Anti-China protests: dozens arrested as Vietnam patriotism spirals into unrest

Vietnamese protesters arrested after clashes with police over a proposed law on special economic zones they fear will be dominated by Chinese investors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 10:35pm

The loudspeakers strung between the palm trees lining the beach told citizens to stay calm. The message was that three planned new special economic zones that critics feared would be dominated by neighbouring China were not yet set in stone.

“Stay wise, be calm. Go home! Go back to daily life. Don’t join the protests,” the prim voice said in Vietnamese in the seaside town of Nha Trang in south-central Vietnam.

On the civic square opposite that pink Nha Trang landmark Tram Huong Tower, in the strangely wintry weather, a crowd of protesters had gathered.

There looked to be less than 50 mostly middle-aged people, some sporting loudhailers and sunglasses in an apparent bid to hide their identity.

But the protesters brandishing banners saying “Khong cho” (no trading) – were raucous amid an orgy of beeping.

Later, straggling across town, a much larger motorbike-borne crowd amassed. Amid rumours that pickpockets would be weaving through crowds, the mood was peaceful but passionate – a street party with angry, nationalist overtones.

Besides Nha Trang, demonstrations also took place on Sunday throughout the country including the capital, Hanoi, and in Ho Chi Minh City.

People were angry at a draft law that would allow 99-year concessions in planned special economic zones, which some view as sweetheart deals for foreign and specifically Chinese firms.

Vietnamese see special economic zones as assault from China

The protests went ahead despite a concession by the communist government, which said Saturday that it would ask parliament to delay approving the law until the end of the year.

The National Assembly voted Monday to delay the law’s passage until the next session in October.

On Sunday, many protesters in Nha Trang wielded national red flags emblazoned with the signature yellow star.

Joining in, dogs yapped, car drivers leaned on their horns. Passing buses associated with Chinese tourists prompted louder noise.

The protesters converged on the Hindu temple known as Po Nagar.

Normally, it is flush with Chinese tourists. On Sunday, none seemed to be around. Traffic police in their peach uniforms waved the demonstrators on.

The atmosphere seemed reasonably good-natured, although as night fell, a Nha Trang video live stream showed police kneeling behind their riot shields outside what appeared to be a barracks. The police banged the ground with them in a defensive manoeuvre.

Vietnam tries to contain anti-China protests

In Ho Chi Minh City, protesters shouted: “Vietnam! Vietnam! Vietnam! Demolish! Demolish! Demolish!”, expressing their desire for the projected economic zones to be scrapped.

In Phan Ri in the province of Binh Thuan, disturbing footage surfaced of a police squad coming under attack from protesters who hurled stones.

Footage showed elongated traffic island bricks and soil soaked in blood, as tear gas rounds were fired.

Other video showed officers holding shields coming under attack from protesters.

From almost point blank range, protesters hurled projectiles and poked them with sticks. Eventually, the attackers were fended off.

State media later reported that police in Binh Thuan used tear gas and water cannons but failed to prevent protesters from entering a government building they later vandalised.

A provincial government official said authorities dispersed the crowd soon after midnight.

Online newspaper VnExpress quoted chairwoman of the assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan as telling legislators that some people misunderstood the nature of the law and thus carried out extremist activities.

“It’s not ruled out that the people’s patriotism was abused in order to cause public disorder,” she was quoted as saying.

“The National Assembly calls on people to be calm and trust in the decisions of the party and state.”

The newspaper quoted a Binh Thuan provincial police as saying 102 people had been detained for questioning for their roles in the vandalism.

China, in a notice posted on its Hanoi embassy website, warned its citizens about travel in Vietnam after the demonstrations, which it called “illegal gatherings” and included “anti-China content”.

The Vietnamese have generally had long-running mistrust of China.

Vietnam is among the most outspoken critics of Chinese construction and militarisation of artificial islands in the Spratly island chain in the South China Sea’s disputed waters.

In 2014, China’s move to send an exploration oil rig into waters contested with Vietnam triggered deadly anti-China riots and clashes at sea between coast guard boats.

“We heard there were massive protests in several Vietnam’s regions,” said Simon Xie, who has an embroidery machining plant in Ho Chi Minh City.

“I saw at least a few hundred angry people protest yesterday. But so far, Chinese-invested factories that I know of are still operating normally.” Xie said.

Luo Huikun, a Chinese tourist from Guangzhou who visited Binh Thuan province, planned to return home.

“We felt worried and were told by the tour guides not to go outdoors,” Luo said.

“Actually I like travelling to Vietnam. But it seems relations between Vietnamese and Chinese people could be impacted because of Chinese investments.”

Additional reporting by Hue Huifeng, Associated Press and Bloomberg