Michelle Steel’s win: A loss for Asian Americans

Anjali Suva, Senior Staff Writer

With the onset of the Nov. 8 midterms, Northern Orange County saw the rise of two Asian-American candidates — Michelle Steel (R) and Jay Chen (D). As the fight for District 45, consisting of  Cypress, Buena Park, Fullerton, Garden Grove, and Los Alamitos became heated, the power of the Asian vote was put on full display. 


Home to the one of the largest concentrations of Asian-Americans in the United States, District 45’s capacity to send an Asian representative to Congress is undoubtedly cause for celebration. While acknowledging that Michelle Steel’s victory in the midterms reflects Asian representation, Orange Country needs to be more mindful of her impact on the rest of the Asian-American community. 


In late September, Michelle Steel’s campaign team distributed a flier targeting the Vietnamese-American community in Little Saigon. The flier features a photoshopped Jay Chen in front of a classroom of children, holding a communist manifesto while standing in front of historic communist revolutionaries that are depicted on the walls of the classroom—including Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Vladimir Lenin.


The words, “Jay Chen invited China into our children’s classrooms,” are written in Vietnamese on the chalkboard. This references Chen’s vote cast more than a decade ago to support the Confucius Institute as a board member of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, as a member of the district’s Board of Education. The Confucius Institutes are Beijing-backed language and cultural learning centers that were popular on campuses but have recently faced scrutiny for attempts to censor criticism of China’s human rights abuses.


The messaging of these campaign materials is clear considering that District 45 has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese-Americans in the country. Many in the Vietnamese community share a deep historical disdain for communism, with many immigrants settling in the U.S. after the Vietnam War. Compounded with China’s growing influence in Vietnam, U.S. foreign policy with China is another key issue for Vietnamese-American voters. Michelle Steel played into their fears in a dishonest attempt to obtain votes. 


In doing so, Michelle Steel and her campaign team have red-baited—the act of discrediting individuals by accusing them of harboring communist sympathies. This antiquated tactic was first used in the early 20th century, when fears of communist influence resulted in the United States orchestrating witch-hunts for those with suspected communist beliefs. Those fears are maintained today due to the Chinese Communist Party’s sway in American affairs. 


Steel’s actions prove that she is no ally to the AAPI community. Her campaign team purposefully sowed seeds of distrust among the Asian-American community by perpetuating harmful stereotypes about Jay Chen, a candidate of Taiwanese descent. By labeling Chen a ‘communist spy’, she encourages anti-Chinese sentiment by associating support of Chinese culture with the support of China’s highly-criticized government and its ideology. After a pandemic where such sentiment led to an influx in AAPI hate crimes, her inflammatory messages are not only blatant misinformation, but destructive. 


As someone who frequently appealed to voters through her Asian-American identity, Michelle Steel may provide Asian representation, but not the kind District 45 needs. Rather, District 45 deserves a representative who genuinely serves the Asian community rather than one who divides its people.