The Nexus between Rent Control and Incorporation in East Palo Alto

David Skidmore
Department of Political Science

Drake University

August, 2021

In the early 1980s, East Palo Alto was a small community of 18,000 people (today over 30,000) nestled amidst the growing and increasingly prosperous cities of Silicon Valley (Golden, 1982). When East Palo Alto incorporated in 1983, it gained a place among the early minority-majority cities in California and joined Richmond as one of only two cities in the state with a Black majority population (Camarillo, 2007). Within a year after incorporation, East Palo Alto became just the third municipality (joining Berkeley and Santa Monica) to pass a comprehensive rent stabilization and just cause eviction ordinance.

The incorporation of East Palo Alto thus stood at the confluence of two major social movements: the struggles for Black liberation and economic justice. The channeling of these movements through electoral politics and legal reform required the construction of multi-racial and cross-class coalitions that rested upon compatible, if nevertheless distinct, sets of interests and identities. The story of East Palo Alto’s founding as a city close to four decades ago remains relevant today for the lessons it offers about building complex political coalitions that can successfully pursue progressive change in the face of unreceptive institutions and entrenched opposition. These lessons have gained renewed currency during a time when the forces of progress and retrenchment have each mobilized to heightened levels of intensity.

This study examines one particular facet of the incorporation struggle – the role that the fight for rent control played in the incorporation campaign and in the early life of the city. Rent control was not initially a major focal point of the incorporation campaign, but came to play a central role due to both the housing crisis of the early 1980s and its potential for reshaping electoral coalitions at the margin in favor of incorporation amid a tightly contested political landscape.

This account rests upon personal recollection[1], interviews with key participants, contemporary documentary sources, press reports and prior studies of incorporation.

Historical Background

East Palo Alto’s history has been defined by constantly changing demographics. Communities marginalized within the broader society found a home in East Palo Alto. These groups often sought bottom-up empowerment through social and political movements that struggled against the constraints, and sometimes outright exploitation, placed upon them by external forces.

In 1916, Charles Weeks founded Runnymeade Little Farms Colony, a utopian agrarian community that focused on poultry. The colony, located within the historic boundaries of East Palo Alto, peaked at one thousand members in the 1920s before ultimately failing. During the 1930s, Japanese and Italian immigrants launched successful flower-growing operations. The substantial Japanese population of East Palo Alto was removed and placed in internment camps during World War II (Berman, 2010; Daeenabi and Sosa-Ramos, 2019).

After the war, East Palo Alto grew rapidly from a population of 1,500 in 1947 to 12,000 in 1953 (Berman, 2010). Most of the newcomers were members of the White working class. While East Palo Alto participated in the general economic boom of the post-war years, its status as an unincorporated area of San Mateo County left it politically vulnerable and inhibited the development of a strong sense of identity.

In 1949, neighboring Menlo Park annexed the Belle Haven neighborhood, which had traditionally been considered a part of East Palo Alto. In one fell swoop, East Palo Alto lost one quarter of both its population and its property value (Berman, 2010; Anning, 1998). In subsequent years, Menlo Park annexed the Menlo Oaks and North Palo Alto neighborhoods while Palo Alto took land to the south for the purpose of building a municipal golf course (Lowe, 1983).

A more devastating blow came in 1958 with the expansion of the Bayshore Freeway, which led to the erasure of East Palo Alto’s main business district and the closure of over fifty shops, only a few of which reopened in new locations within the community. Appeals by local residents to shift the route eastward to spare the business district were rejected. Construction of the freeway also prompted neighborhoods to the West of the Bayshore to leave Ravenswood School District, which served East Palo Alto and parts of Menlo Park, and to join the Menlo Park School District. This only worsened existing patterns of racial segregation in the schools (Coolidge, 2012; Lowe, 1983; Berman, 2010).

Demographic Change

During the fifties, a number of Black migrants from the rural South found that housing in working class East Palo Alto was both more affordable and more accessible than in neighboring cities. Yet Black residents were clustered into two small enclaves and the 1960 census found that East Palo Alto’s population remained 70% White (Post, 1997).

Over the course of the following decade, however, East Palo Alto transitioned from a predominantly White to a predominately Black community as a result of discriminatory housing practices. In 1958, the NAACP conducted a survey which found that 19 of 20 peninsula real estate agencies discriminated against Blacks in new developments and prosperous neighborhoods (Post, 1997). Race-restrictive housing covenants were also common in established White neighborhoods. Between 1925 and 1950, a majority of subdivisions in neighboring Palo Alto mandated: “No person not wholly of the White Caucasian race shall use or occupy such property unless such person or persons are employed as servants of the occupants (Sheyner, 2019).”

White flight out of East Palo Alto arose from concerted “block busting” campaigns carried out by local real estate agencies during the years 1962-64 (“Housing Discrimination…,” Cutler, 2015; Rothstein, 2018). Agents blitzed crowded Black neighborhoods in San Francisco with fliers advertising the bucolic charms of East Palo Alto. Organized bus tours drove Black prospective home owners through White neighborhoods in East Palo Alto. Once the racial exclusivity of an area was broken, realtors played upon the fears and prejudices of White residents to buy out whole neighborhoods at low prices, only to then sell these homes to Black purchasers at much higher prices. Once Black homeowners came to predominate various East Palo Alto neighborhoods, the Federal Housing Administration stopped approving Federally-insured loans for Whites who might wish to buy homes in those areas (Rothstein, 2018: 12-13; Post, 1997). By the 1970 census, the White population of East Palo Alto had fallen to 20% in what was now a majority Black community (Post, 1997).

Historian Herbert Ruffin II (2014: 97) observes that East Palo Alto’s transition to a Black majority was accompanied by growing social distress: “East Palo Alto became a ghetto overnight, falling victim to White flight, capital flight, unfair taxation, debased city services, and divestment in the housing market.” Ironically, passage of the Fair Housing Act, which ended racially restrictive covenants and outlawed housing discrimination based upon race, contributed to East Palo Alto’s woes during the 1970s as middle-class Black families moved to more affluent cities (Cutler, 2015).

San Mateo County, of which East Palo Alto is a part, was among the richest counties in the United States in the early 1980s. During this period, East Palo Alto stood out as a 2.5 square mile enclave of poverty, with a 25-30% unemployment rate (60% among teenagers) and 30% of San Mateo’s welfare cases despite comprising only 4% of the county’s population. East Palo Alto’s median family income fell 40% below that of the county as a whole (“Incorporation of Coast Town….,” 1983; Biddulph, 1983c; “Racism Charges….,” 1983; Skidmore, 1983).

Although East Palo Alto had the density of an urban area, it relied wholly upon San Mateo County for services due to the community’s unincorporated status. Instead of representing specific locales or districts, San Mateo supervisors were chosen through county-wide elections. As a result, no supervisor specifically represented East Palo Alto. Nor did the votes of East Palo Alto residents carry sufficient weight to ensure political clout. As a result, the community’s interests were routinely ignored. Community leader Barbara Mouton noted: “We have been the stepchild of San Mateo County, and have not gotten the services we need and merit … The county supervisors are not equipped to run a municipality (Golden, 1982a).” As an example, the county Sheriff Deputies who policed East Palo Alto’s streets did not live in the community and could not readily be held accountable by its residents. Indeed, San Mateo treated East Palo Alto as a dumping ground (literally) for the county’s problems as exemplified by the siting of a waste treatment plant and the country landfill in East Palo Alto (Kahan, 2015, Cutler, 2015).

Black Empowerment

This confluence of economic distress, rapid demographic change and political disenfranchisement took place against the backdrop of rising Black power consciousness and the struggle for civil rights. East Palo Alto became a hub for Black political and cultural expression.

A two-year Nairobi College and a Nairobi Day School (K-12) were opened in the late sixties under the leadership, respectively, of Bob Hoover and Gertrude Wilkes.[2] In 1968, voters narrowly rejected a proposal to rename the community “Nairobi.” Pan-African cultural nationalism competed with the Marxist-influence nationalism of the Black Panthers, which established a chapter in East Palo Alto. Political and intellectual figures such as Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael and Jesse Jackson regularly passed through East Palo Alto (Berman, 2010; Olewe, 2015; “A Structure for Survival…., 1972; Cutler, 2015).

