Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s China Backlash?

Tougher work visa requirements in Vietnam seem aimed mostly at Chinese migrants. But other expats are caught in the middle.

By Bridget O'Flaherty for

Many foreigners in Vietnam worried about the new, stricter laws governing work permits and visas don’t realize it’s not about them—it’s about the Chinese. That said, the fact that only some will end up collateral damage in what analysts see as a push against migrant workers isn’t likely to be very much comfort.

Decree 47 came into effect on July 1, and the reworked law gives the authorities here the power to deport foreigners who have been living in Vietnam for over three months without a valid work permit. Previously, the law only had provisions for granting permits. But applicants must now, among other things, demonstrate they are qualified to hold positions that locals cannot. This obviously excludes migrant labourers.

Many foreigners living in Vietnam don’t have work permits—the paperwork is complicated, original copies of degree certificates must be notarised in the applicant’s home country and again in Vietnam, and those who have been living in one location in Vietnam for longer than six months can have a police check carried out by local police. In addition, many Vietnamese employers simply aren’t willing to go to the considerable effort needed to issue foreign staff with permits, despite fines having increased ten-fold to 15 to 20 million VND.

And previously no permit was no problem. Vietnam has often been lax in enforcing its rules, a point underscored by an article in a local newspaper last year that quoted Minister for Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan as saying, ‘The rules are quite strict, but we don’t implement them.’ (MoLISA is the government body overseeing the issue).

Previously, many expats have gotten by on the B3, a six-month multiple entry visa easily renewed by any travel agency. But last year, the visa laws were changed without warning, making only three-month extensions available within Vietnam (and they’ve also become significantly more expensive, with some people paying more than US$200 for extensions).

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

‘The government didn’t inform us why the law changed,’ says Trinh Tien Trung, a former travel executive. ‘Now you have to get out of the country then come back and get a visa on arrival.’ Currently, some travel agencies in other countries and embassies can grant six month visas, but the situation changes regularly.

Newspapers haven’t been unsympathetic to the problems some expats are facing. Thanh Nien News, based in Ho Chi Minh City, noted that thanks to the confusing mass of red tape, ‘Vietnam will lose good people.’

American Jay Ellis runs one of Hanoi’s longest-running bars, the R and R Tavern. Ellis has been in Vietnam since 1993, two years before the US embargo was lifted, and says that in his experience, attitudes to most foreigners have always been positive.

Back then ‘foreigners were few and far between. Locals were very friendly and curious,’ he says. ‘They were interested in everything that was going on outside Vietnam.’

But the paperwork requirements have changed depending on the mood in the country. ‘It gets easier and harder and easier. It’s always changing,’ he says. ‘Reactions and counter reactions…old school versus new school and it’s still swinging.’

And it’s these kinds of divisions within a government that strives to present itself as united that is believed to be behind the crackdown on Chinese migrant labourers.

‘The Communist Party has been divided by pro-American and pro-Chinese groups,’ says one Vietnamese journalist who asked not to be named. He says that China remains a sensitive issue, with writers in many stories careful to refer to ‘foreigners’ generally rather than singling out Chinese—especially as factions supporting the latter group may have the upper hand in the lead up to next year’s 11th Party Congress.

Held every five years, the Congress decides leadership and direction for the country for the following half decade. ‘The CPV leadership is now wholly absorbed by the party’s 11th Congress,’ says Gavin Greenwood, a security analyst with Allen and Associates. ‘Accusations of being “soft” on China…are highly toxic as they can be used by political rivals to demonstrate their own nationalist credentials.’

Vietnam is generally wary of its much larger neighbour and many, in Hanoi especially, are outright hostile to both China and the Chinese.

‘I hate China,’ says Nguyen, a marketing manager in Hanoi, ‘they invaded us.’ China invaded Vietnam in 1979 as a reprisal for the 1978 annexation of Cambodia (Chinese forces were repelled in what is usually described as a ‘brief but bloody border war’). ‘We should give permission to Western people (to stay here) as they can bring technology, education and capital. But the Chinese? We don’t need them, we have the same.’

And Nguyen adds: ‘They want to show their power, so they invest a lot in Vietnam and Africa. It’s a big problem now.’

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

One investment causing big problems now is the multi-billion dollar bauxite mine in the Central Highlands operated by Chinese mining company Chinalco. Environmentalists are worried about possibly devastating pollution, while others are angry at the fact that 20,000 Chinese are filling jobs Vietnamese could do.

Vietnam specialist Prof. Cark Thayer, at the Australian Defence Force Academy, says the push against Chinese workers is ‘connected to the emotive bauxite mining industry.’

There are no official figures, but estimates put the number of illegal workers in the thousands or tens of thousands in Ho Chi Minh City alone. They work mostly for Chinese companies, coming to Vietnam on tourist visas then overstaying or travelling from across the border without checks.

‘Chinese companies prefer Chinese because they can control them better,’ says Thayer. ‘An illegal Chinese worker is less likely to complain than a Vietnamese worker.’

In recent years, China has become known for importing its own workers over hiring locally, causing resentment among those who had expected an uptick in job opportunities for locals. Such resentment could cause complications at a time when the government is cracking down across the country in preparation for next year’s Congress.

While labour migration to and from China varies greatly from one host country to another, according to the China Labour Bulletin, Chinese labour contracts in Vietnam increased from US$28 million in 2007 to $37 million in 2008.

Geoffrey Crothall, of the China Labour Bulletin, says that language and ‘cultural homogeneity’ play a part in Chinese companies hiring workers, adding: ‘Chinese workers probably take these jobs on the promise of higher wages than they could earn at home. However, in many cases…the wages they get are different.’

It isn’t just Chinese though that have been the apparent target of the crackdown—analysts note that African migrants have also faced problems, with officials said to be concerned some are involved in drugs or prostitution and often overstay their visas.

But while some expats say they plan on leaving if the current uncertainties aren’t cleared up, other more seasoned residents are less concerned—years spent in a developing communist nation have given them a high tolerance of what one described as ‘just more bullshit.’

One long time expat with a Vietnamese wife and baby, who also asked not to be named, runs an English school in a suburb of Hanoi. He says many schools, often ‘Mickey Mouse’ ones, haven’t even bothered getting foreign staff permits because ‘they don’t want to pay the bureaucratic tea money.’ In addition, many work part time or for more than one school. A work permit is valid for one employer only, and once you change jobs you need a new one.

‘It’s not cost effective nowadays’ he says. ‘A lot of teachers are worried’ they may have to leave.’

Whether authorities will actually begin to crack down outside its presumed target group remains to be seen. Implementation of many laws, after all, remains low to non-existent. For example, a ban on smoking in restaurants and other public places was enacted January 1, yet smoking everywhere remains the norm.

‘They’d rather take money from the school and say, “give us money or we’ll report you”’ than actually deport Westerners, the school owner says.

But Greenwood is more direct in his inferences. ‘I’d be astonished if some degree of corruption wasn’t involved in this (decision),’ he says.