Friday, May 16, 2014

• In Vietnam, Indignation Toward China Is Likely to Linger - CHRIS BUCKLEY and CHAU DOAN

In Vietnam, Indignation Toward China Is Likely to Linger

“We don’t really care if China is strong or weak, we will do our best to defend our territory.”
By CHRIS BUCKLEY and CHAU DOAN
HA TINH PROVINCE, Vietnam — The living room of Nguyen Thi Cuc’s house in central Vietnam features pictures and trinkets with traditional Chinese designs and writing. 
But out the front of her home she flies the Vietnamese flag, and she said her patriotism mattered much more than any vestiges of Chinese cultural bonds.
These days, many of her compatriots are saying the same about their colossal neighbor. 
 
Vietnamese people’s nationalism has been aroused by China’s decision to establish an oil rig in seas claimed by both countries, and the ensuing protests and riots across Vietnam have exposed how much public ire Beijing confronts in a country that by many measures should be among its closest neighbors.
 
On Friday, the unrest of recent days appeared to have abated. 
But the indignation in Vietnam is likely to linger.
“Vietnam has to get back what belongs to Vietnam,” said Ms. Nguyen, a shopkeeper. 
 
“Like when Uncle Ho was still living,” she said, referring to Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist leader officially honored as a national liberator.

Joined by ancient traditions, a legacy of revolutionary war and Communist Party rule, Vietnam and China should in many ways be in each other’s embrace. 
 
Yet the outburst of tensions has exposed how deeply ties are undercut by nationalist sentiment, and how volatile that sentiment can be when it involves rival territorial claims that resonate with memories of occupation and subjugation.
Carl A. Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia who studies Vietnamese politics and foreign policy, said the government’s allowance of unusually candid news coverage of the dispute and of confrontations between Vietnamese and Chinese ships near the oil rig “appeared to tip the scales” in Vietnamese public reaction. 
 
“The press was unshackled to report on the demonstrations,” he said in a telephone interview. 
The anger with China “spread from the elite of intellectuals and cadres to workers,” he said. 
 
“This is new. This is populist pressure.”
The dispute over the oil rig this week brought violent protests and rioting across many parts of Vietnam, including here in Ha Tinh Province, where at least one Chinese worker died after crowds overran factories and building sites in the Ky Anh district. 
 
Underlying that anger is the prickly patriotism shared by many Vietnamese, who see their country as the target of bullying by a far bigger, more powerful neighbor.

“They are occupying our sea, and then maybe someday they will occupy our land, too,” said Ms. Hang, who lives not far from the industrial zone where the Chinese worker died. 
She declined to give her full name.

“As a heroic country with a long tradition of fighting foreign invaders, the Vietnamese are very patriotic,” she said. 
“We don’t really care if China is strong or weak, we will do our best to defend our territory.”
It was a defiant position echoed in dozens of interviews over recent days. 
 
Vietnam may want China’s investment, but many citizens also expected their government to stand up to Beijing over competing maritime claims, even if the economy bore a cost. 
 
In a row of shops not far from where the Chinese worker died, Nguyen Van Minh, a gangly worker, condemned the recent violence but defended the passionate reaction of many Vietnamese.
“The Vietnamese people are not afraid, but we should remain calm,” he said. 
 
“If all peaceful measures fail to solve the problem, then of course I think war could happen.”
The risk of military confrontation remains extremely remote, although jostling between ships from the two nations has raised the risk of unplanned incidents. 
 
But China and Vietnam have gone to war before, and those memories form a backdrop to the current tensions.
Anti-Chinese sentiments have a long history in Vietnam, and a thread of Vietnamese identity from dynastic times onward is rooted in the idea of resistance to invaders, including those from China. 
 
Vietnamese state propaganda has encouraged some of the animus against the Chinese, even though the Communist Parties of the two countries maintain ties.
China and Vietnam fought a brief border war in 1979 that left thousands dead on each side. 
 
That remains etched in the memories of middle-aged Vietnamese. 
 
Earlier this year, however, Vietnamese newspapers broke with longstanding reticence about a military clash in 1974, when China seized control from South Vietnam of the disputed Paracel Islands, called Hoang Sa by the Vietnamese.
These days neither the Chinese nor Vietnamese government likes to discuss the 1979 war, but for a decade after it, the Vietnamese Communist Party carried out a propaganda campaign against China that “featured extremely harsh, racist language and imagery,” said Peter B. Zinoman, a professor of Vietnamese history at the University of California, Berkeley, who is currently in Hanoi.

“Spread in the state media and in the schools, these stories of betrayal and treachery became well known and weirdly internalized among people who did not have any direct experience of them,” he said.

The current wave of public anger could hurt international investors’ enthusiasm for Vietnam. 
 
Earlier this week, the factories targeted by crowds of rampaging workers and residents in the industrial suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City were not only Chinese. 
Many were from Taiwan, even South Korea — apparently the victims of indiscriminate anger that did not distinguish between East Asians.

Until now, Vietnam has been the biggest beneficiary of two of the biggest foreign investment trends in Asia: soaring wages in China and growing worries among businesses in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea about putting all their investments in China. 
 
A long list of companies have poured investment into Vietnam, from Yue Yuen of Taiwan, the world’s largest shoemaker, to Intel, which saw Vietnam as an emerging center of electronics manufacturing.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, foreign direct investment in factories, office buildings and other projects in Vietnam has more than tripled since 2006, to $8.4 billion last year.

Like others in Southeast Asia, many Vietnamese are uneasy over the economic rise of China and the threat they believe that China poses to domestic companies and labor. 
 
Vietnamese often complain of cheap Chinese goods that are ubiquitous in shops and markets across their country.
“The Chinese companies are the worst to work for, because they never pay any overtime,” said a young laborer in the industrial belt of Ha Tinh. 
 
He would give only his surname, Lam.
Some analysts of Vietnam have argued that anger among ordinary people toward China could spill over into general frustrations with the Vietnamese government and Communist Party, something that Vietnamese probably would not articulate in public or to the domestic or foreign news media because of a fear of reprisal.

The oil rig “provoked protests because it is a permissible issue over which to protest,” said Robert Templer, author of “Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam.”
“I think the anger that lies underneath this has just as much to do with corruption and incompetence in the government in Hanoi than in any resentment of China,” he said.
 
“It all adds up to a lot of anger and very few ways to channel that.”
But when pressed to say whether resentment against China was a vehicle for venting about homegrown ills, many Vietnamese adamantly disagreed, even in private, and said the anger was heartfelt.

“Our complaint isn’t about wages, it’s about China,” said Ho Van Hang, a middle-aged worker who was among a group of men waiting for a bus to take them home after their factory suspended production because of the rioting and looting.