In the sixties and seventies, a number of significant civil rights and Saul Alinsky-style community organizing groups were either based or active in East Palo Alto. Examples included the San Mateo County Black Action Council, Mid-Peninsula CORE, the Community Action Council and the Palo Alto Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In the late sixties, East Palo Alto hosted several Black Action Conferences, which drew over one thousand attendees (Berman, 2010; Ruffin, 2014).

In short, even as East Palo Alto struggled with economic distress and political marginalization, it also began to develop the racial consciousness, local institutions and community leadership necessary to challenge these conditions.

Housing Costs and the Rising Demand for Rent Control

The demographic transformation of East Palo Alto coincided with an emerging housing crisis that took increasingly intense form as one moved from the national level to the Bay Area and finally to East Palo Alto itself. The political expression of this crisis took the form of growing popular support for rent control.

Nationally, median rents increased by 13% in 1982, compared with an overall inflation rate of 4.7%.[3] In East Palo Alto, rents rose 15% per year during the late seventies and early eighties, creating financial strain and housing insecurity for local tenants, who constituted 55% of the population of East Palo Alto.[4] Average family income among renters stood at only 55% that of homeowners. Three quarters of renters had low or very low incomes using standards set by San Mateo County. If, as is customary, we consider 25% of overall income devoted to rent as the upper bound of affordability, then one third of all East Palo Alto renters and three quarters of those with low incomes struggled with unaffordable rents. Overall, rent consumed an average of 32% of renter income.

A mismatch between housing supply and demand helped drive up rents. During the 1970s, the workforce in San Mateo County grew by 37% and in neighboring Santa Clara County by 82%. Meanwhile, multi-family construction permits issued by San Mateo County for unincorporated areas fell from 1440 during the first half of the seventies to 220 in the second half of the decade. In East Palo Alto, the rental vacancy rate in the early eighties hovered between 1% and 3% – anything below 5% is considered a serious housing shortage. In this environment, property values for multi-family rental complexes rose rapidly. As a result, money was diverted from new construction to speculative investments in existing properties. Speculation was further fueled by tax laws that allowed accelerated depreciation.

These conditions were not confined to the Bay Area. Between 1977 and 1980, surveys of Californians showed a dramatic flip in public views regarding rent control – from two thirds opposition to two thirds support (Shearer, 1982). The first rent control ordinances were passed in Santa Monica in 1979 (Shearer, 1982) and Berkeley in 1980 (“History of Rent Control in Berkeley”).

It is not surprising, then, that housing gained currency as an issue in the incorporation struggle. But among the many significant challenges facing the community in those years, why did housing affordability rise to the top of the agenda, especially preceding the 1983 incorporation vote? And why did the new City Council take up rent control as its first act in office and pass a sweeping law within its first year in the face of determined and well-funded opposition?

These questions are all the more puzzling when one considers that the political center of gravity in East Palo Alto rested among the long-term Black homeowners who occupied single-family houses on the East side of the Bayshore Freeway. These voters were divided on incorporation. Why, then, did leaders of the incorporation campaign come to embrace rent control?

The Fight to Incorporate East Palo Alto

To answer these questions, we must look first at how the campaign for incorporation unfolded. Following years of advocacy by the East Palo Alto Citizen’s Committee on Incorporation (EPACCI) and a failed effort in 1982, East Palo Alto was incorporated as a city on July 1, 1983. The June 7, 1983 victory came with a margin of only 15 votes out of the 3,459 cast. Barbara Mouton was selected as the city’s first mayor (Gordon, 2007). Other members of the initial Council were Omowale Satterwhite, Ruben Abrica, and James Blakey (Batchelder, 1994; Grieve, 1983; “Incorporation of Coast Town…, 1983).

This victory was a close, hard-fought thing. Opposition to incorporation was substantial. Divisions emerged among long-time friends and allies. The organizational expression of the opposition to incorporation took the form of a group called Citizens Coalition Against Incorporation Now (CCAIN). Three members of the pre-existing Municipal Council – a powerless body set up to advice the county on community issues – came out against incorporation: Gertrude Wilks, Henry Anthony and Pat Johnson (Biddulph, 1983b).

Among the skeptics, many worried that a cash-strapped city might raise taxes or fees on homeowners or small businesses. Wilks, a revered figure in East Palo Alto for her work in education and social services, was the most vocal on this point, contending: “Self-determination and pride will not finance a city … I represent people on a fixed income and they can’t afford to pay for a city (Biddulph, 1983b).” These fears were, however, largely misplaced as Proposition 13, a statewide initiative passed in 1978, severely limited the ability of local governments to increase property taxes.

Wilks argued that San Mateo County sought to wash its hands of East Palo Alto’s dire social and economic problems: “The powers that be will stop at nothing to rid themselves of the poor and black and other minority people in East Palo Alto (Biddulph, 1984).” Of the pro-incorporation campaign itself, Wilks saw it as an example of “exploitation” of “black people by black people (“Incorporation of Coast Town…, 1983).” Realtor Arn Cenedella similarly contended that in view of the financial drain East Palo Alto placed upon San Mateo, county officials supported incorporation in order to get East Palo Alto “off the books (Golden, 1982a).” Perhaps swayed by such considerations, the East Palo Alto Homeowners Association opposed incorporation.

Although housing affordability was one among many issues that EPACCI listed in its campaign literature, rent control was not on the agenda prior to the 1982 vote (Romero interview, 2021). Nevertheless, real estate interests stepped up as the primary funders of CCAIN. The mostly White and mostly absentee (83% of multi-unit rental housing in East Palo Alto was owned by out-of-town landlords [Harrington, 1984]) landlords who owned apartment buildings on the sliver of East Palo Alto that lay on the West side of the Bayshore Freeway fought the hardest to avoid inclusion in the new city. At this point, landlords were concerned that incorporation would foreclose the possibility of the West side joining more prosperous Menlo Park.  At the time, two local realtors candidly told a reporter that the same property on the West side would have a higher market value with a Menlo Park address than with an East Palo Alto address (Golden, 1982c).

When EPACCI petitioned San Mateo County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) in 1981 to seek approval for a ballot measure on incorporation, one quarter of West side property owners (including owners of both multi-unit buildings and single-family homes) asked LAFCo to leave the West side out of the boundaries of the proposed city. Responding to pressure from the West of Bayshore Committee for Annexation to Menlo Park, LAFCo initially announced its intention to set the Western boundary of East Palo Alto at the Bayshore Freeway. However, after a financial feasibility study concluded that the exclusion of the West side apartment buildings, which accounted for almost half of the apartment units in the community, would decisively weaken the financial viability of East Palo Alto, LAFCo reversed itself. Now it would exclude only a small area of the West side that consisted of single-family homes (Golden, 1982a).

While this was a victory for EPACCI, LAFCo structured the ballot in ways that seemed designed to frustrate incorporation. In addition to a vote on incorporation itself by residents who lived within the proposed boundaries of East Palo Alto, LAFCo required that voters also approve four other measures dissolving sanitation, recreation, water and county service districts. Although the latter three districts coincided with the boundaries of the proposed city, the sanitation district covered areas not within East Palo Alto. LAFCo required that all five measures be approved before incorporation could move forward. It was in part because of this confusing ballot that community leader Barbara Mouton declared that LAFCo “did everything they could do to defeat us (Golden, 1982a).

In the event, four of the five measures passed, including the main question on incorporation, which gained 1587 votes in favor versus 1238 votes against. Only the measure providing for dissolution of the sanitary district failed to gain an overall majority in favor, falling short of passage by 41 votes. As incorporation proponents had feared, the sanitary district measure did pass among voters residing within the boundaries of East Palo Alto, but failed due to opposition by voters living within the district but outside of the proposed city (Springen, 1982; Golden, 1982d).

Following the 1982 defeat, EPACCI successfully petitioned for a second vote the following year. LAFCo gave approval, also agreeing to allow a straight up-and-down vote on incorporation. The campaign prior to the second vote took on a different complexion. Rent control now moved to the forefront of the debate.

The Formation of the East Palo Alto Council of Tenants (EPACT)

From a political and organizational point of view, the East Palo Alto Council of Tenants (EPACT), formed in 1982, played a crucial role in mediating the relationship between incorporation and rent control. Among the prime movers in EPACT’s creation were Ruben Abrica, Lon Otterby and Carlos Romero. Abrica was an educator who was later elected to East Palo Alto’s first city council. Otterby was a machinist and political activist with experience in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Romero was a Stanford student. Others who worked on local housing issues, whether through EPACT or separately, included Sharifa Wilson, Nate Branch and Duane Bay (Abrica, 2014).

