Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Vietnam, China’s ‘Little Sister’

Vietnamese hate the moniker, reports Luke Hunt. But their feelings about their big neighbor are a lot more complicated.

Luke Hunt

The rooftop balcony of the Majestic Hotel commands sweeping views across the Saigon River where tiny sampans mix with giant cargo ships and ply their trade. Loaded with history and nostalgia, its bar is also a venue for the Old Hacks Reunion—a once-in-five-year affair when Vietnam War era combat reporters get together and trade tales from the past and down a few of their favourite ales.

Great survivors, like Peter Arnett, Jim Pringle and photographers Tim Page and Al Rockoff, were there this year. But their ranks, like their hairlines, are gray and thinning.

Thirty-five years after end of the Vietnam War, the journalists’ gathering here to celebrate their own separate anniversary seemed to pose the ultimate of ironies, reliving privileges they once practiced here, such as freedom of speech, that are still often denied native Vietnamese living on the streets below.

Still, there are no shortages of cheerleaders in Vietnam. Gushing praise for the leadership in Hanoi is sprinkled liberally across the pages of state-owned newspapers. To report anything else would risk accusations of unpatriotic behavior and even treason.

To minimise the risks of negative reporting, foreign correspondents have been barred from living in old Saigon since April 30, 1975—the day Russian-made tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, signalling an end to South Vietnam.

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Visits to Ho Chi Minh City by Hanoi-based journalists require special permission—letters to bureaucrats who can sit on a passport for weeks. Once obtained, costly government guides are appointed and the list of dos and don’ts ensures honest reporting is blunted by well-intentioned minders.

Interviews about the personal life and progeny of Ho Chi Minh, the nation’s father, are off limits. So is talk about the ethnic and social differences based on old borders that divided North and South Vietnam or along the earlier French colonial lines of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China.

Post-1975 re-education camps and the later eviction of ethnic Chinese that resulted in the deaths of untold thousands at sea are not popular conversation points. Meanwhile, social networking sites like Facebook are blocked and international TV news broadcasts are restricted to financial stations like CNBC. Al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN are unsighted and you can’t buy a magazine at the International terminal of Tan Son Nhut Airport.

‘Essentially this is still a communist government. They have a market economy, but underneath they’re still a socialist state,’ says Pringle, a former Reuters, Times of London and Newsweek correspondent from the rooftop of the Majestic.

The population of Ho Chi Minh City (as Hanoi insists on calling it) has tripled to about six million people since ‘liberation.’ Its infrastructure remains US built, but is getting old, and creaks.

Vietnam doesn’t warrant comparisons with Burma or North Korea, but like the belligerent Junta in Rangoon and the paranoid hermits of Pyongyang, dissent is deeply frowned upon. This was evident by a crackdown leading up to the 35th anniversary.

Vietnamese courts imprisoned 16 non-violent political activists between October last year and February. In January, 4 pro-democracy activists were sentenced by a court in Ho Chi Minh City to between 5 and 16 years imprisonment, including a prominent US-trained lawyer. Charges of subversion were levelled against the four along with accusations they had sought to end communist rule by publishing articles online and through their associations with groups overseas.

‘While such actions may have demonstrated the party’s authority to the intended domestic audience, such displays of power tend to have wider international consequences,’ says Gavin Greenwood, a regional security analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates.

He says that because of this, the US government recently put Vietnam on notice, warning that Washington’s concerns over human rights issues could lead to unspecified economic and diplomatic consequences.

Vietnam has an affinity with anniversaries and celebrations. Guests, like the 50,000 people lining Le Duan Boulevard for the 35th parade marking victory over the Americans, are all handpicked. It’s a time to remember past deeds and remind the faithful of their future. It was the same on May Day and back in February when the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) marked its 80th birthday. Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh saw this as an appropriate time to make his own headlines, and warned the CPV’s three million members that Vietnam faced unspecified ‘hostile forces.’

The reality, according to Greenwood, was a message for the entire country, not just the party faithful. But filling in the appropriate ‘hostile force’ was left to Manh’s audience. For some it meant China, to others ‘international capitalism,’ but for many the enemy was far closer to home.

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‘Manh was being diplomatic with his phrase “hostile forces” and allowing his audience to fill in the space with their own demons,’ Greenwood said.

