China’s rise has given a new cause to the many Vietnamese-Americans who have spent years campaigning against Hanoi’s communist party-controlled government

Tibet, the Uygurs, the South China Sea and even Hong Kong are among the concerns for groups that insist Beijing is a threat not only to Vietnam, but the world at large

David Tran has dedicated most of his life to campaigning for the fall of the communist party-controlled government in

Like many members of the Vietnamese diaspora in the

, Tran, who immigrated as a teenager more than three decades ago, has long dreamed of the day when his homeland embraces liberal democracy.

These days, though, Tran, who runs the Texas-based Vietnam Democracy Centre, increasingly has another one-party state in his sights:

“We look at the vision of the future, a future led by the Chinese

through the images of

and Xinjiang and the South China Sea and even

… and we don’t accept that future for our children and our grandchildren,” said Tran, who works as a medical doctor.

For many Vietnamese-Americans who spent years or even decades involved in advocacy against Hanoi, China’s rise has refocused their efforts to raise awareness of democracy,

and the dangers of communism.

While sharing many of the same concerns as activists elsewhere, such as the treatment of Uygurs in

, the diaspora’s opposition to Beijing has often honed in on grievances affecting the homeland, including the territorial dispute between China and Vietnam over the

Earlier this year, more than 80 Vietnamese diaspora groups, many of them based in the US, carried out an unofficial “referendum” through

to give the Vietnamese public a chance to air their views on Beijing’s expansive claims and military build-up in the waters.

Ninety-five per cent of respondents said they favoured taking legal action against Beijing in international courts, according to the poll, which organisers claimed reached some 1.2 million Vietnamese inside the country. Hanoi has hinted at but so far not pursued international arbitration to resolve the dispute over the strategic waterway, which is home to valuable fish stocks and energy reserves and carries an estimated one-third of global shipping. In 2016, the

successfully argued that Beijing’s claims over most of the waterway – where

and Brunei also have competing claims – were without basis in law at an international tribunal at

Tran, who helped organise the poll, said Hanoi would never defend the country’s sovereignty from an encroaching Chinese presence.

“Vietnam and China shared the same communist ideology,” he said. “Taking a stronger stance means a break from that ideology, which may lead to a disruption of that same political order and governance structures. Vietnam and China are police states, with close cooperation between the two internal security apparatuses.”

Tuong Vu, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, said that diaspora activists had begun taking a particular interest in issues such as the South China Sea after the killing of nine Vietnamese fishermen accused of piracy in 2005.

“They have influenced many activists inside Vietnam who call for the Vietnamese government to undertake a stronger position vis-à-vis China as well as legal means to defend Vietnam‘s sovereignty claims,” Vu said. “Their influence may be direct through personal networks or indirect through their writings and their efforts to publicise the issues, identify strategies, and make available materials.”

Nonetheless, central to the advocacy of groups such as Vietnam Democracy Centre is the insistence that Beijing poses a threat not just to Vietnam, but the world at large.

Some activists involved in the South China Sea campaign have set about lobbying to have the Chinese Communist Party designated as a transnational criminal organisation, a cause taken up by Republican Congressman Scott Perry, who on October 1 introduced a related bill in the US House of Representatives.

“This bill speaks up for all victims of

spreading throughout the world,” said Tran Anh, a supporter of the bill who immigrated to the US in 1979 and runs the Viet 2000 Foundation in Dallas, Texas. “It is time for us to raise our voice before it is too late.”

Vietnam’s relations with China have been historically fraught, with the sides fighting a string of border conflicts before normalising ties in 1991. In a 2017 Pew survey, just 10 per cent of Vietnamese said they had a positive view of their larger neighbour.

Those historical grievances have been aggravated in recent years by repeated confrontations in the South China Sea, including a weeks-long stand-off in 2014 after a Chinese company deployed an oil rig in the waters, sparking riots across the Southeast Asian country.

Will Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American democracy activist based in the United States

, said anti-Chinese expansionism was “deeply ingrained in the minds of nearly every Vietnamese person.”

“Many activists abroad are hawkish on China because it dovetails with their dislike of the Vietnamese Communist Party,” said Nguyen. “Historically, this makes sense as both parties share similar origins and obviously run very similar one-party authoritarian states today.”

But Nguyen said efforts by the diaspora to pressure China had limited potential as the same activists stood in opposition to the Vietnamese government.

“Thus, any kind of unified effort to curb China‘s actions – and it must be unified – is dead on arrival,” Nguyen said.

Ahead of the

on November 3, many politically-engaged Vietnamese-Americans are hoping for the re-election of

, favouring his and the Republican Party’s

on China. In a survey carried out last month by APIAVote, AAPI Data and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, 48 per cent of Vietnamese-Americans said they favoured Trump, compared to 36 per cent who preferred his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

“President Trump and his current administration are aware that the dragon has awakened,” said Linh Nguyen of the Minh Van Foundation. “The others are still hoping that China is acting in good faith.”

Nguyen-vo Thu-huong, an associate professor of Asian-American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles, said traditional opposition toward China and communism among the diaspora was now being conflated by some activists with support for Trump and his wider agenda.

“Rallies may still be anti-China, but that has now become part of the message about why Vietnamese in the diaspora should be pro Trump and against any perceived enemies to Trump and his vision of America,” she said. “Since the pandemic and

, anti-China sentiments have been mobilised for Trump, against pandemic restrictions, against other Democratic politicians.”

Tran, the head of the Vietnam Democracy Centre, said he was not focused on the outcome of the election, but on continuing to spread his message to the world.

“We are not in the business of forecasting winners and losers,” he said. “We know that, regardless of who wins, our task is still the same. Our job is to inform the public and our elected representatives from all levels of government and from all governments, that communism is bad and evil.”

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