Abrica recalls: “I went through every single apartment on the west side two or three times. I started finding out how abusive some of the managers and landlords were (Real, 2015-16).” EPACT provided tenants with information on their legal rights, mediated tenant disputes with landlords, and helped tenant’s navigate government bureaucracy. In one such case, for instance, Otterby contacted government agencies on behalf of a tenant who was threatened with an eviction notice after refusing to sign a landlord’s petition to annex the neighborhood to Menlo Park (Otterby, 1983). EPACT met with Stanford law students working at the East Palo Alto Community Law Project to help them better understand the kinds of issues that faced tenants and the sorts of legal assistance that was most needed.

Canvassing was a major way that EPACT informed and organized tenants. Members distributed leaflets at the doors of apartments to invite people to meetings or events and to encourage them to become politically active in support of tenant’s rights. EPACT aimed to have at least one person in each building who would volunteer to open locked security gates so that canvassers could gain access to the building (Lon Otterby interview, 2021).

In addition, EPACT members participated in voter registration drives, spoke before official bodies on behalf of incorporation, wrote on rental issues for a community newspaper called the East Palo Alto Progress (published by historian Bob Lowe), carried out workshops on renter’s rights, staffed information tables at the local supermarket, lobbied City Council members, helped research and design rental legislation and served on the East Palo Alto Rent Stabilization Board.

EPACT, Coalition-Building and Incorporation

While EPACT was, from one point of view, a natural outgrowth of the housing crisis that enveloped East Palo Alto at this time, it also connected to strategic moves within the pro-incorporation camp. The decision to elevate the salience of rent control in the incorporation campaign owed much to the peculiar geography and demographics of East Palo Alto.

Since the freeway was completed in the late fifties, the ties between this West side outcropping of East Palo Alto and the rest of the community had grown increasingly tenuous. Among the 4,000 residents of this area, only 20% were Black, with most of the remainder White or Latino (Golden, 1982a; Biddulph, 1983a). Most West side renters were short-term residents, such as the bulk of the estimated 350 Stanford students who lived in East Palo Alto (Biddulph, 1983b). In 1980, only 15% of East Palo Alto renters had occupied their apartments for more than five years, while 54% had lived in their unit for less than sixteen months (Kazak, 1995).

After the 1982 defeat, EPACCI not only needed to convince LAFCo to allow another vote a year later, but also had to show that there was support for incorporation on the West side so as to insure that LAFCo would not remove the West side from the boundaries of the proposed city, as it has originally planned. The emergence of EPACT as a voice for renters along with the incorporation campaign’s embrace of rent control gave West side tenants a reason to support incorporation and gave EPACCI a stronger hand in making the case to LAFCo that the West side should be included in East Palo Alto.

When it came to the actual vote on incorporation, the rent control issue would potentially drive away more East side homeowners. For this reason, it became even more crucial to offset these possible losses by registering and turning out West side voters. EPACCI therefore needed to broaden its appeal to White, short-term residents who lived in West side apartments. Once again, EPACT played a crucial role, especially in registering West side voters, thereby contributing to the overall doubling in the number of registered voters in East Palo Alto over the course of the incorporation campaign (Skidmore, 1984c).

Rent control gained salience in the campaign preceding the second incorporation vote not only because it was a key to winning votes on the West side, but also because the prominent role of White absentee landlords on the anti-incorporation side provided the pro-incorporation forces with a useful foil. In a Black majority community, it was not hard to generate resentment against the White, wealthy absentee landlords who were bankrolling the anti-incorporation campaign. As Satterwhite asserted: “We’re in the midst of the Black Power movement. And so, yeah, we weren’t going to capitulate to some White landlords (Satterwhite interview, 2021).”

It is difficult to know precisely what difference EPACT and rent control made to the successful incorporation vote of 1983. Ruben Abrica (Abrica interview, 2021) recalls that a slight majority of West siders voted in support of incorporation. Tenant activist William Webster (Webster interview, 2018)  argues: “No EPACT, no East Palo Alto.” On the other hand, the margin of victory in 1983 was only 15 votes while the pro-incorporation margin in 1982 was 349. It is possible that rent control cost more votes for incorporation than it gained. Certainly, CCAIN’s slogan – “Save Our Homes” – explicitly appealed to homeowner fears that rent control would harm property values (Baer, 1983).

In any case, the new City Council enacted a 90 day ban on rent increases as one of its first acts in order to allow time for the crafting of a new rent control ordinance. The Rent Stabilization and Just Cause Eviction ordinance passed by the East Palo Alto City Council on November 23, 1983 allowed landlords to increase rents once per year at a rate no greater than the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The costs of major improvements could be passed along in addition to the CPI. The law also protected tenants from arbitrary evictions and required that interest earned on security deposits be returned to tenants annually. Newly constructed units were exempt from the law, as were landlords who rented out four or fewer units. Implementation of the law would be overseen by a Rent Stabilization Board appointed by the City Council (Abrica, 2014; Harrington, 1985; Skidmore, 1984b).

This did not end matters as landlord-funded groups fought tooth-and-nail against the city. The Tri-County Apartment Owners Association (San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz), representing 3,200 landlords, solicited a fee of $2 per unit toward a war chest to fight rent control in East Palo Alto. Similarly, the Palo Alto Park Association, representing landlords owning 2400 units of rental housing, assessed a $20 per unit fee to raise funds for the anti-rent control fight (Skidmore, 1984a). Following the election, CCAIN, represented by former U.S. Congressional Representative Paul McCloskey Jr., challenged the outcome in court with charges of voting fraud. In the end, a San Mateo judge ruled against the challenge and allowed the incorporation vote to stand (Biddulph, 1983a; Alexander, 1984, Kazak and D’Agostino, 2003; Lynch, 1983). The case was appealed to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the city (Gordon, 2007).

A landlord group called the “Private Property Rights Committee” spent $20,000 on collecting signatures to force a referendum that proposed to reverse the rent stabilization ordinance previously passed by the City Council (Abrica, 2014; Skidmore, 1984b). Mayor Barbara Mouton confided to Ruben Abrica her worries over whether the referendum – cynically titled the “Property Owners Civil Rights Initiative” might succeed. Abrica, who had quit his job in order to campaign full-time to defeat the referendum, reassured her that it would fail (Abrica interview, 2021; Harrington, 1985).

Abrica proved prophetic as the initiative was defeated on April 10, 1984 with 58% voting in favor of rent control. Notably, West side voters rejected the referendum by a 328 vote margin, while the pro-rent control margin on the more populous East side was only 35 votes (Abrica, 2014; Skidmore, 1984c).


Through many permutations and against varied kinds of resistance, rent control East Palo Alto has continued over the past four decades to provide legal protection for the rights of tenants and mitigate the economic distress associated with the Bay Area’s brutal housing market. A study of the rent control law’s impacts a decade after it went into effect concluded: “In East Palo Alto, the data is particularly compelling. The law protects tenants and the affordable housing stock (Kazak, 1995).”

Rent control had other impacts. Once the city was established, municipal leaders faced the task of ensuring a reasonable degree of cohesion and common identity between the West side and the East side of East Palo Alto. Ruben Abrica has observed that: “The one thing that integrated the west side to the east side much more was the rent law. By having a law that protects tenants, people became acutely aware that they were part of the city of East Palo Alto (Goebel, 2012).” Even West side renters who did not plan to put down long term roots in East Palo Alto quickly understood that they depended upon the city to protect them from exorbitant rents.

East Palo Alto’s struggles to incorporate as a minority-majority city and to protect the economic interests and rights of renters both foreshadowed the state of California’s future direction. Together, the state’s Black, Latino and Asian residents now constitute a majority of the state’s population. Meanwhile, rent control – once considered radical – is now the law of the land as California’s legislature passed a statewide rent control law in January, 2020 (Barta, 2021). In these ways and others, East Palo Alto served as a forerunner of broader social changes.

Finally, the story of how the forces of racial and economic justice converged in the campaigns for incorporation and rent control in East Palo Alto forty years ago underscores the potential for building similar multi-racial and multi-class coalitions for progressive change today.



