Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s Carefully Managed Anger

The demonstrations over the past several weeks in Hanoi over a maritime dispute with China may have been small. But they were still unusual.

By Bridget O'Flaherty for

For five consecutive Sundays this past month, protesters in Hanoi have gathered close to the Chinese embassy to protest China’s recent actions in the South China Sea (known as the East Sea in Vietnam).

The meetings have drawn perhaps just a few hundred people, and some weeks even less than that. Still, in a country where public protests are rare – and where if they do occur, they generally focus on issues that directly affect people’s day-to-day lives, such as land grabs or factory conditions – these gatherings have felt particularly unusual.

So far, the protests have started close to the Chinese embassy, although the block on Hoang Dieu street where the embassy actually sits has generally been cordoned off by police. As a result, demonstrators have spent time in Ba Dinh Square (home to a well-known statue of Lenin) before moving around the city centre and Hanoi’s central lake, Hoan Kiem.

The police, for their part, have seemed concerned with little more than ensuring traffic was still flowing properly.

Many protesters I’ve spoken with say they’ve found out about the demonstration through internet sources such as Facebook. The social networking site is popular in Vietnam, though the authorities have blocked it since the end of 2009, when activists began to organize online, mostly around the contentious issue of Chinese-run bauxite mines in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

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Back then, the bauxite issue united disparate groups, from dissident Catholics to environmental activists and political protesters worried over China’s growing influence in the country. One of the worries now, therefore, is that the current displays of nationalism could provide a platform for other grievances to be aired.

‘Although protesters have been allowed to demonstrate, the police keep a watchful eye for any attempts to turn the message against the government,’ says Jennifer Richmond, China director of intelligence analysis group Stratfor. ‘In other words, rocky domestic politics are adding further complication to these states' attempts to manage their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.’

So far, at least, there has been little overt evidence of this, although one man at a demonstration last month carried a hand-written anti-communist sign in English, while some well-known dissidents were also present. Instead, most of the anger has been centred on China, and the perceived violations of Vietnamese territorial waters by Vietnam’s larger neighbour, as well as the treatment of Vietnamese fishermen by Chinese fleets. Some foreign media have also reported that as nationalist sentiment has flared, a growing number of Chinese businesses have been boycotted.

‘China! Stop violating the territorial waters of Vietnam,’ one typical slogan read. Another protester held aloft a picture of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the nonagenarian who was the architect behind the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. ‘Vo Nguyen Giap’s spirit is ever lasting. We are ready to join the army!’

Some believe that by allowing these demonstrations, Hanoi has been serving two purposes: sending a less-than-subtle message to Beijing, while also allowing people to let off a little steam by allowing them to air their grievances easily.

Vietnam’s tougher stance toward China this time – it conducted live-fire military drills and announced details of who would be exempt from a military draft if hostilities broke out – combined with a little flexibility at home, is in contrast to earlier periods of unrest, when bloggers and activists have been tried for publicly taking the government to task over ‘losing the islands to China.’

In 2008, six activists in the northern port city of Hai Phong and nearby Hai Duong displayed banners calling for democracy, accusing the government of corruption, and claiming the government was giving up the islands to China. All received jail sentences.

Back in 2009, Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, wrote that political protests then had already evolved to take in nationalist concerns, rather than simply focusing on human rights and freedom of speech. ‘This represented a serious threat to the authority of the party-state as the growing anti-China backlash spread from the political fringe to the political elite who questioned the state’s perceived inadequate response to increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea,’ he wrote.

Certainly, within Vietnam there is deep mistrust of China, especially in the north, which was occupied by China for over 1,000 years.

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The latest flare-up between the two countries was the worst since they fought a naval battle back in 1988 that resulted in some 70 Vietnamese being killed. In 1979, China invaded Vietnam as payback for Vietnam invading Cambodia to unseat the Khmer Rouge, but it was defeated after a brief but vicious war along Vietnam’s northern border.

Today, China’s growing naval clout has many Vietnamese – and the government – worried, and Vietnam has been beefing up its own navy partly in response. Last year, it purchased six Kilo-class submarines from Russia and announced Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam, close to holiday spot Nha Trang, was open for foreign fleets.

Used by the Americans during the Vietnam War and later by the Soviets, Vietnam has now taken control of the port, and will reportedly develop it with Russian assistance. The plans are seen as a further effort to counter China’s growing regional military clout.

Still, this might not be enough to appease some Vietnamese. One protester, who wouldn’t give his name, said he wasn’t involved in any other political causes and only wished to protest China’s actions in peace. ‘But I hope that in the next few days more will come (to protest that) Vietnamese government policy isn’t strong enough against China,’ he said.

It’s hard to say for sure, then, how such demonstrators would feel about Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son’s trip to Beijing late last month, where he agreed with officials in China to emphasize the importance of diplomatic negotiations in resolving the China-Vietnam maritime spat.

But even if they are unhappy, time may be running out for Vietnamese to vent their frustrations publicly. As the government moves toward some kind of a rapprochement with China, it’s believed to be growing increasingly tired of the small but vocal groups calling for tougher action. This past weekend’s protest may therefore have been the last – for a while, at least.