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Anti-Communist Ads In OC House Race Get Pushback In Little Saigon

A Vietnamese American man wearing glasses and a suit sits at a news anchor desk holding up a handful of political mailers.
Dzung Do holds up Steel campaign flyers.
(Screenshot from Saigon Entertainment Television YouTube channel)
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In an election cycle dominated by the economy and reproductive rights, Republican Michelle Steel’s campaign to stay in Congress has been focusing much of its attention of late on China. Ads portray her as a China hawk and her Democratic rival Jay Chen as a Communist sympathizer.

It’s a play for coveted votes in Orange County’s Little Saigon, where antipathy toward Communism and China's government runs deep among refugees who fled authoritarian rule decades earlier. Aside from sending mailers — one features a photoshopped image of Chen carrying a copy of the Communist Manifesto in a classroom — the Steel campaign has paid for signs around Little Saigon that are red and yellow like the Chinese flag and label Jay Chenas “China’s Choice.”

But the strategy is getting forceful pushback from an influential source.

From a brightly-lit television studio in Little Saigon, news anchor Dzung Do stared into the camera earlier this month as he held up a handful of Vietnamese-language Steel mailers targeting Chen.

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In a 21-minute segment on Saigon Entertainment Television, he debunked the claims against Chen and railed against “people taking advantage of anti-communist sentiment."

‘I Just Want People To Know The Facts’

Do is a prominent figure in Little Saigon. Besides anchoring the TV news show, he is also editor-in-chief of Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the U.S.

“I just want people to know the facts and they decide themselves,” Do later told us.

“[That] doesn't mean they're going to listen to me or I sway them,” said Do, who has not endorsed either candidate. “I just want to present the facts.”

Do’s segment on red-baiting stood out in a Vietnamese-language media landscape full of conservative news programs and YouTube personalities catering to first-generation immigrants who traditionally vote Republican. Steel, one of Orange County’s best-known Republicans, is endorsed by some of Little Saigon’s top GOP leaders.

At the same time, Do isn’t the only one in Vietnamese media challenging Steel’s narrative about Chen. An op-ed piece about the Steel-Chen race published by the newspaper Viet Bao also warns voters to be aware of disinformation. The Vietnamese-language HONVIETTV channel, meanwhile, invited Chen on one of its shows, during which he refuted Steel’s claims and proudly noted he is a veteran and a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

The truth-squadding by Do, who has leaned on reporting from his own publication and the L.A. Times, has been blasted by Steel supporters as biased against her and Republicans. Do maintains he is just trying to expose fake news.

On his show, he was particularly incredulous about a mailer that said Chen had attended Peking University, the alma mater of outgoing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

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Do clarified on his show that Chen, who attended Harvard University, did a study abroad program at Peking University. Searching for an analogy he thought his audience could relate to, Do pointed out that many Vietnamese immigrants attended Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. That's where Communist spy Pham Xuan An studied.

“I went there too,” Do said. “So does that make me a communist?”

The Need To Talk About Red-Baiting

Growing media discussion of red-baiting “signals a major shift in political consciousness,” said Long Bui, an international studies professor at UC Irvine, who studies the Vietnamese refugee experience.

“These tactics are effective in exciting the Vietnamese American, especially the older generation who are dedicated to the anti-Communist cause,” Bui said in an email. “However, many voters are picking up on the ruse behind such ploys, especially when they come from those who are not Vietnamese.”

Many voters are picking up on the ruse behind such ploys, especially when they come from those who are not Vietnamese.
— Long Bui, UC Irvine professor

About the 45th District

Steel is Korean American; Chen is Taiwanese American. They’re vying for votes inthe 45th Congressional District, redrawn last year to cradle Little Saigon, which spans multiple cities. The district, which also includes a sliver of L.A. County, now has one of the largest Asian American electorates in the country — 37% of its voting age population, with the largest group being Vietnamese American.

The circuitous boundaries of the redrawn 45th Congressional district reach into L.A. County to pick up Cerritos and than form a rough C from Brea in the north to Fountain Valley in the south.
(Courtesy We Draw The Lines)

Chen has mostly hammered Steel on issues such as gun safety, health care costs and reproductive rights. Steel co-sponsored a bill that critics say would effectively act as a federal ban on abortion. But this month he also began bringing up Communism to fire back at her.

Pro-Chen Facebook ads produced in English and Vietnamese remind voters that Steel gave a certificate of recognition to an official from Vietnam’s Communist government in 2016 when she was an Orange County supervisor despite community protests. “She doesn’t care about us,” the ad reads.

A screenshot of a Facebook ad paid for by the Jay Chen campaign that features a photo of flag-bearing Vietnamese American protesters and the text: "Michelle Steel honored the Communist Vietnamese government despite protest from the community."
This Chen campaign Facebook ad reminds voters of when Michelle Steel gave a certificate to an official from Vietnam's Communist government.
(Jay Chen candidate page on Facebook)

Another Chen ad references a 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation tying Steel’s husband, Shawn Steel, to Chinese nationals connected to the Communist government who were trying to gain influence in the Trump administration.

Chen, who owns a real estate business and is a community college trustee, maintained his ads are about actions taken by Steel and her husband, a Republican National Committee member, and not comparable to “putting millions of dollars behind lies that somehow I am a communist.”

“We've been hearing from so many members of the Vietnamese community who are incensed by her attempt to exploit fears of communism,” Chen said. “They say, ‘You have to talk about this issue, because she's a total hypocrite when it comes to standing up to Communism.’”

Steel’s campaign did not make her available for an interview but provided a statement from the Congress member, whose parents fled Communist North Korea:

"Voters deserve to know where candidates stand when it comes to dealing with the Chinese Communist Party, and my record of standing up to the CCP, its economic theft and human rights abuses is clear.”