Author Interviews:

Ruben Abrica (2021)
Duane Bay (2018)
Robert Lowe (2020)
Diane Otterby (2021)
Lon Otterby (2021)
Carlos Romero (2021)
Omawale Satterwhite (2021)
William Webster (2018)

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“A Structure for Survival: East Palo Alto Branch Black Panther Party, Opens with Community Survival Day,” The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, vol. VIII, no. 27, September 23, 1972

[1] My wife and I lived in East Palo Alto from 1981-84, covering the time period discussed here. I was an active participant in the campaigns for rent control and, to a lesser extent, incorporation. I served on the Rent Stabilization and Just Cause Eviction Task Force appointed by the East Palo Alto Council City Council in 1984. The Task Force report provided the recommendations that were incorporated into the city’s first rent control law.

[2] Both schools were firebombed and burned down in 1975, the same year that Ravenswood High School was closed, after which East Palo Alto students were bused to high schools in neighboring districts (Cutler, 2015).

[3] Data in this paragraph and the next drawn from Skidmore, 1983b.

[4] Between January 1978 and August 1979, average rent on two-bedroom apartments in East Palo Alto rose 36.6% while the average rent for studio apartments rose 45.5% (Harrington, 1985).

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What Joe Biden Can Learn from Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Policy

David Skidmore, Drake University

President Donald Trump pursued a foreign policy path strewn with discarded treaties, alienated allies, broken norms and the tattered remnants of America’s global reputation. Where can President Joe Biden look for ideas about how to repair the damage?

Based upon my own research, I submit that a good place to start is with the foreign policy approach pursued by President Jimmy Carter. After all, the circumstances Carter faced bear an uncanny resemblance to those Biden now confronts: recent presidential scandal, the after-effects of a long and unsuccessful war, perceptions of U.S. decline and a sense, at home and abroad, that Americans lack a uniting sense of purpose.

A one-term president who left office with low approval ratings, Carter’s presidential performance is often dismissed as a failure. The widespread admiration Carter has gained over the years is associated with his post-presidency, which he has devoted to fighting tropical disease, monitoring elections, promoting human rights and extolling the power of dialogue as a path to peace.

Yet there is much that Biden could learn from Carter’s White House record, beginning with the need to restore a positive agenda for America’s global role rooted in core moral values and vigorous diplomacy.

Such an approach stands in contrast with the amoral, Realpolitik philosophies that drove both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Nixon’s brutal calculus of power helped produce devastating humanitarian catastrophes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile and Southern Africa. Similarly, Trump displayed an appalling preference for authoritarian rulers over traditional democratic allies.

With America’s global reputation in tatters following the Vietnam War and Watergate, Carter recognized the urgency of restoring a moral foundation for American foreign policy. To be sure, the pursuit of power and profit are both unavoidable aspects of the foreign policy of any country. Yet the willingness of many countries and peoples to accept American leadership after World War II rested in part upon the moral vision at the heart of the American-shaped liberal international order as set out in Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter.

The same sense of moral purpose was essential to domestic support for an expansive American role abroad. The amoralism of Nixon and Trump, by contrast, endangered support for American leadership and fueled isolationist sentiment.

Carter’s embrace of human rights must be understood in this light. Carter was mindful of the practical need to balance human rights considerations against other interests. Yet by placing a spotlight on human rights abuses and devoting American influence to curbing them, Carter sought to restore the perception abroad that the United States stood for more than narrow self-interest. Coupled with his promises to bring honesty and integrity back to the White House, Carter’s human rights agenda helped to revive domestic pride and confidence in America’s role in the world.

Carter’s human rights policies also had significant practical consequences. Vocal U.S. support for human rights gave added legitimacy and weight to the growing human rights advocacy of non-governmental organizations and international organizations. Authoritarian governments on both the right and the left came to realize that egregious human rights violations brought real costs. Arguably, the global diffusion of human rights norms contributed to the later fall of the Soviet-controlled communist bloc and to the spread of democracy in many countries around the world.

Biden faces the challenge of restoring the moral foundation of American leadership at a time when the liberal international order has entered a period of profound disarray. Carter’s example illustrates the importance of crafting a language and statecraft that can inspire and unite liberal forces around the world.

Carter’s experience also illustrates that diplomacy works; especially when founded upon the search for shared interests rather than the imposition of power.

Nixon and Trump, of course, both pursued vigorous diplomatic agendas. For each, however, diplomacy was an appendage of power, serving to capture the concessions forced upon others following a campaign of threats, military force or economic sanctions. While this sort of browbeating can sometimes work, it just as often forces the other party into a posture of defiance, as Nixon learned in his failed efforts to force North Vietnam into submission.

Carter’s style of diplomacy was based instead upon the search for common interests among parties initially at odds. He perceived diplomacy as a tool for both resolving insipient conflicts before they spin out of control and, where escalation has already take place, finding a path toward peace and reconciliation.

Carter’s approach paid major dividends. The SALT II agreement with the Soviet Union capped a dangerous and costly nuclear arms race (while never ratified by the Senate, both countries abided by the terms of the accord). The Panama Canal Treaties removed potential threats to the Canal’s security, while eliminating a constant irritant in U.S. relations with Latin America. Diplomatic recognition of China set the stage for China’s growing integration with the existing global political and economic order.

The Camp David Accords removed Egypt and Jordan as military threats to Israel’s security while the transition to majority black-rule in Zimbabwe, brokered by the United States and Great Britain, brought to an end to a bloody civil war there. The successful conclusion of the Tokyo Round trade negotiations sustained progress toward a more open global economy. It is difficult to think of another president who used diplomacy to better effect in serving major American interests.

Yet Biden must also take a negative lesson from Carter’s experience. Carter faced massive, well organized and heavily funded campaigns against both the Panama Canal and SALT II treaties, as well as a drum-beat of right-wing accusations that his policies left America unprepared to meet a (mostly mythical) Soviet military buildup. The Iranian revolution and the ensuring hostage crisis sullied Carter’s reputation and may have cost him his presidency, despite the fact that the hostages were safely returned.

Over time, Carter increasingly responded to domestic political pressures by trying to prove his toughness. Defense spending rose again. Military force was attempted, unsuccessfully, in an effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Carter greatly overreacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, treating it as a precursor to a Soviet move on the Persian Gulf rather than the limited response to instability along the Soviet border that it was.

These efforts to shore up his flank against right-wing attacks did little to improve Carter’s political position but did disrupt the momentum of success that Carter had established in other areas of U.S. foreign policy. The appropriate lessons are to avoid overreacting to occasional setbacks and recognize that no amount of pandering to hard-liners will alleviate the political attacks from that quarter.

Carter’s record during a period that bears similarities with our own provides fertile ground from which President Joseph Biden can draw useful lessons. A foreign policy that prioritizes diplomacy and broadly-shared values cannot solve all problems. But such an approach served American interests remarkably well during Jimmy Carter’s brief presidency and could again over the next four years.

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US-China: Searching for Common Ground

A Podcast by David Skidmore and Kyle Munson

The transition between administrations in Washington, D.C., and the global effort to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic provide the opportunity to reassess U.S.-China relations and whether our two nations might reclaim common ground for building a more productive partnership. This podcast—a public extension of Drake University Professor David Skidmore’s Spring 2021 course on U.S.-China relations—will gather insights from diplomats, scholars, journalists, businesspeople, and others involved in the affairs of both nations. We’ll analyze sources of conflict as well as opportunities for cooperation.

Podcast home:

Or find us on Spotify, Apple, and many other platforms.


  • Diplomacy: Former U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad
  • Superpower rivalry: Professor Wu Xinbo, Fudan University
  • Security: Professor Zhu Feng, Nanjing University
  • Biden and China: Thomas Wright, Brookings Institute
  • Journalism: Austin Ramzy, New York Times
  • Politics here and there: Professor Ren Junfeng, Fudan University
  • Tech: Professor Thomas Lairson, Rollins College
  • Agriculture: Bill Neibur, Hi Fidelity Genetics
  • Business across cultures: Kit Spangler, business development director
  • Hope or despair?: Matt Sheehan and Holly He, Paulson Institute
  • People-to-people: Kim Heidemann, international programming consultant


David Skidmore is a Professor of Political Science at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he has taught since 1989. Skidmore’s teaching and research focuses on U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-China relations. During the 1996-97 academic year, he taught at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, China. He also served as a Fulbright Scholar based at the University of Hong Kong in 2010-2011. Skidmore is author, co-author or editor of six books. His most recent research focuses on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. His editorial writing has appeared in Fortune, U.S. News and World Report, Salon, The Conversation, the Diplomat, Global Times and the Des Moines Register. 

