Behind the latest anti-China protests in Vietnam

June 27, 2018 12:07
Vietnamese stage a protest against a bill setting up three special economic zones in the country. They fear that most of the land in the new SEZs would eventually end up in the hands of Chinese companies. Photo: Reuters

Recently I joined several friends on a trip to the Vietnamese city of Da Nang for a holiday.

While we were taking a cab along the city’s coastline, the Vietnamese cab driver suddenly pointed at the South China Sea, then flipped the bird and used the F-word in English on China.

I don’t speak Vietnamese, but I could tell he was very angry with China, most probably because of Beijing’s recent moves in the disputed waters in the South China Sea. I'm sure he's not the only one who bears the same grudge.

Anti-China protests have been breaking out across Vietnam from time to time in recent years.

And since June 10 this year, anti-China sentiment among the Vietnamese has gained momentum again, with a new wave of mass protests sweeping across Ho Chi Minh City, the capital Hanoi, Nha Trang, Da Nang and other cities.

Hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese are taking to the streets because the national assembly is currently scrutinizing a highly controversial bill, in which Hanoi is proposing to set up three special economic zones (SEZs) in Van Don in the north, Bac Van Phong in central Vietnam and the island of Phu Quoc in the south.

Under the proposal, foreign investors will be granted leases to land for a duration of up to 99 years in the three SEZs.

Currently, land can only be leased to foreign investors for no more than 50 years, although under special circumstances, the period can be extended to 70 years at the maximum.

The bill to further extend the land lease period to 99 years in the three SEZs has sparked widespread concern among the Vietnamese that it could compromise their national sovereignty.

Since China is currently the largest foreign investor in the country, many Vietnamese are worried that most of the land in the new SEZs would eventually end up in the hands of Chinese companies, and this could result in Chinese economic domination on their soil.

The issue is compounded by the ongoing territorial dispute between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea.

Given that, the proposed 99-year land lease period has become highly sensitive, even though it isn’t intended as a term exclusively available to Chinese companies.

The bill has given many Vietnamese the impression that Hanoi is eagerly pursuing economic benefits to the point of sacrificing national interests and dignity. Hence, the public outrage.

Amid the nationwide uproar, the government finally realized that it had underestimated the extent of public backlash against the proposal, and announced on June 23 that it would postpone voting on the bill until the end of this year.

Nguyễn Phú Trọng, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, stepped forward and clarified that the proposed SEZs are not “tailor-made for any particular foreign country”.

He also stressed that there would be “no question of national territorial sovereignty being undermined” since all foreign investors would be subject to rigorous screening before they are granted any land lease.

The Chinese embassy in Vietnam has also issued a statement saying that recent protests “concerning China” were politically motivated and perpetrated by some people with sinister motives. It urged Vietnamese authorities to eliminate the negative implications of such protests.

If anything, the saga is yet another indication of how deep-rooted the sense of suspicion is among the Vietnamese against China.

The two countries went to a fierce border war in 1979, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that Beijing and Hanoi resumed normal diplomatic relations with each other.

Even so, Vietnamese have remained highly vigilant against any potential threat from China over the years.

China’s growing economic power and frequent flexing of its military muscles in the South China Sea have simply provided the fuel for the rise of anti-China sentiment among the Vietnamese.

Despite being a latecomer in economic reforms, Vietnam has launched initiatives that have proven more far-reaching and thorough than those of China.

For example, Vietnam's government and communist party are already choosing their leaders through competitive elections.

In the meantime, Hanoi isn’t seeking a firm grip on its own people like Beijing is, and is allowing the public more freedom.

One illustration of Vietnam’s relatively more relaxed political environment is the fact that while China has banned virtually all foreign social media operators such as Facebook in the country, more than half of Vietnam’s population of 90 million are active Facebook users.

That the Vietnamese authorities are easing off politically has facilitated the formation of public opinion, but at the same time, it has provided the breeding ground for populist sentiment.

And that rising populist sentiment has become something that the Vietnamese government can’t afford to ignore.

Perhaps that explains why the authorities in March pulled the Chinese movie Operation Red Sea from cinemas nationwide; they fear that one of its scenes might remind viewers of the ongoing territorial row in the South China Sea.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 23

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor