The group of three men flinched at the sound of a car horn as they were sitting in what was left of their office. Nervously they looked towards the factory gate, where only days ago hundreds of demonstrators forced their way in to destroy the Taiwanese company’s office. But it only was the car.
The three Taiwanese are among the few ethnic Chinese left in a suburban district of Ho Chi Minh city in Southern Vietnam where the most violent anti-Chinese protests in decades erupted earlier this week.
“We didn’t expect this to happen,” said Jacko Chou, the general director of Wei Lung Printing and Packaging, a Taiwanese manufacturer in Binh Duong. “We expected a demonstration, but never that it would be this violent.”
In the company’s office, littered with shards of glass and broken furniture, the 28-year-old recalled how his work over the last two years in southern Vietnam was unexpectedly smashed into pieces. Over twenty computers and the company safe had been stolen by rioters who forced their way into the factory. Once bullet-proof glass was now lying shattered on the ground. Chou said he hadn’t cleaned up because he thought the demonstrators might come back.
Last week, the placement of a Chinese oil-rig in waters claimed both by China and Vietnam led to orderly anti-Chinese protests over the weekend in nearby Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
By Monday, rumours of a larger protest circulated in the city, recalled Jeff Lin, 35, a sales executive with the company. “The workers asked us to get half-a-day off,” he said. “They told us, demonstrators would be coming and they wouldn’t want to be put in a position where they had to choose between the factory and the demonstrators.”
On Wednesday, the Taiwanese management prepared for the unprecedented event of being targeted by anti-Chinese demonstrators. “In the past, they would just demonstrate outside the Chinese consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, but we wouldn’t be affected,” he said.
Workers had told them that this time would be different. A fire the management saw at another factory on Wednesday at around 11.30am and reports of looting soon proved the workers right. Knowing that the crowd of demonstrators was too big to ignore, the Taiwanese rushed to buy Vietnamese flags, spent more than US$100 worth of bottled drinks, and then opened their gates.
By 2pm, two-to-three hundred demonstrators on motorbikes entered the company compound. The riders were surprised to find the gates open, be treated to drinks and to receive printed handouts declaring the factory had stopped production in support of the protest.
“We welcomed them waving Vietnamese flags, I put one around my head,” recalled Lin. Several groups on motorbikes waving national flags cruised through the compound before leaving for the next. At least 15 factories were set on fire and dozens were looted in Binh Duong alone that day.
However, destruction descended on the Wei Lung company office by 5pm, when the demonstrators returned and began to smash windows. By the time the last ethnic Chinese employees left at 8pm out of fear of their safety, the crowd was so large they had lost count. Chou estimates hundreds looted his office. He recalls one rioter with bloodshot eyes who told him he had already killed one Chinese on that day.
Looting continued until 4am, according to Vietnamese security guards who stayed on – one of whom had to be hospitalised after being beaten for resisting the looting.
On Friday, the factory with a monthly output worth US$600,000, stood still. The Taiwanese manager didn’t dare to stay overnight and would only talk about what happened when his Vietnamese employees were far enough away to not hear.
Some factories in the area have burned down, other are covered with banners denouncing China over the territorial conflict. In Binh Duong Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean even Vietnamese factories have been attacked. “Some people even made use of the riots to steal assets from the companies,” Tuoi Tre, a publication of the Communist Youth League in Ho Chi Minh City reported.
Chou said he was waiting for Sunday to decide on the next step. Rumours of another protest have circulated and have led to warnings by consulates and business councils.
Meanwhile, the managers of Wei Lung say they will stay indoors.