Kyle Munson is a journalist, writer, podcaster, and content strategist who currently works in content marketing and financial services. He previously spent 24 years with The Des Moines Register/Gannett in a variety of roles, including eight years as columnist. In 2017 he was awarded an international reporting grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to report on U.S.-China relations early in the Trump administration as Amb. Terry Branstad began his tenure in Beijing. That resulted in the project “Iowa in the Heart of China.” Munson also reported on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2012 visit to Iowa. He has volunteered and served as a board member with Iowa Sister States, a nonprofit dedicated to citizen diplomacy. He now chairs the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation.

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The Resistance Worked

There is no denying the damage that the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency have done to our institutions, our civic culture and our well-being as a country. Billions of pixels have been devoted to enumerating the seemingly endless ways that our outgoing president has challenged the norms and principles underlying American democracy. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his electoral loss is the most recent case in point.

Yet from the early days of the Trump presidency, a loose coalition ranging from liberal activists to Republican “Never-Trumpers” joined together under the #Resist hashtag out of a shared sense that democracy must be defended in the face of demagoguery.

As the Trump era nears its end, it is worth appreciating the impressive degree to which the “Resistance” worked. Faced with racially charged rhetoric from a president practiced in the politics of hate and division, millions of Americans took to the streets to defend Muslims, immigrants, victims of police violence and other vulnerable members of our communities. In the process, the Resistance has helped usher in a sea-change in American consciousness of racial injustice.

Trump and his supporters warned of a so-called “deep state” determined to undermine his presidency. Something of the sort did exist, but it consisted of dedicated civil servants – public health workers, postal service employees, environmental scientists and election officials – who doggedly persisted in following the law despite the efforts of Trump appointees to undermine the missions of the agencies they headed.

At great risk, whistleblowers emerged to shed light upon wrongdoing. When pressured to send American soldiers into the streets to confront peaceful protesters, top officers publicly affirmed the military’s apolitical role and its loyalty to the Constitution above all else. Former high officials warned the public about the dysfunction of the Trump White House.

The courts again and again repudiated the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine regulations rooted in law and science. The mainstream media carried out penetrating reporting on corruption. The House of Representatives impeached the president for attempting to enlist a foreign government in falsely discrediting his political opponent. Even the Republican-controlled Senate eventually produced a report that established collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian intelligence.

Fact-checkers identified and corrected Trump’s lies. Though far too late, social media networks eventually began flagging the political disinformation that has done so much to poison our politics in the age of Trump.

To be sure, Republican power-brokers failed – with a few exceptions – to call out the president’s misdeeds and tens of millions of Americans twice voted to elect Trump as president. Trumpism is far from spent as a political force. Yet Trump lost the popular vote in both elections and the electoral college vote in 2020. America’s democratic institutions have proven resilient enough to survive the most demagogic presidency of modern times. But the credit for this beleaguered victory goes not only to the system of checks and balances designed by the nation’s founders, but also to the determined efforts of the many people, high and low, who drove the Resistance.

First appeared in the Des Moine Register, November 2020

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Casting for Hope after a Dispiriting Debate

I was trying to be a responsible teacher for our next generation of civic leaders.

As a professor of political science, I asked my students to watch last Tuesday’s presidential debate so we could later discuss policy contrasts between the candidates. But seconds after moderator Chris Wallace broached the first question, the verbal fireworks erupted. I immediately realized my premise was mistaken: There would be no rational discussion of policy.

We convened class the next morning on Zoom, and I invited students to share a word or phrase that described how the debate made them feel. I braced myself as their responses cascaded down the chat window: “disappointed,” “frustrated,” “angry,” “embarrassed,” “disheartened.”

Many of these young people are preparing to cast their first vote. On the whole, they’re a socially conscious generation that pays attention to politics. Some are considering careers in public service. They scrutinize their elders and leaders. Too often they’re uninspired—if not repulsed—by what they see.

I couldn’t let the moment pass without doing something to temper the mood of discouragement. So I told a personal story that I thought might offer some hopeful perspective.

As a 16 year old in the summer of 1974, I was riveted by the televised congressional hearings on the Watergate scandal, which ultimately brought down President Richard Nixon. The revelations of corruption and political skullduggery contradicted the sunny depictions of American democracy I had encountered in civics class. The hearings appeared headed toward a constitutional crisis. My disillusionment felt overpowering.

I sat down and wrote a letter to Lou Frey, the Republican congressman who then represented my hometown of Orlando, Florida. I expressed my dismay to Congressman Frey and asked whether it was possible to put faith in our elected leaders if politics was so dirty?

A couple of weeks later, I was sitting at home at the dinner table snacking on a sandwich when the phone rang. My mom answered, listened a moment, then handed me the phone. “Lou Frey wants to speak with you,” she said. Frey thanked me for my letter and encouraged me not to give up on democracy or public service. His pep talk made an impression. Rather than reject politics, I devoted myself to studying how the system works, in all of its inglorious imperfection.

Frey, who died last year at 85, agonized over taking a stand on Nixon’s fate. Ultimately, he publicly called for Nixon’s impeachment or resignation. Frey served 10 years in Congress. After leaving office, Frey worked tirelessly on behalf of civility and bipartisanship in politics. He and former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, co-sponsored a project to strengthen civics education in the state’s high schools. He also co-hosted a radio show with former Democratic state lawmaker Dick Batchelor that avoided partisan bickering and name-calling, but instead explored ways to find common ground.

I offered Frey’s story as an example to students that a life of public service and political engagement doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning your integrity. But what about the system? After my brief conversation with Frey, Nixon’s resignation under bipartisan pressure offered some confirmation that American democracy was self-correcting. I cast my first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter, who brought ethics back into the center of American political life and has continued to serve as an exemplar of public service well into his 90s.

But today? As troubling as Watergate was in the ’70s, the modern challenges to democracy are far more serious. Our institutions strain under the weight of a norm-breaking president, historic levels of polarization, deep inequality, systemic racism and paralyzing gridlock. Sentimental memories from my own youth offer cold comfort. Calls for civility and bipartisanship ring hollow in the face of present realities.

Now I must draw my hope from my young students and their peers. They’re the energetic idealists taking to the streets. Organizing in defense of democracy. Striving to preserve what decency remains in the public square. It feels reassuring to be so inspired by my students similar to how, when I was their age, I looked up to Frey and Carter.

I only hope my students find that the malfunctioning system my generation bequeathed to them isn’t broken beyond repair.

David Skidmore, Professor of Political Science, Drake University, Des Moines Iowa

Reprinted from the Des Moines Register, October 5, 2020.

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On Terry Branstad’s Resignation: Iowa Nice Only Goes So Far in US-China Relations

If given a Hollywood treatment, the first three decades of former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s deep engagement with China would make for a heartening feel-good movie. Unfortunately, the sequel – Branstad’s more than three-year stint as U.S. Ambassador to China – could only be scripted as a tragedy.

The original movie would begin in 1983 with Branstad’s signing of Iowa’s Sister State/Province agreement with Hebei Province, followed by Branstad’s 1984 visit to China, the first of many trade delegations he would lead in the coming years. The film would then trace the ever-expanding array of economic, cultural and academic exchanges that has cemented Iowa’s special relationship to China.

At the center of the story would be Branstad’s hospitality toward a young provincial agricultural official named Xi Jinping during the latter’s 1985 visit to Iowa. The blossoming friendship between the two would culminate in Xi’s return to Iowa in 2012, now as Vice President and heir apparent to leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. At the dinner in Xi’s honor, the camera would pan the room to capture the assembled guests, many of whom played key roles in crafting a set of mutually beneficial partnerships. The final scene would settle on Branstad and Xi raising their glasses in a toast as Xi offers that “For me, you are America.”

The sequel focusing on Branstad’s ambassadorship would begin happily enough as Beijing officials welcome him as an “old friend of China.” But the story would soon darken. After Branstad announced his pending resignation as ambassador on September 14, a commentary in China’s Global Times newspaper lamented his “embarrassing role” in overseeing “the worst three years of deterioration in Sino-U.S. relations.” 

The reality is less stark. Branstad retains many friends in China. He brought the same folksy, Midwestern charm to China that made him a popular politician back in Iowa. His daughter and grandchildren moved with Branstad and his wife Christine to Beijing. The ambassador visited 26 provinces, demonstrating respect for Chinese culture and building people-to-people relationships. Branstad spoke at the groundbreaking of the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm modeled after Kimberly Farms in Iowa. In announcing his resignation, Branstad declared: “Getting to know the Chinese people, meeting them in their homes and hearing their personal stories, has been one of the great privileges of this job.”

