Irvine's Friendship City program brings anything but warm relations

Along with its manicured greenbelts and meticulously neat neighborhoods, Irvine suddenly has something else on its hands: an international incident.

Members of its vast Chinese American community are fighting a city decision to bow to the demands of Vietnamese Americans, who arrived by the hundreds this month to demand that Irvine abandon its plans to formalize a relationship with a tourist town in coastal Vietnam.

A parade of speakers spent hours pleading with council members to reject the proposal, saying it would be insulting for the city to forge a "friendship" with a country they'd fled to escape a brutal communist regime.

"Shame on you, Mr. Agran, for not thinking twice," Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen lectured Larry Agran, the veteran councilman who'd pushed for a relationship with Nha Trang.

After a six-hour meeting, the council relented and on a 3-2 vote not only killed the proposed pact, but suspended Irvine's entire Friendship City program.

And with it went Baoji, a booming city in central China that was also in line to become a "friendship city."

Now Chinese Americans in the city are demanding a face-to-face meeting with elected officials and want the proposed accord with Baoji revived. Nearly 500 have signed a petition.

"The outdated Cold War mentality you and your two colleagues hold has arrested the dynamism Irvine has been enjoying," Irvine resident Wenshen Jia wrote in a scathing letter to the mayor, Steven Choi, and his allies, Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway and Councilwoman Christine Shea.

For Irvine, which is roughly 40% Asian and pitches itself as an international hub, it's been a month of strained foreign relations.

Jia, a member of a new group called Intercultural Alliance, worked on the city's Friendship Cities program last year and helped refine a list of three potential Chinese cities for consideration, including Baoji.

But when he spoke to the City Council about his efforts, he said a Vietnamese American speaker threatened to hit him.

"My wife said, 'You should get out of here to be safe.'"

Though Irvine has thousands of residents of Vietnamese descent, Jia and other Chinese American activists complained that protesters were bused in from Little Saigon, a sprawling immigrant community in central Orange County.

"Certainly, I understand the frustrations and sentiments of the Vietnamese," Jia said. "On the other hand, Irvine residents had their own legitimate issues on the agenda, and we were robbed of a chance to share what we think."

Tyler Diep, an Orange County Sanitation District board member who helped arrange for five buses to carry protesters from Little Saigon, said it's narrow-minded to think that a person has to be from Irvine to speak up for human rights.

"Legally, we have a right to be there," he said, "and this is one of the biggest issues for our community. We cannot be silent."

P.K. Wong, co-president of the Irvine Evergreen Chinese Senior Assn., said he was "shocked" when officials pulled the friendship city program.

"I totally disagree with the argument that we should just focus on local issues. We live in a global economy," he said. "It's time we widen the scope and include more cities around the world."

Lalloway said he hasn't seen the signatures Jia collected, or been asked to meet with the activists.

"I believe they called us zealots, and I don't think we should bring politics into it," he said.

In suspending the Friendship program, which was also poised to cement a relationship with Karachi, Pakistan, city leaders said it would be revived only after it adopts policies that would exclude reaching out to countries that don't respect human rights or democratic values.

Mayor Choi, a South Korean immigrant, said he doesn't plan to revisit the idea of forming a relationship with Nha Trang, Baoji or Karachi.

"We treated everyone fairly," he said. "The matter is closed."


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