Vietnam’s history has been intertwined with that of China for thousands of years. Wave after wave of Chinese invaders have controlled Vietnam for more than half of the last two millennia, and the influence on Vietnamese language and culture has been stronger than that of any other neighbouring country. The Vietnamese follow Mahayana Buddhism, and Confucianism continues to influence the education system. The Mon-Khmer roots of the Vietnamese language are all but drowned under the pressure of a massive number of Chinese loan words, the adoption of Chinese tonal pronunciation, and until the Latin writing system was adopted, Chinese characters.
Perhaps it’s a human characteristic that the closer we are culturally, the greater we perceive our differences. The Chinese continue to fan the flames of World War II massacres and stoke anti-Japanese sentiment. The Vietnamese do the same – but direct their anger at China. Just as the PRC’s government has given tacit approval for anti-Japanese protests, anti-Chinese protests are the only ones likely to appear on Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh’s streets. Ask a random Vietnamese person, “Which country to you hate the most?” and the answer will most likely be, “China!”. The neighbours have put aside their differences in favour of trade, and in 2005, 17 years after China last invaded northern Vietnam, China became Vietnam’s biggest trading partner.
The Vietnamese have had another opportunity to vent their anti-Chinese feelings with the visit of the Olympics flame’s to Ho Chi Minh city, but unlike anti-Chinese protests in the west, their complaints have nothing to do with Tibet. Popular democracy and freedom protests tend to not be covered in Vietnam’s state-controlled media, and mention of Tibet and of the monks’ protests in Burma was minimal. Instead, the Vietnamese are fixated by the Spratly and Paracel islands, of almost negligible land area but with potential oil deposits, located in the South China Sea between Vietnam, China, Taiwan and the Philippines. All four powers claim and occupy a few of these bits of land sprinkled across one of the most travelled seas in the world.
Vietnamese youth protesting against Chinese claims to Spratly and Paracel Islands in December 2007. More images at Flickr.
Anti-China protests are led by Vietnam’s youth, who also make extensive use of the internet. The pressure from pro-Spratly youth led to reports of famous singer My Tam refusing to carry the Olympic torch. The following was posted as a picture file, not text, because net censors and their search engines cannot read it – showing bloggers are aware of Vietnam’s increasing internet censorship. I will refrain from posting the blogger’s name or url.
“Lo ngai về tình hình bất ổn chính trị liên quan đến ngọn đuốc, MT đã bị ép buộc cầm đuốc trong ngày 29/4. . . .Vì tin tức MT từ chối rước đuốc đã nhanh chóng lan truyền trên mạng internet, forum…trên đài truyền hình và báo chí nước ngoài gây nên 1 làn sóng xôn xao và hoang manh rất lớn. Tin tức cho biết MT sẽ kh được duyệt xét xuất cảnh trong thời gian rước đuốc cũng như có thể gặp khó khăn sau này.”
“You should be very worried about the current state of affairs and the unacceptable policy regarding the torch relay – MT [My Tam] will be forced to carry the torch on 29/4… Because the news of MT refusing to carry the torch spread quickly through the internet and on forums…on television and in foreign newspapers, it caused a tumultuous and alarming impact wave. The news told us that MT will not be able to get permission to leave the country during the torch procession and that she may face difficulties in the future.”
The government’s reaction to a popular a internet dissent was to nip it in the bud and make a point of having My Tam carry the torch. The pop artist was later pictured smiling on April 29th when she took her turn on the streets of Ho Chi Minh city between the Chinese guards in their blue jumpsuits.
Protests were also a possibility during the torch relay, but they were very small and easily controlled.
Blogger haivuong63 posted this article outlining an effective protest[vn] at the torch relay. Again, the cautious language shows haivuong63 is aware of net censors and of promoting protests.
theo tôi mục đích cần xác định rõ hòng có thái độ thích hợp… là lên tiếng về sự xâm lấn biển đảo nước ta của nhà cầm quyền Trung Hoa…cụ thể là Hoàng Sa và Trường Sa thân yêu. Vậy không nên lầm lẫn với việc ngăn cản buổi rước đuốc…Hãy xác định đây là cuộc biểu tình ôn hoà vì Hoàng Sa – Trường Sa. Chúng ta không nên phản đối ngọn đuốc thể thao dù đã bị bắc kinh lợi dụng…
according to me, the protest must have a clear goal and an appropriate manner, which is to raise our voices about China’s invasion of Vietnam’s sea and land areas… specifically in our beloved Spratly and Paracel islands. Because of this we shouldn’t act wrongly by hampering the torch procession…We must intend this to be a protest gentle protest for Spratly and Paracel. We shouldn’t oppose the Olympic torch even though it has been taken advantage of by Beijing.
Many Vietnamese people remain deeply suspicious of their increasingly powerful northern neighbours, shown by blogger Ngu Yen’s stinging reply to vuonghai63:
Con thấy mình có biểu tình cũng không thể lấy lại được 2 quần đảo, vì nhà nước mình đã chấp nhận im lặng, và tụi TQ thì quá mạnh về quân sự. Thật ra nếu nó muốn đánh chiếm VN, nó đã có thể. Hơn nữa, bộ trưởng quốc phòng mới của TQ là một kẻ kiêu căng ngạo mạn, lại hiếu chiến. Nhà nước mình không thể thay đổi được gì vì gián điệp Trung Quốc đầy rẫy và nắm các chức vụ chủ chốt trong bộ máy nhà nước. . .
I feel that if we have a protest that we still wouldn’t be able to get the two island chains back because our country has already silently accepted the situation and because gang-like China’s military is too strong. Truthfully, if it wanted to invade Vietnam, then it could. Furthermore, China’s new defence minister is an arrogant, self-important and trigger-happy man. Our country can’t do a single thing [about Spratly and Paracel] because China’s spies are everywhere and hold key posts in the government’s machinery.
The Vietnamese people feel empowered at the opportunity to protest a historically bellicose neighbour, but that highlights the fact that protests at home are so few and far between, and any protest can be dangerous. Blogger Dong A SG protested for Spratly and Paracel in January 2008 and was arrested and held incognito for alarming the blogging community. The official reason for the arrest was tax evasion, but shortly before being arrested, bloggers report Dong A SG as having visited pro-Spratley and Paracel blogger Dieu Cay.
Now that Vietnam has entered the WTO it doesn’t face the international human rights pressure it used to, and at the same time Vietnam is under pressure from trade partner China. This a combination that may even eliminate the one doorway for Vietnamese youth to practice activism – anti-Chinese activism.
This article was originally posted on China Beat