Branstad also sought to calm tensions at key points. Last April, he denied allegations that China deliberately held up shipments of medical equipment to the U.S. and advised that questions about China’s early mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic be set aside until the virus was under control. Branstad also played roles in the reopening of the Chinese market to U.S. beef exports and the successful conclusion of the January 2020 trade deal.

But Branstad’s instincts for problem-solving proved a poor fit in an administration that turned increasingly toward outright confrontation in its dealings with China. Almost plaintively, Branstad once suggested that “the best and most effective way to try and get action here is not to shame them publicly but to meet with them privately.”

Yet he found himself squeezed between an American president given to threatening and bombastic tweets and a China whose diplomats resorted to Wolf Warrior diplomacy at the slightest criticism. It didn’t help that Branstad had little experience across many areas of dispute in U.S.-China relations outside of trade. He was seldom consulted by the White House on policy issues and his friendship with Xi brought few payoffs. Iowa Nice only goes so far.

Despite Branstad’s inability as ambassador to stem the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations, his earlier embrace of citizen diplomacy as a vehicle for building mutually beneficial ties among local governments, businesses, cultural groups and schools remains an impressive part of his legacy. Sadly, these connections have themselves become threatened as the political rivalry between Washington and Beijing has sown distrust and severed relationships. Both sides have cut back on cultural and academic exchanges, reduced access for journalists and diplomats and curtailed various communications media.

Such steps are unwise and dangerous. People-to-people ties are all the more vital at times when state-to-state relations are at their worst. Such relationships serve as ballast that can help stabilize the relationship once conditions permit. Branstad acted upon this understanding as governor but was powerless to prevent the erosion of citizen’s diplomacy as ambassador. Unlike in Hollywood, in the game of nations, a happy ending is far from guaranteed.

Originally published in the Des Moines Register, September 20, 2020

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Trouble on China’s Periphery: Chinese Nationalism and the Stability-Instability Paradox

The transformation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from revolutionary party under Mao Zedong into a Chinese nationalist party beginning in the early nineties has proven a double-edged sword for the CCP and for China. While cementing popular support for the CCP among ordinary Chinese, growing nationalism has also generated resistance along China’s periphery. This stability-instability paradox has driven Beijing to adopt a set of costly and dangerous policies that have sullied China’s international reputation abroad and pushed the dream of a unified China further out of reach.

Chinese nationalism

The concept of nationalism was introduced to China by the West. As traditional China recognized no sovereign equals, the Chinese divided the world into civilized peoples, who observed Chinese culture and tradition under the leadership of the Emperor, and barbarians who could achieve civilization only through assimilation.

By the late nineteenth century, the press of Western imperialism forced Chinese intellectuals and political reformers to embrace nationalism as an element of modernization. As John Fitzgerald notes, however, nationalism in China arose not in the form of a people seeking a state, but in the shape of state-builders defining the Chinese nation in ways that facilitated their own aspirations to rule. This pattern of the state defining the nation rather than vice versa was itself rooted in traditional Confucian thought, which, as an ideology of the state, vested sovereignty with rulers rather than the people.

As a result, the scope and meaning of nationalism in China has varied. Influenced by Western intellectual currents, Sun Yat-sen conceived of the Chinese nation in terms of race, or blood lineage. Reformers associated with the May 4th movement of 1919 embraced civic nationalism with an emphasis on the rights and duties of citizens under a republican state. Under Mao, the nation was defined in terms of class, with China leading a global proletarian revolution.

Nationalism and CCP Legitimation Strategy

Following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, CCP leader Deng Xiaoping abandoned Maoist dogma in order to save both the nation and the party. Yet the softening of totalitarian controls, combined with market reforms and the opening to the outside world, created an intellectual vacuum into which ideas about liberal democracy gained popularity among young Chinese and intellectuals. This threat to CCP rule was met with violent repression of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.

In the aftermath, Deng faced the puzzle of how to restore stability without capitulating to pressures from hard-liners to abandon economic reform and resurrect Maoism. For Deng and his successor Jiang Zemin, the answer was a reformulated nationalism, or, in the language of the time, patriotism.

The patriotic campaigns of the nineties stretched across education, culture, media, academia and public displays, such as memorials, museums and holidays. Aspects of pre-revolutionary Chinese society – rejected during the Cultural Revolution – were resurrected and reinterpreted to meet the political needs of the CCP. Embracing a politics of grievance and historical victimhood, party propaganda stoked anti-Western and anti-Japanese sentiment by underlining China’s century of national humiliation, brought to an end only by the victory of the CCP in 1949.

More recently, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has promoted a forward-looking nationalism that challenges citizens to “achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Throughout, Chinese patriotism was equated with loyalty to the CCP as the necessary instrument for overcoming past humiliations and achieving future national greatness. Each year on April 15, for instance, Chinese schools observe “National Security Education Day,” during which students are offered lessons on “political security,” which “concerns the safety of the Community Party and the nation.”

Along with rising living standards, the CCP’s emphasis on patriotism successfully garnered popular legitimacy for the party-state among mainstream Chinese. Opinion surveys, for example, show consistently show high levels of public trust in Chinese political institutions and optimism about the future.

The Problems of the Periphery

Yet this formula for regime legitimacy could not be successfully applied to China’s periphery. Tibet and Xinjiang presented the problem of geographically-clustered non-Han minorities that could plausibly tell their own narratives of colonial victimization at the hands of the CCP itself. Taiwan remained beyond Beijing’s reach entirely while Hong Kong had, under British colonial rule, developed along a distinct political, cultural and economic path.

In dealing with both sets of problems, Chinese leaders carved out flexible and pragmatic exceptions. Following the Soviet example, the CCP gave non-Han minority groups official recognition and, where they constituted a majority, local autonomy (in principle – the realities were quite different). Minorities enjoyed preferences with respect to family size, university entrance and targeted government support and investment, as well as tolerance of their cultural distinctiveness.

In the cases of Taiwan and Hong Kong, Deng in 1984 announced the “one country, two systems” principle which would allow each wayward territory to retain its own social, economic and legal system following reunification. Although rejected by Taiwan, the formula was applied to Hong Kong following the handover of control from Britain to China in 1997.

This flexibility did not prevent the CCP from diluting the concentration of minority populations in Tibet and Xinjiang by encouraging Han migration (in Xinjiang, the Han share of the population grew from 6.7% in 1949 to 40% in 1980) and imposing state regulation over religious institutions. Nor did it stop the mainland from threatening military force against Taiwan to forestall a formal declaration of independence. Nevertheless, Beijing recognized the distinctive histories, cultures and even political institutions of these peripheral areas.

Yet such expedients failed to offer peripheral peoples a genuine place to belong within the CCP’s vision of the Chinese nation. Indeed, the limited pluralism tolerated along the periphery combined with the fusion of nationalism with CCP rule within the bulk of China led to a growing divergence. Peripheral peoples developed increasingly distinct political, ethnic and national identities out of sync with the CCP’s overall legitimation strategy.

Spooked by the role that local separatisms played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, Xi Jinping has cast aside ethnic and institutional pluralism along China’s periphery, seeking instead to impose Beijing’s will over what the CCP considers rebellious local populations. The result has been the abandonment of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, growing coercive pressures on Taiwan and policies of forced assimilation aimed at restive minorities.

Taiwan and Hong Kong

Deng Xiaoping recognized that the imposition of direct CCP rule in either Taiwan or Hong Kong would fail. After all, Taiwan had been ruled for decades by the CCP’s defeated rival, the Kuomintang Party (KMT), while Hong Kong was home to generations of dissidents and refugees. Both developed strongly anti-communist political cultures.

Deng’s “one country, two systems” formula offered a pragmatic exchange – accept Chinese sovereignty in return for a high degree of political autonomy. Yet in the case of Hong Kong, where this blueprint was applied, autonomy was highly circumscribed. Beijing relied upon byzantine electoral rules and influence over local business tycoons to ensure favored outcomes. This strategy finally reached its limits in recent years. As older Pan-Democratic politicians proved ineffectual, they were pushed aside by younger and more militant activists, who took to the streets to demand full democracy and to push back against Bejiing-inspired national security laws, patriotic education and extradition.

