Vietnam Media Hailed Ke Huy Quan’s Oscar Win — Until Online Propagandists Pounced

By Dien Nguyen An Luong, Visiting Fellow, Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Vietnam’s media celebrated Ke Huy Quan’s Oscar, but online nationalists panned him for taking pride in his odyssey to America and the Oscars stage. Dien Nguyen An Luong writes that dredging up war memories remains anathema, but the state’s reactions may undermine national reconciliation efforts, especially with the Vietnamese diaspora.

Ke Huy Quan’s Oscar win at the 95th Academy Awards on 12 March for his supporting role in Everything Everywhere All At Once set the Vietnamese media abuzz. News headlines effusively highlighted this unprecedented triumph for a Vietnamese-American actor.

But before long, Vietnam’s online nationalists and censorship machine seemed to also go into overdrive. A vocal pro-government Facebook page apparently ignited the firestorm by disputing any reference to Ke Huy Quan as a “Vietnamese-American”. The page’s 13 March post argued that, since Quan had a Chinese father and a Hong Kongese mother, his only connection with Vietnam was his 1971 birth in Saigon, the former name of Ho Chi Minh City that is now Vietnam’s economic hub.

The post then zeroed in on Quan’s acceptance speech, panning him for taking pride in his odyssey to America and the Oscars stage. He particularly raised nationalist hackles in Vietnamese cyberspace with these lines: “My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp. And somehow, I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage. They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it’s happening to me.” The post concluded by urging Vietnam’s “revolutionary press”, the official designation of the mainstream media, to be more selective in its coverage and avoid misleading readers into believing that people like Quan are of Vietnamese descent.

That narrative quickly ricocheted across Vietnamese cyberspace with nearly 30 pro-government Facebook pages and groups picking up and amplifying it. Vietnam’s propaganda machine also swung into action, and state-run news outlets, cognizant of where their bread was buttered, heightened their self-censorship. All “Vietnamese-American” references to Quan were scrubbed out of the Internet; major news outlets — in their adjusted headlines and coverage —referenced him plainly by name or as an American actor “of Asian descent.” Intriguingly, mainstream media reports of Quan’s Golden Globe win for the same category earlier in January have kept his “Vietnamese-American” label intact without catching the censors’ gaze, as of this writing. To put things in perspective: the mainstream media has still referred to the Vietnam-born Hong Kong actor-turned-millionaire Ray Lui as one of “Vietnamese descent”.

In a country where the government has constantly sought to exert increased control over social media, it is hard to buy the argument that Vietnam’s state-sponsored cyber troops and pro-government Facebook groups played no role in fanning the nationalistic flames.

Against that backdrop, it was probably Ke Huy Quan’s mentioning of his journey “on a boat” that caused him to be singled out this time around as that line, too, was erased from media coverage after his Oscar acceptance. The online backlash and media censorship exemplify how reopening the wounds of the Vietnam War risks riling up nationalistic sentiments in Vietnam, even though bilateral ties between Washington and Hanoi have never been more burgeoning as now, almost five decades since the end of the war. It is also a testament to how dredging up post-war memories of Vietnamese humiliation, albeit apparently inadvertently as in the case of Quan’s speech, has remained anathema to the Vietnamese party-state.

After 1975, over a million who lived in southern Vietnam fled what they perceived to be political persecution in that country. Those refugees, often referred to as “boat people”, were aboard crowded, rickety fishing boats for perilous journeys across the South China Sea, mainly in transit to Western nations. Thousands starved or drowned, at sea or in refugee camps, before reaching American shores. The exodus triggered a major international humanitarian crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, and strained US-Vietnam bilateral ties. Vo Van Kiet, the deceased charismatic Vietnamese prime minister, once summed up that bitter reality: “When mentioning the war, a million people feel happy, but another million feel miserable.”

Vietnam’s propaganda apparatus has also cast the US-backed South Vietnam regime in an unsavory light. Terms like “puppet regime” or “puppet servicemen” have remained entrenched in Vietnam’s political discourse. In 2017, a new series of history books commissioned by Vietnam’s Institute of History took what appeared to be a bold step of referring to the US-backed regime as the “Saigon Government” instead of the standard “puppet” term. This move prompted several Vietnamese independent historians to call for the authorities to discard the term altogether in Vietnam’s political discourse. But staunch ideological headwinds remain. In a 2021 commentaryQuan Doi Nhan Dan (People’s Army), the official mouthpiece of Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence, dismissed the suggested change in terminology as “distorting historical facts.”

Ke Huy Quan is only the latest in a string of cybersphere uproars that lay bare the sensitivity of the issue. Just last month, the nationalistic mob accused the family of Vietnamese-Australian singer Hanni—a K-pop sensation—of being loyal to the South Vietnam government. Online doxxing that revealed her family’s alleged fealty to that regime triggered a widespread call to boycott her music.

Unlike Quan’s case, at first glance Hanni faced what seemed to be an organic and authentic nationalistic backlash. But still, in a country where the government has constantly sought to exert increased control over social media, it is hard to buy the argument that Vietnam’s state-sponsored cyber troops and pro-government Facebook groups played no role in fanning the nationalistic flames. At the very least, those state actors were likely to have exploited such nationalistic sentiments to telegraph Vietnam’s default position on the war legacy. That dynamic is unlikely to change anytime soon, as the ruling Communist party’s defense-security-ideology wings continuously increase their clout in the Politburo, the country’s highest decision-making body.

But in bristling at any slight reference to the spectre of the war and showing such insecurity, Vietnam risks undermining its national reconciliation efforts that aim to encourage the Vietnamese diaspora to return and contribute to their home country. To be sure, leaving the past behind and looking forward to the future does not mean history should be forgotten or whitewashed. But clearly, history should also not be hanging around the neck of a country that still grapples with the post-war question of healing the rift among millions of its own people.

Dien Nguyen An Luong is Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam’s top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on March 22, 2023.