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Vietnamese immigrants rally behind Hong Kong protesters, pushing for democracy in Asia

Anh Cao with a “Free Hong Kong” sign at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles
Anh Cao shows his support for Hong Kong protesters at a rally at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On a balmy Saturday afternoon in November, dozens of people gathered in front of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles to show their support for the protesters in Hong Kong.

Carrying signs with slogans like “Stay Strong” and “Don’t Go Back,” they marched from Shatto Place up to Wilshire Boulevard and back to the consulate. Some wore masks, like their counterparts in Hong Kong, shouting “no brutality, no tear gas!”

They distributed copies of the lyrics to the “Les Misérables” hit “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Then, turning to face the consulate’s security camera, they chanted the lyrics of the rebel anthem — just as protesters did during their peaceful takeover of the Hong Kong International Airport this past summer:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again

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But the majority of those who rallied in front of the consulate that day were not Chinese Americans. They were Southern Californians of Vietnamese descent.

Among the Vietnamese diaspora, support for the protesters in Hong Kong has been ongoing and pronounced. Vietnamese around the world have followed the protests via Facebook, with some vacationing in Hong Kong videotaping demonstrators and sharing the footage, often live, on the social media platform to promote the pro-democracy movement. This support is rooted, in part, in the fact that many people who fled South Vietnam during the communist takeover later settled in Hong Kong, which was then still under British rule.

Alex Trinh, a hairstylist who drove from his home in Garden Grove to take part in the demonstration at the Chinese Consulate, stressed that the rally spoke to broader concerns regarding the future of democracy in Asia.

Protesters rally at Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles in support of Hong Kong demonstrators
Protesters rally at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles in support of Hong Kong demonstrators.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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At the rally in Los Angeles, demonstrators said they were compelled to participate after seeing images of Hong Kong officials mistreatingstudents who had barricaded themselves on university campuses throughout the city. They also recalled avideo widely interpreted as showing riot police officers kicking a man wearing a yellow shirt.

“But we’re not just here for Hong Kong,” said Trinh, who made a black banner that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” and distributed matching shirts at the rally.

“If Hong Kong falls,” he said, “there could be a domino effect in the region.”

When discussing the potential expansion of Beijing’s reach, Trinh and other marchers pointed to Taiwan, whose status they perceive as precarious. The island has been self-ruled since the 1940s, when Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek retreated there along with millions of his supporters after losing the war against Communist forces. The Chinese government, however, maintains that Taiwan and China are a single country, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has not ruled out force in his quest for unification. The protests in Hong Kong, which also concern questions of autonomy, have sparked concerns about the future of Taiwan, where presidential elections will take place in January.

The Vietnamese diaspora’s fear of China’s “encroaching reach across East Asia” is “valid and justified,” said Lev Nachman, a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine researching the relationship between social movements and political parties, with an emphasis on Taiwan and Hong Kong.

However, he added, Taiwan is “well prepared to fight back against a potential domino effect. Unlike Vietnam, Taiwan is a democracy, and unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is de facto independent from the [People’s Republic of China].”

Plus, Nachman said, even though China “constantly tries to exploit Taiwan’s democracy against itself through disinformation campaigns or by funding pro-China politicians, the Taiwanese people have shown over time that they do not want to be incorporated,” instead preferring “some version of the status quo” or a “push for more sovereignty.”

Pointing to the 1997 “one country, two systems” framework, which enables Hong Kong to retain its own economic and administrative systems and affords residents more rights than their counterparts in mainland China, Nachman added that “Taiwan will not simply fall next.”

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“Every politician in Taiwan — even the pro-China politicians — have gone on the record to say they reject ‘one country, two systems’ and do not want Taiwan to fall into such a regime,” he said.

The protests in Hong Kong, in fact, were spurred by an extradition bill, issued in response to a Taiwan murder case involving two Hong Kong residents. Had it been implemented, the measure would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China.

Protesters rally at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles in support of Hong Kong demonstrators
Protesters rally at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles in support of Hong Kong demonstrators.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

As for the outpouring of support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement among the Vietnamese community in Southern California, UC Irvine history professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom said that “there are long connections between the two regions,” including the settlement of refugees.

Daniel Tsang, distinguished librarian emeritus at UC Irvine, who did research in Hanoi and Hong Kong, also underscored a long history of cross-migration. Some residents of Orange County’s Little Saigon, he said, are actually descendants of “ethnic Chinese” who fled to Vietnam before settling in the United States. In fact, Tsang added, many of the refugees who fled after the fall of Saigon and settled at Camp Pendleton in 1975 were ethnic Chinese.

In addition to the rally in Los Angeles, there have been other examples of support for the Hong Kong protesters in the Vietnamese community. Earlier this year, Vietnamese American musician and television producer Truc Ho released the song “Sea of Black” in reference to protests opposing the extradition bill.

In an accompanying music video, residents of France, Australia, England and the United States show their support in English and Vietnamese.

One of them waves the old flag of South Vietnam, as did the marchers at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles.

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“For many overseas Vietnamese,” said Hoi Trinh, an Australian human rights attorney of Vietnamese descent, the yellow banner with three red stripes “is a symbol of democracy and freedom.”

Trinh, who has been given the key to the city of Garden Grove for his work, lamented not being able to join the rally at the Chinese Consulate.

At the time, he was in Washington, lobbying on behalf of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The legislation, which was signed into law by President Trump in November, requires an annual review to determine whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to retain its special trade status with the United States. It was signed alongside another bill that prohibits the export of riot control weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets to the region. China, which has been at loggerheads with the United States over trade, reacted by having its ambassador protest the legislation, signaling that the move could undermine U.S.-China relations, a concern Trump expressed when hesitating to support the measures.

Like most of the marchers at the consulate, Trinh, the attorney, has no direct ties to Hong Kong. He visited the city for the first time when he was in law school in the early 1990s to help Vietnamese refugees resettle in the area.

This, he said, is why he identifies with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. He founded the anti-establishment Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE), a nongovernmental organization that helps stateless Vietnamese refugees gain asylum and provides internship programs to train social activists in Vietnam.

“It’s not just in the States,” Trinh added. “It’s worldwide.”

Times staff writers Anh Do and Jennifer Lu contributed to this report.


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