Deng’s confidence that Taiwan and Hong Kong could be managed also rested upon the assumption that the peoples of both would be bound to the mainland by a shared attachment to Chinese nationhood. Yet as Taiwanese and Hong Kongers have increasingly embraced liberal democratic values at odds with Beijing’s concept of national patriotism, they have also increasingly questioned their own identities as Chinese.

After more than two decades under PRC sovereignty, over half of Hong Kong residents identify exclusively as Hong Kongers. Trust in the “one country, two systems” formula has plunged, while roughly 40% of young Hong Kongers favor eventual independence.

This identity conflict also cuts through Taiwanese politics. The Republic of China established by the KMT on Taiwan declared itself the legitimate government of all China. The CCP and KMT thus agreed that Taiwan was part of China, but disagreed about which party deserved to rule.

The notion of “one China” lacked appeal, however, for Taiwanese who populated the island prior to 1949 and whose connections to the mainland had been attenuated by five decades of Japanese colonial rule. Tracing back to the 1920s, Taiwanese nationalists found a home in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the wake of Taiwan’s growing democratization beginning in the 1980s.

Whereas in 1991 less than one fifth of Taiwan residents identified themselves as exclusively Taiwanese, three quarters now identify as Taiwanese only. Less than one quarter of Taiwanese have favorable views toward mainland China, while three quarters would favor Taiwanese independence if this would not trigger military attack by China.

The massive Hong Kong protests of 2019 have driven home these realities, prompting Beijing to abandon the “one country, two systems” formula in all but name. With the imposition of the new national security law, attempts by Hong Kong citizens to exercise political autonomy are now defined by Beijing as unpatriotic, illegitimate and illegal. Arrests of opposition figures have already begun, candidates for local political offices have been ruled ineligible and legislative elections have been postponed. Restrictions on freedoms of speech have tightened and plans to introduce patriotic education into the school curriculum are being readied. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has declared that school children should be taught the message: “I am Chinese.”

It also seems evident that Xi Jinping has given up on luring Taiwan onto a peaceful path toward reunification. Beijing has cut off most official contacts with Taiwan authorities since 2017, when President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP won office. China has also stepped up pressures through military incursions into Taiwan’s waters and airspace. Xi has remarked that “our country must be reunified, and will surely be reunified” and that the problem of Taiwan “should not be passed down generation after generation.”

In short, Beijing’s previous flexibility in managing ties with Hong Kong and Taiwan has been overtaken by increasingly forceful efforts to assert direct control in the face of centrifugal forces drawing peoples in both places toward identities that are not simply anti-CCP, but also anti-Chinese.

Tibet and Xinjiang

In Tibet and Xinjiang, religious and ethnic minorities have felt increasingly marginalized, leading to significant unrest, including violent clashes in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009 and 2014. Xi Jinping responded with orders for state security to show “absolutely no mercy” in the “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism.”

According to James Milward, the special rights and formal political recognition accorded minorities by the CCP after 1949 were aimed at the problem of “how to run an empire without looking like colonialists.”  Chinese scholar Ma Rong, however, has argued that the “politicization” of minority status only encouraged separatist sentiment. Instead, he has suggested that ethnicity be “culturalized” – stripped of special political connotation while permitting distinctive ethnic traditions. Influential intellectuals Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe have gone further, advocating thoroughgoing assimilation of minority peoples to the dominant Han culture.

These ideas likely inspired the recent crackdown against Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In 2016, Xi declared that religious communities must “promote Chinese culture, strive to integrate religious belief with Chinese culture.”Minority cultural and religious identities, practices, institutions and language have been repressed in favor of Han culture. Over a million adults have been forcibly detained in reeducation camps alongside hundreds of thousands of political prisoners.  Many others have been involuntarily transported to distant provinces for factory work. Over a half million children have been separated from their parents in boarding schools where they are taught to resist “deviant thinking.” In a December 2017 campaign, one million CCP cadre moved in with Uighur families to teach unity. The CCP is conducting a massive campaign to suppress births among Muslim minorities through mandatory birth control measures and forced sterilizations. Both Xinjiang and Tibet are subject to mass surveillance, ubiquitous police check-points and location tracking through smart phone apps and social media.

With information about Tibet and Xinjiang heavily censored in other parts of China, many ordinary Chinese support coercive assimilation, as reflected in the remark offered by one elderly woman to reporter Isobel Yeung: “Uyghurs should be the same as Han people, I don’t feel sorry for them.”

The Stability-Instability Paradox

In seeking domestic legitimacy, China’s rulers have promoted a top-down and increasingly narrow brand of nationalism centered around loyalty to the CCP and attachment to Han culture and identity. In the process, the CCP has largely abandoned policies toward the periphery – “one country, two systems” in the cases of Taiwan and Hong Kong and ethnic-pluralism in the cases of Tibet and Xinjiang – that, if far from perfect, at least included significant elements of flexibility and pragmatism.

Whether this insistence upon assimilation to a singular Chinese identity will bring the stability and unity that Beijing craves seems doubtful.  Minxin Pei warns that such policies have “greatly strengthened the local identities, sharpened the sense of alienation and grievance felt by the targeted groups, and radicalized the activists among them.”

The CCP continues to face a paradox: the nationalism that has brought relative support and stability among the Han majority has been purchased at the price of instability along China’s periphery. The challenge of fashioning a basis for regime legitimacy that is inclusive of all of China’s people remains unmet.

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How Can the United States Help Hong Kong?

Two years ago, I led a group of sixteen members of Drake University’s Ray Society – a continuing education program for seniors – on a three-week trip to China. Our last stop was the beautiful and vibrant port city of Hong Kong. A highlight of our tour was a visit to Hong Kong’s new Legislative Council building.

Our escort was former legislator Cyd Ho, a long-time leader of the city’s pro-democracy movement. Cyd spoke eloquently about the challenges facing Hong Kongers as Beijing increasingly narrowed the autonomy promised to the city as part of the 1997 handover from Britain to China. Cyd was troubled by these pressures, but determined and hopeful that the city she loved would succeed in defending its civil liberties, rule of law and democratic culture.

Today, Cyd Ho is among more than a dozen long-time pro-democracy politicians and activists awaiting trial on charges of attending an illegal demonstration – one that attracted one million participants – in August, 2019. The Legislative Council building is closed, having been torn asunder by protesters last summer.

The city itself is reeling. Much of 2019 was consumed with massive and sometimes violent demonstrations against a feared extradition law. Despite Hong Kong’s successful containment of the coronavirus, its economy has nevertheless taken a big hit.

Now China’s Communist Party is on the cusp of unilaterally imposing a so-called national security law upon Hong Kong, one so vague and sweeping that ordinary acts of political speech or protest could result in arrest.

How should the United States respond? Back on November 27, 2019, President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Hong Kong and Democracy Act, passed by Congress in response to calls from Hong Kong activists.

The Act directs the State Department to annually assess whether Hong Kong continues to enjoy local autonomy from Beijing. Should the Secretary of State conclude that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous, the Act empowers the President to withdraw special privileges the United States extends to Hong Kong with respect to trade, technology and other matters.

In response to pending passage of the above-mentioned national security law, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared that the United States no longer recognizes Hong Kong as autonomous.

In other words, the Human Rights and Democracy Act failed to dissuade Beijing from further encroaching upon Hong Kong’s dwindling freedoms. Xi Jinping is prepared to accept international condemnation and even the loss Hong Kong’s significant role as a financial intermediary between China and the world in order to avert the threat that political instability may spread from Hong Kong to the mainland.

The Human Rights and Democracy Act was from the start a flawed vehicle for assisting Hong Kong’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement. By invoking U.S. intervention, Hong Kong democracy activists heightened erroneous Chinese perceptions that the protests were foreign-controlled. The American flags often spotted at demonstrators only deepened such perceptions. For many Chinese, the “Free Hong Kong” slogan combined with appeals for Western help are justification enough for the new law’s prohibitions on treason and sedition.

Moreover, if the sanctions allowed under the Act are fully implemented, then the already significant trickle of multinational firms making plans to exit Hong Kong will expand into a mighty stream. This will no doubt hurt China, in some degree, but the chief losers will be the Hong Kong people, whose jobs will disappear and incomes will shrink.

The goal, it must be remembered, is not to assist Beijing in placing the final nail in the coffin of Hong Kong’s autonomy, but to increase the costs to Beijing for actions that further erode the limited but still significant rights that remain to Hong Kongers.

