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Backlash From AAPI Groups Grows Over Rep. Steel’s ‘Red-Baiting’ Campaign

An Asian American man stands on the trunk of a car holding a flag and a sign that reads "Stop Dividing AAPI."
AAPI groups upset with 'red-baiting' advertising from GOP Rep. Michelle Steel protest outside her Buena Park office and are met by counterprotesters.
(United Chinese Americans)
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For many Asian American leaders, red flags went up when Republican Congress member Michelle Steel sent out mailers with a photoshopped image of her Democratic rival Jay Chen holding the Communist Manifesto.

Then signs started appearing on fences and utility poles around the 45th Congressional District that were red and yellow like the Chinese flag, bearing the words: “China’s Choice: Jay Chen.”

For Haipei Shue, the last straw was a video from the Steel campaign in which two actors playing Chinese Communist intelligence officers sit in a room decorated with portraits of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping as they talk about Chen and call him “one of us, a socialist comrade.”

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Protesters carrying signs in Chinese and English, some holding American flags, march down a sidewalk with office buildings in the background.
Members of AAPI groups protest the campaign of U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel by her Buena Park office last month.
(United Chinese Americans)

The video ends with the men laughing gleefully as the words “Jay Chen. He’s perfect for Communist China” pop up on the screen.

“That got me really pissed off,” said Shue, president of United Chinese Americans. “It's a kind of extension of Asian hate. It reinforces the stereotype that we are perpetual foreigners.”

Late last month, Shue flew from Washington D.C., where his group is headquartered, to join members in a weekend protest outside Steel’s Buena Park office, that drew dozens of protesters from other local AAPI groups.

Steel's supporters also showed up to protest against Chen:

An ‘Utter Lack Of Decency’

United Chinese Americans is part of a growing number of Asian American Pacific Islander groups calling out red-baiting tactics during the mid-terms.

On Monday, 40 AAPI groups from around the country published a letter calling on candidates to stop using Sinophobia in their political messaging because of it "contributing to and validating anti-Asian racism and hate."

The groups, which include Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Southern California and Koreatown Youth & Community Centerin L.A, do not identify candidates by name but in an apparent reference to the Steel-Chen race wrote: "Most troubling, even some Asian American candidates are using this racist and xenophobic language against other Asian American candidates."

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Anti-China rhetoric has colored U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz and in the Ohio matchup between Republican J.D. Vance and Tim Ryan. But the debate over China takes on different overtones in the West Coast battle between Steel and Chen, who are both Asian American and vying for votes in a district with one of the most sizable Asian American electorates in the country.

More than one-third of the voting-age population is Asian American in the 45th Congressional district, which was redrawn last year to include Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam.

Chen in recent weeks has also brought up Communism in his advertising to portray Steel as insensitive to the trauma experienced by Vietnamese refugees who fled Communist forces. But Steel's attempts to paint Chen as a Communist supporter through a barrage of advertising with stereotyped images — and feared fallout for other Asian Americans who have experienced a surge in bias attacks during the pandemic — is driving the criticism of specific AAPI groups.

Monday's letter from the coalition of AAPI groups is the latest salvo against the tactics of the Steel campaign:

  • The Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese American leaders, last month condemned the advertising from the Steel campaign: “It is especially harmful when these unfounded attacks come from members of our own community,” the group said. It also signed the letter released Monday by the coalition of AAPI groups.
  • The Asian Americans for Good Government Political Action Committee last month said it had withdrawn its endorsement of Steel because her campaign strategy “promotes xenophobia and the belief that AAPI are forever foreigners.” The Steel campaign contends the group never endorsed her in the first place.
A red sign with yellow lettering that reads "China's Choice: Jay Chen" hang on a chain link fence.
A Steel campaign sign labeling Chen "China's Choice."
(Josie Huang

Shue of United Chinese Americans said he hadn't been paying attention to the Steel-Chen race until a few weeks ago when he first learned of the anti-Communist mailers sent out by the Steel campaign. The Congress member, he said, is irresponsibly trying to create friction between different Asian groups by tapping into homeland politics and the anti-Communist sentiment of many refugees.

“You don't want to go back to Asia, go back 50 years ago to those unpleasant memories,” Shue said. “To stir that up is no good for anybody.”

‘It’s Not Racism'

Steel's attacks on Chen can be traced back to a 2010 vote he took as a Hacienda La Puente Unified school board member to use a free Mandarin language program that has been linked to the Chinese government. Because of local backlash, the program from the Confucius Institute U.S. Center was never adopted in the school district.

In the years since, the Confucius Institute has come under increasing scrutiny from the U.S. government and in 2020, the Trump administration designated it as a foreign mission.

Chen has said he agrees with the State Department assessment and that he understands the threat of China too well as a Taiwanese American and officer in the Naval Reserve.

"Michelle Steel's increasingly desperate attempts to distract from her record are unsurprising, given that she has already stooped low enough to disparage her own community," Chen said in a statement.

The Steel campaign contends Chen has not properly disavowed his prior support of the program and and has cried racism to raise funds.

“It's not racism to highlight his continued support of Confucius Institutes — it's his record,” said Lance Trover, a Steel campaign spokesperson.

Three of Steel's Congressional colleagues — Rep. Judy Chu of Pasadena and Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, all Democrats — have blasted her on Twitter, accusing her of perpetuating racism and questioning Chen’s patriotism. Steel returned fire.

The contest for the 45th district has been marked by bitter campaigning from the very start.

Earlier this year, it was Steel lobbing accusations that Chen was racist after he made comments saying he needed an interpreter to understand what she was saying. Steel, who is a Korean immigrant, demanded an apology from Chen, who said he was referring to her talking points not making sense.

Chen has responded to the anti-Communist ads against him by taking out ads that also raise the specter of China's Communist government.

In Facebook ads, he points out Steel once presented a certificate of recognition to an official of Vietnam’s Communist government. Other Facebook ads reference a Wall Street Journal investigation that linked Steel's husband, Shawn, a leader in the California Republican Party, to Chinese nationals seeking access to the Trump administration.

But the breadth of Steel's anti-Communism advertising is what is drawing the criticism of specific AAPI groups.

Those who protested Steel outside her field office assert she can question Chen’s school board vote without resorting to “Red Scare” tactics used by politicians in the 1950s that fomented xenophobia against Chinese Americans and others.

The groups say their protest was not partisan. The I-Chinese American Political Action Committee and the political arm of United Chinese Americans endorse both Democrats and Republicans.

Charley Lu, who heads the I-Chinese American Political Action Committee, said some of the PAC’s board members support Steel but as a group they had to speak out about the hostile climate they feel her advertising is creating.

“People travel through Orange County on their way to their work and see the signs [that label Chen as] China’s Choice,” Lu said. “Nobody is comfortable about that.”

This story was updated on Nov. 7, 2022 to include the statement from the 40 AAPI groups.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.