Authorities in Vietnam have arrested a noodle vendor who made a viral video mocking a senior government official for eating a $2,000 steak at a London restaurant. Bui Tuan Lam, 38, a part-time democratic activist who runs a beef noodle stall in the central city of Danang, has been accused of “anti-state propaganda” in posting online content that distorted guidelines and policies of the ruling communist party, Reuters reported.
Last year, Lam, also known as Peter Lam Bui, was questioned by police after he filmed himself slicing beef and sprinkling spring onion on a bowl of soup in the same ludicrous manner as “Salt Bae” (real name Nusret Gökçe), a celebrity chef based in London. The video, which flashed across Vietnamese social media last year, was widely seen as a reference to a video that emerged earlier of Vietnam’s minister of public security, To Lam, eating a gold leaf-encrusted steak at the London outlet of Salt Bae’s restaurant chain Nusr-Et.
The video, which showed Salt Bae hand-feeding the minister a slice of steak impaled upon a knife, attracted widespread condemnation in Vietnam, prompting many netizens to wonder how a senior official would indulge in such aggressively ostentatious consumption in the midst of a high-profile government anti-corruption campaign. At the time, Lam said that he had made the video “for fun and for advertising my beef noodle shop. More customers have been coming since I posted it.”
Lam has now been charged under Article 117 of the Vietnamese penal code, a catch-all provision that has been used to sentence scores of dissidents and independent journalists to lengthy prison terms. It outlaws (among other things) “making, storing, spreading information or materials that contain distorted information about the people’s government.”
As Reuters reports, it is unclear whether Lam has been arrested specifically for the Salt Bae parody video. A police statement said pointed out that the noodle vendor is “also a member of many ‘civil society organisations’, which are in fact, anti-state groups.” It added that authorities had repeatedly warned him against creating and posting content that insulted the honor and reputation of the government and party leaders.
Phil Robertson of the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in an emailed statement that Lam’s arrest showed that Vietnam was “one of the most thin-skinned governments in the region when it comes to public criticism.”
“In this case, they are locking up a street-side noodle seller who had the audacity to ridicule the Minister of Public Security for buying a $US 2000 steak on an overseas trip,” he added. “Mockery is a legitimate form of expression that should not be considered a crime.”
But it is perhaps for this very reason that the Vietnamese government has overreacted to the viral video. Mockery is acid to the pretentions of political regimes. Grim jokes were among the arsenal of those forced to live under the creaking regimes of the Soviet bloc, and were effective in subverting the claims of those in power, as they were in pre-revolutionary France.
In this case, Lam’s viral Salt Bae parody video was particularly effective in undermining the party-state’s narrative that it is going to great lengths to combat corruption among the political elite. It called attention to the fact that while party secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s “burning furnace” anti-graft campaign has netted an impressive number of officials, including some surprisingly high-ranking individuals, some remain effectively immune from prosecution.