Understanding Attacks Over The Confucius Institute

Most of Steel’s attacks are directed at Chen’s time on the school board of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District in the San Gabriel Valley. In 2010, the board voted to adopt a free Chinese language and culture class at one of its middle schools. The Confucius Institute program was used in dozens of U.S. schools at the time. But some local residents objected, because the program had ties to the Chinese government, and the plan was scrapped.

The Confucius Institute programs have since come under increasing scrutiny in the U.S. amid fears they are spreading Chinese government propaganda, prompting many campuses to drop them.

Steel asserts Chen still supports the program, and on one of the mailers contends he "invited China into our children’s classes."

A photoshopped image shows Democratic congressional candidate standing before students in a classroom and holding a copy of the Communist Manifesto.
A Steel campaign mailer accuses Chen of having "invited China into our children’s classes."

In another mailer, the Steel campaign claims Chen’s campaign "was bankrolled by a donor in communist China." That referred to a campaign donation to Chen during a previous run for Congress by his brother, who was living in Hong Kong at the time.

Chen said one of his grandmothers fled Communist China for Taiwan, while relatives have been on the island for generations. He said he’s worried about what will happen to loved ones if China were to follow through on its threat to use force against Taiwan.

“I have more to lose than anyone if something happens,” Chen said. “So for [Steel] to suggest that I am in league with the Communist Chinese party is just insane.”

Chen said anti-Chinese rhetoric by Steel only fosters strife among different Asian groups as well as racism against Asians. Steel’s campaign counters that she introduced a resolution in Congress condemning hate crimes against Asian Americans.

A recent report by the nonprofit Stop Asian Hate found that in the run-up to the midterm elections, candidates from both major parties have been portraying China as a threat to national security and the economy — language that’s been echoed by perpetrators in anti-Asian attacks.

On Monday, Steel’s strategy led a local Asian American group to withdraw its endorsement of her. The Asian Americans for Good Government Political Action Committee said the Republican’s “red baiting” undermines AAPI unity, stokes inter-ethnic conflict and violence against Chinese immigrants, and “promotes xenophobia and the belief that AAPI are forever foreigners.”

On Tuesday, the head of a national civic organization of prominent Chinese Americans condemned Steel. In a statement, Zhengyu Huang, president of the Committee of 100, said Steel “is using racist attacks and advertisements to question the patriotism and loyalty of an American military veteran.”

The attacks against Chen “perpetuate the harmful and inaccurate stereotypes that foment the anti-Asian hate and violence plaguing our country,” Huang added. (Charlie Woo, an Honorary Life Trustee of the Southern California Public Radio board of trustees, is a Commitee of 100 member.)

How The Exchanges Are Going Over

Chen’s efforts to punch back with his own Communist-focused attack ads are applauded by supporter Trung Ta, a member of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, which has endorsed Chen. Ta, a retired aerospace engineer, wants Chen to run similar ads on Vietnamese-language TV and radio to reach older votes — the most reliable source of votes during low-turnout midterms.

Rather than just attacking Steel’s record on other issues, Ta argued Chen should be reminding voters of the certificate Steel gave the Communist government official.

“You should get to the heart of the issue,” Ta said. “Nothing’s more important to the Vietnamese people.”

But Van Tran, a a former Republican state assemblymember and long-time friend of Steel’s, said the certificate incident is old news and won’t matter to supporters in Little Saigon who have known her since she joined the state Board of Equalization 15 years ago.

“She works really hard to be out there and to be known and to reach out to the community,” Tran said. “It's a function of time. There's absolutely no shortcut about that.”

The Roots Of Misinformation

At a family restaurant in Garden Grove known for its egg noodles, Steel was the better-known of the two candidates. John Bahn, 83, worked alongside his daughter Katie at the front of the house. She said she hasn’t been following the race but her father is voting for Steel.

“Everybody around this area is favoring Michelle so he's going by majority,” Katie Bahn said.

John Bahn said the little he knows about Chen is negative and drawn from ads and signs tying him to the Chinese Communist Party. Chen, he assumed, was Chinese, from his surname which is also common in Taiwan.

An older Vietnamese American man wearing a red shirt and a black mask poses at the cash register of his family restaurant.
John Banh, 83, said he's voting for Steel, a familiar name. He said the little he knows about Chen is related to ads portraying the Democrat as being a Communist sympathizer.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

“The misinformation is very rooted in long-held beliefs about anyone with a Chinese name,” said Nick Nguyen, co-founder of Viet Fact Check, a group founded two years ago to fight disinformation in the Vietnamese American community.

Viet Fact Check provides explainers on the news in both English and Vietnamese.

The group has been busy trying to dispel myths about controversial topics such as COVID-19, but with the midterms approaching, it decided to analyze Steel’s claims against Chen and concluded they were false. (Viet Fact Check was launched as a project of PIVOT but Nguyen said the group independently decides content.)

Nguyen recalled Steel latched onto anti-Communist sentiment in her successful 2020 campaign to unseat Democrat Rep. Harley Rouda. Steel sent mailers linking Rouda to a scandal in which an Orange County Democratic party official praised the late Communist Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, even though Rouda had publicly condemned the comments.

Viet Fact Check called out the Steel campaign back then but Nguyen said he doesn’t recall as many Vietnamese-language media outlets focusing “on telling the truth” as they are now with the contest between Steel and Chen.

“There's a little bit of a shift in O.C. where people are more open to this sort of neutral viewpoint,” Nguyen said.

This story was updated on Oct. 25 to include the statements from the Asian Americans for Good Government PAC and the Committee of 100.

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.