Vietnamese dissidents are using anti-China rallies as recruiting grounds for their cause
When word reached Vietnam earlier this year that a tribunal at The Hague had ruled in favour of Manila in its South China Sea dispute with Beijing, Hanoi-based activists used the opportunity to stage an illegal demonstration. On 17 July, dozens appeared near Hoan Kiem lake with placards praising the Philippines before being rounded up by security forces.
Publicly, the Vietnamese government had done little to acknowledge the ruling – a legal slashing of China’s so-called Nine-Dash Line that could have implications for its own territorial claims to the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. While the protests were not directly aimed at Vietnam’s government, the state found them intolerable.
Most people in Vietnam never knew the protest happened – independent media is nonexistent in the country – but the authorities’ response played into the dissidents’ narrative perfectly.
“They want to control everything, even the patriotism,” said Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a prolific 43-year-old dissident blogger better known by his pen name, Anh Chi.
When people go into the demonstrations they suddenly recognise that we, the people, have the power, and the rights, even to overthrow the regime
While the origins of Vietnamese nationhood is a debated topic among historians abroad, popular opinion within Vietnam is that it is derived from an ancient unity eternally fraught with struggle against its northern neighbour. China remains a constant threat, so it is believed, currently manifesting itself through its occupation of the Paracel islands, parts of the Spratlys, and its overall ambition to control almost all of the South China Sea.
In a country where the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam encourages most citizens to stay out of politics, the contentious relations with China provide a rare source of permitted political outrage within society. And while the government tries to exploit the sentiment, the emotions surrounding the issue might also pose a threat to its power.
The regime frequently alludes to the common historical narrative, with government press conferences frequently bemoaning new reports of Chinese weapon placements and island-building in the sea.
Yet to the regime’s critics, the ruling party seems subservient to its fellow communists. “They depend on China for economics and politics, so that means they get support from China,” said Tuyen, adding that he suspected communist leaders sometimes go against their own nationalistic impulses. “Maybe they hate China, but they get interests from China, or sometimes they get investment,” he added.
Bill Hayton, former BBC correspondent for Vietnam and author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia and Vietnam: Rising Dragon, said that Hanoi’s relationship to Beijing is a messy mix of geopolitical necessity, shared history and aspirations for independence. Vietnam, he pointed out, already experienced a cold war with China in the 1980s. The poor relations of the time, which included naval clashes in the South China Sea and a proxy war in Cambodia, did Vietnam no favours. “Any Vietnamese government has to have good relations with China if it’s going to prosper,” he said, adding that Vietnam was “condemned by geography” to dealing with China.
Simultaneously, said Hayton, Hanoi wants to balance Beijing’s influence with other countries, most notably the US, to avoid becoming a puppet. That careful positioning, he said, has worked reasonably well for the Vietnamese government. “There’s always the fear of a creeping Chinese colonisation, with the Chinese buying their way into controlling Vietnam… but I don’t think it’s the case that the Communist party has completely sold out the country’s interest to China,” he said.
That balancing act, however, has given the dissidents an opportunity to make inroads as the regime sometimes accommodates anti-China demonstrations. Mentioned only occasionally in state media, where they are branded as “reactionaries” or “terrorists” supported by outside interests, the dissidents have partially taken over the anti-China protest movement.
This conundrum for the regime began in 2007 when China began assigning municipal status to contested islands under its control. Inflamed by the move, demonstrators began taking to the streets of major cities in Vietnam.
The government tolerated the protesters, who were at the time strictly anti-China, as it gave Hanoi diplomatic cover for taking a tougher stance against Beijing. “If they want to send a message, it can be quite handy to have some angry demonstrations,” said Hayton, adding that the government also feared dissident factions joining the protests.
The situation got out of control in 2014, when demonstrators reacted to the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters. Foreign factories rioters thought were Chinese (many were actually Taiwanese or South Korean) were ransacked, and at least 20 people were killed.
“It started as anti-China but it ended up being anti-system,” said Hayton. “Up until that point, it had really just been Hanoi and Saigon intellectual nationalist types [protesting], but 2014 was different in that it spread to people with a lot of other grievances as well.”
Protests in Hanoi occurred sporadically in 2016, with most staged by land development evictees known as the Dan Oan. They tend to be shut down quickly by the authorities, who routinely round up protesters in buses and release them in the suburbs away from the rallying points. Larger-scale rallies are sometimes tolerated for a period of time, although government crackdowns in the capital have made them rare since September.
While the specific causes of these protests vary – ranging from trials of dissident bloggers to environmental issues, such as protests related to the catastrophic Formosa chemical spill in April – the same faces, such as Tuyen’s, are often spotted in the crowds.
The China issue usually pops up in some form, even when the protest is not directly linked to the South China Sea conflict. A March protest at the trial of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, for instance, featured a sign accusing the government of “acting cowardly toward the enemy but cruelly toward the people”.
Tuyen, who first started protesting in 2011 with anti-China demonstrators and frequently finds himself detained, said protests were a good opportunity to recruit more anti-government activists. “When [people] go into the demonstrations they suddenly recognise that we, the people, have the power, and the rights, even to overthrow the regime,” he said.
In a country that dissidents complain is politically apathetic and where negative feelings toward China are the norm, anti-China sentiment redirected against the Hanoi regime may be a powerful recruitment tool.
Le Thi Cong Nhan, a former lawyer who spent three years in prison for her involvement in the Bloc 8406 democracy movement, said political awareness is low among the Vietnamese population. “The propaganda has been very strong for [decades], and most of the people don’t understand, and they don’t care about politics,” she said.
The China issue, she added, is the exception. “Anti-Chinese sentiment has been very strong for 4,000 years,” she said, adding that the communist connection between Beijing and Hanoi ought to disturb Vietnamese people: “The communist state tries to use Chinese power to keep their power and exploit the Vietnamese people, so the losing party is the Vietnamese people.”