The modest leverage the U.S. possesses should focus on how the new law is implemented. Beijing could use it sparingly and with restraint, or not. Rather than withdrawing all of Hong Kong’s special privileges at once, the U.S. should take selective and targeted actions designed to encourage restraint on Beijing’s part. This means gradually ratcheting up sanctions on responsible individuals and entities involved with serious infringements on civil liberties while avoiding measures that unintentionally inflict pain on ordinary people.

The Hong Kong of today is not the Hong Kong that I and my travel companions experienced as recently as two years ago. The coming months will bring more turmoil as the Hong Kong people seek to preserve those rights still left to them. As Americans, our ability to affect events is limited. Above all, however, we should make sure that, out of a desire to help, we do not make things worse.

David Skidmore is a Professor of Political Science at Drake University. He spent the 2010-11 academic year as at Fulbright Scholar in Hong Kong.

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From the Great Pandemic to the Great Leveling?

Could the Great Pandemic of 2020 and the severe economic downturn it has already spawned serve as a macabre cure for the staggering economic inequalities that have arisen in the United States? After all, Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel, in his 2017 book The Great Leveler, identified pandemics as one of four major types of events that have through history served to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, with the others being mass-mobilization warfare, revolution and state collapse. French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 2017 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century helped spur greater public awareness of inequality, has pointed to deep economic downturns as a fifth type of leveling event.

Piketty famously argued that the rate of investment returns to the owners of capital typically exceed overall rates of economic growth. As a result, periods of business-as-usual produce growing concentrations of wealth. Incremental reforms, while far preferable to the calamitous leveling forces identified by Scheidel and Piketty, do not appear sufficient to halt, much less reverse, this inexorable tendency toward wealth concentration. Only major disruptions of the status quo (and only certain types of those) serve to redistribute wealth and income in significant measure.

But how does disruption lead to leveling? And what sorts of disruption might challenge this era’s great concentrations of wealth?

Pandemics, according to Scheidel, sometimes produce such severe drops in population as to create labor scarcities. Workers who survive gain greater bargaining power, with which they bid up wages or other sorts of remuneration.

Deep economic downturns can also have a leveling effect. The assets in which the rich place their wealth, including stocks, bonds and precious metals, decline in value. To avert political instability, governments may raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund an expanded social safety net.

In societies where the political balance between capital and labor is already highly skewed in favor of the former, however, leveling is not guaranteed. The U.S. government, for instance, responded to the 2008 financial crisis by bailing out banks, hedge funds and automobile firms while offering relatively little relief to middle class homeowners who fell underwater on their mortgages. As a result, inequality actually rose, fueling political polarization in the form of the Occupy Movement on the left and the Tea Party Movement on the right.

As economic historians Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson document, the last era of leveling in American history came between 1917 and 1945. Prior to World War I, inequalities in wealth and income reached levels not seen before and only rivaled since in recent years. This so-called Gilded Age did not last. The three decades from 1917 onward encompassed the influenza pandemic of 1918, two world wars and the Great Depression. In combination, these events greatly eroded the fortunes of the rich and created the political and economic conditions necessary for a mass middle class to emerge during the fifties and sixties.

So what consequences might the current crisis have for inequality in contemporary American society? The direct labor force effects of the pandemic are unlikely to improve the bargaining power of surviving workers. While Scheidel finds that the Black Death of 15th century Europe generated strong leveling forces, it took a population decline of roughly one third to produce this result.

Deaths from the 1918 influenza pandemic amounted to 675,000 Americans. Adjusting for population, deaths from COVID-19 would have to reach more than two million before matching the proportional scale of the 1918 losses. Current projections are far lower. Even if these forecasts prove too optimistic, however, pandemic deaths would be nowhere near the level necessary to create labor shortages large enough to bid up wages in a workforce of 164 million. This is especially true as the current coronavirus targets mainly the elderly and the infirm, rather than those who make up the core of the American labor force.

What about the indirect effects of the pandemic in the form of a dramatic economic downturn? The scale of the economic destruction new unfolding is not yet certain. Much depends upon how quickly or slowly efforts to contain the virus succeed and when Americans can return to something resembling normal patterns of work and consumption.

Already, however, the speed and ferocity of the economic contraction produced by limitations on mobility have been unprecedented. The number of new claims for unemployment benefits in the three weeks prior to April 9, 2020 exceeded 16 million. The previous single-week record was 695,000 in 1982. Even before the current crisis, corporate and consumer debt stood at precarious levels. With reduced cash flow, bankruptcies and home foreclosures will likely skyrocket. Even once the pandemic eases, insecure consumers are likely to spend cautiously. The fact that all three major regional sources of global demand – North America, Europe and East Asia – are experiencing downturns at the same time will make it all the more difficult to jump-start recovery.

With regard to the global economy, noted economist and financial historian Kenneth Rogoff warns: “there is a good chance it will look as bad as anything over the last century and half.”

Whether the current economic crisis leads to leveling, as during the Great Depression, or to greater inequality, as in the 2008 financial crisis, will depend upon three factors.

First, who gets bailed out? If the emphasis is on propping up stock prices and restoring the balance sheets of large corporations, then Americans will face a more rather than less unequal society on the other end of the crisis. But if, as during the Great Depression, a bottom-up approach is taken, then the benefits of recovery will be more broadly spread.

Second, significant leveling will depend upon whether the crisis strengthens the countervailing power of government and labor at the expense of capital. The 1917-1945 period witnessed an enormous expansion of activist government, funded largely by increasingly progressive taxation, and a greatly strengthened union movement capable of bargaining more effectively on behalf of workers. The particular form that such countervailing forces take in today’s context may be different, but unless the power of capital is balanced in some fashion, then no significant leveling will be possible.

Third, and most importantly, the New Deal was more than a series of government programs. It was a product of a profound rethinking of much prior political and economic orthodoxy. Laissez faire capitalism was abandoned in favor of the Keynesian revolution. An analogous refashioning of intellectual and popular ideas about the political economy of inequality will be required today. As the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren illustrate, the intellectual and political basis for transformative change already exists, even if Sanders and Warren themselves will not appear at the head of the presidential ticket in November.

Disruptive and painful crises can sometimes spur needed change. In retrospect, the series of traumatic events that made up the 1917-1945 period in American history ignited profound reforms leading to a golden age of reduced economic inequality following World II.

Perhaps recent events of our time – from the evident failures of government capacity in the face of Hurricane Katrina, to the near-collapse of America’s financial system in 2008, to the humbling inadequacies of our public health system to cope with the current pandemic – will one day be understood as alarm bells that alerted us to the necessity of reversing the concentrations of wealth and power that, however impressive on the surface, serve to hollow out the essential pillars of American political and economic life.

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Context matters when it comes to evaluating civility. Civility is a highly valued norm in academic life precisely because the university is a place where the search for truth leads to the airing of diverse and often contentious points of view. Vigorous  and reasoned argument is expected, but so too is the willingness to consider alternative ideas in a spirit of openness and respect. Without this common agreement on certain rules of engagement, the underlying purposes of an academic community cannot be realized.

Alas, life beyond the classroom is more complicated. Even in a mature democracy such as the United States, political discourse is often marked by incivility. We are daily bombarded by rude and angry voices via talk radio, cable news shows, political advertisements and social media. Although the normal clash of interests and values that makes up political life stirs up passions, the debasement of public discourse is often a matter of calculation. Personal attacks, appeals to emotion and distortions of fact often work to the advantage of those who employ them. Among the consequences are increased political polarization, stalemate on key issues and general public disaffection from political life. Greater awareness of the cynical uses of incivility can help to inoculate us against such influences. Only when uncivil tactics and discourse cease to work will greater civility return to our politics.

Yet not all forms of incivility are cynical and some can be constructive. Civility is a conservative force. It plays a constructive role when embedded in a community based upon some minimal degree of fairness and justice. In a context where the basic rules of political and social life are too heavily tilted in favor of a narrow group of elites, however, the insistence upon civility can serve as a tool for discouraging dissent. When people rise up to contest injustice, decorum often naturally gives way to a degree of constructive unruliness – witness the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement. Speaking truth to power may require a kind of candidness not welcome at dinner parties.

The roles of civility and incivility in public life, then, depend upon both context and purpose. Understanding these subtleties in the form and nature of public discourse is part of developing political maturity.

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