Manh has a reputation for conviviality, a congenial smile and a welcoming handshake, and as party secretary he is the undisputed boss of Vietnam. It’s a position he’s held since 2001, and behind his rapid rise perhaps lays one of the great secrets of the Vietnam War—to this day Manh has declined to quash widespread and rampant rumours that he is the son of Ho Chi Minh, father of the Vietnamese revolution.

Love Thy Neighbour

Vietnam marked the 35th anniversary of liberation with a dramatic and colourful re-enactment of North Vietnamese tanks ramming the gates of the Presidential Palace. Thousands found shade under the Tamarind Trees and waved red and gold communist flags along the route, which was adorned with posters of Ho Chi Minh—forever and affectionately known as Uncle Ho—alongside communist banners branded with the hammer and sickle.

Patriotic songs were blended with the odd disco number as war veterans mixed with party cadres and leaders from China, Cuba, Russia, Cambodia and Laos. The streets were blocked off to ordinary citizens. Security was tight and the foreign media spoon fed information as President Nguyen Minh Triet presented Ho Chi Minh City with the nation’s highest honour, a Gold Star.

Amid the pomp, Lt Gen. Le Thanh Tam, chairman of the HCM City Veterans Association, followed the party line on hostile forces. He identified these forces as people ‘who use democracy and human rights as a pretext to sabotage Vietnam.’

But absent from the celebrations was a man of much greater standing, one who has his own take.

For the first time anyone could remember, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap failed to attend any anniversary celebrations. His presence over past years had evolved into a comfortable and welcomed familiarity, not unlike the affection reserved for the Old Hacks on the rooftop of the Majestic Hotel. CPV officials said the 98-year-old legendary war hero was too ill to attend. Health problems have dogged the general in his later years. But behind the scenes other issues have festered, in particular China.

‘Critics of the government, who include such national luminaries as Giap, see the government as betraying the sacrifices of the past in exchange for economic gains they argue bring Vietnam no lasting benefit,’ Greenwood says.

As the architect of victory over the French colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and a chief strategist of the war that ended in unification of the two Vietnams in 1975, Giap is a rare force capable of standing up to Nong Duc Manh. Indeed, Giap has led a chorus of veterans in accusing the government of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of kowtowing to China and of selling out to Beijing and to capitalism.

Greenwood says such opposition to China, which has stirred nationalist sentiment throughout Vietnam, was triggered by a government decision in 2007 to award a major contract to the Chinese resources group Chinalco to develop a bauxite mine in the Central Highlands.

‘While some of the opposition may reflect the project’s economic or even environmental aspects, few doubt the strongest motives reflect anti-Chinese sentiment,’ he says.

It’s a point not lost on Greg Barton, a professor and Southeast Asian specialist at Monash University in Melbourne.

‘In the English-speaking world the rivalry between the English and the French is imagined to be one of history’s greatest love-hate stories. It is, however, but a very minor, recent affair, alongside the epic, millennia old, bitter-sweet relationship between the Vietnamese and the Chinese,’ he says. ‘The Vietnam-China story began before the time of Christ and represents a story of love and loathing, imitation and rejection, without parallel.’

That story, Greenwood says, has its roots in a time when the various component kingdoms that now comprise modern Vietnam were vassals of the Chinese empire.

‘This hold was broken through a long period of warfare, although Vietnam’s resilience was much aided by China’s military and political weakness in the period between the Tang (618-906) and Song (960-1279 AD) dynasties.’

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Vietnam found its peace in the 10th century, but was subjected to French colonial rule from the mid-19th century and then turned into a superpower battleground as the US-led West lined up against the Communist East.

But relations with China struck their lowest ebb in 1979, when Beijing launched a series of incursions along its southern border with Vietnam as a diversionary tactic to provide some support for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist had all but obliterated life in Cambodia and had ingratiated itself with Beijing while launching its own strikes deep inside Vietnamese territory.

Hanoi struck back and launched its invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 while feuding with Beijing. However, China’s retaliation along the Vietnamese border to protect its Cambodian ally went embarrassingly wrong.

‘The Vietnamese gave the Chinese a bloody nose. Basically it was a series of scuffles along the border and the Vietnamese did well. It gave the Chinese something to think about as well,’ says Pringle. ‘The Americans always thought the Vietnamese were just Chinese puppets and they were just wrong.’

Relations finally improved with the end of the Cold War and pragmatism and economics now dominate ties. In 2009, Hanoi’s trade deficit with Beijing exceeded US$11 billion, or more than 90 percent of Vietnam’s overall deficit.

