asian or Asian-American.
According to a 2016 joint study by the N.C. Justice Center, North Carolina ranks third in the nation for Asian-American population growth, and most are moving to the Triangle area.
Orange County Board of Elections data show that 7 percent of registered voters in Chapel Hill are Asian. There are only two other Asian-Americans on record running for office in Chapel Hill, according to the Board of Elections. Augustus Cho ran unsuccessfully for Congress, Chapel Hill mayor and Town Council. Jennifer Lee narrowly lost in a 2009 run for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education.
“The whole experience is very touching to me, to realize that overall in Chapel Hill and in Orange County there are people who are open-minded and are supportive to someone like me,” Gu said. “They don’t count me out simply because I’m an immigrant.”