Ho Chi Minh City has served as the country’s biggest growth engine. The city generated more than 20 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product last year and 30 percent of all tax revenues. Officials claim the city’s economic growth has averaged more than 10 percent a year since 1986.

In addition, Greenwood says, Vietnam also serves as a lever for international companies with manufacturing plants—in both China and Vietnam—in seeking to maximize their competitive pricing strategies by switching (or threatening to switch) production from one country to the other.

‘It could be argued that present relations may be returning—however gradually and subtly—to the status quo that prevailed before the Tang dynasty collapsed around 900 CE (AD),’ he adds.

Russian Roulette; Back to the Future

People like Giap are always mindful of the heavy price paid by the Vietnamese for independence. In the conflict against the United States, about 58,000 American lives were lost along with a few thousand more from the countries that actively supported Washington in South Vietnam. About three million Vietnamese perished.

In pushing their point, Giap’s supporters will be looking to next year’s CPV Congress, the 11th five-year congress, which will prioritize party policy, provide a platform for future leaders and an opportunity to vent rising anger over the cosy relationship between Beijing and some in the politburo in Hanoi.

After invading Vietnam in 1979, and the pursuit of a phony war throughout the 1980s, Barton says China only made its peace with its ‘Little Sister’ in 1990. It’s a moniker widely loathed in Hanoi when used by the Chinese. But officials in the Vietnamese capital have added their own twist and often use it to brand Ho Chi Minh City as its ‘Naughty Little Sister,’ a term signifying the city’s traditional reputation for vice, hedonistic pleasures and recalcitrant attitudes to the North.

‘Today…the Dragon and the Tiger are rising in tandem, with each seeming to welcome the success of the other,’ Barton says in regards to China and Vietnam. ‘If the West wants to understand China and how best to engage with it, then it will find no more knowledgeable and serious guide than Vietnam. That fact alone means that in the “Age of China” we should be paying much more attention to Vietnam than we have been in the habit of doing.’

Vietnam is notorious for deploying a heavy hand against those that oppose Communist Party policy, but the government is also acutely aware of the potential to generate a powerful opposition force at next year’s CPV Congress should Giap’s peers play on anti-Chinese prejudices.

‘Giap is a patriot who wants the resources of the country to remain under Vietnamese control,’ Pringle says. ‘By kowtowing to China, the pro-China faction seems to think this is the way to go now. But from all my experience it is exactly not the way to go. The Chinese will simply play to it and up the ante.’

Greenwood says the government’s response to the anti-China faction was to close down opponents of the bauxite mining project, and by extension mute any anti-Chinese rhetoric.

But at the same time, Hanoi has also sought to enhance national defence through a series of major arms deals with Russia worth billions of dollars. The most notable of these weapons purchases are 6 Kilo-class submarines and up to 20 Su-30 fighter-bombers. This deal also encourages a greater Russian participation in Vietnam’s oil and gas industry, particularly in the disputed South China Sea, a move sure to irritate Beijing.

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‘Major arms deals are also believed to be in the pipeline with France,’ Greenwood says. ‘The military remains a powerful force in Vietnam, and the Party must respect its concerns – which include demands for more modern equipment to safeguard national sovereignty.’

The timing of the Russian arms deal—which is likely to lead to the first direct Russian participation in Vietnam’s defence infrastructure since Moscow withdrew its naval forces post-1989—may reflect domestic political concerns more than any external military threat. The government is also understood to be seeking helicopter and transport aircraft from France.

‘The surge in defence spending a year ahead of the Congress, particularly for weapons systems that intrinsically appear to be directed at somehow countering growing Chinese military power in the region, may be seen in Hanoi as a small price to pay for giving the appearance of standing up to Beijing—regardless of the economic and military realities,’ Greenwood says.

Either way, it appears to be a case of back to the future. Vietnam is revising an old Cold War strategy and playing the Russians off against the Chinese in return for military assistance while appeasing the anti-Beijing faction at home. But the difference between now and then is that Vietnam has total control, while independent reporting has been judged anathema and so severely curtailed.

The result is a shame, especially considering a great political battle is looming. The idea that this battle is being played out between two sides—those loyal to Nong Duc Manh and the cadre of General Vo Nyugen Giap—should be of interest not only for the acolytes of Uncle Ho, but to a broader domestic and international audience as well.