‘Don’t give our land away’: the clash of interests in Vietnam’s anti-China protests
Hanoi is caught between its need for Chinese investment and nationalists’ demands not to bow to Beijing
The first sign of trouble came on a Saturday earlier this month when more than 1,000 workers went on strike at a Taiwanese shoe factory in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, blocking a highway.
Chanting slogans and waving banners saying: “We don’t want to give any of our land away to China, not even for one day”, the protesters voiced opposition to the Vietnamese government’s plan to set up three new special economic zones where foreign companies would be granted decades-long leases.
The protests swept across the country, and by Sunday had broken out in places as far afield as Hanoi in the north and the provinces of Da Nanh in the south, according to several sources.
Police shut down protests in urban centres, and at times clashed with demonstrators, including in Binh Thuan province near Ho Chi Minh City, where protesters burned police vehicles and defaced government buildings.
Production stopped at multiple Chinese – and Taiwanese – owned factories across the south of the country, including Tan Houng Industrial Park in the southern province of Tien Giang, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered, holding up banners declaring: “I love the fatherland – don’t let China lease our land.”
The demonstrations rocked the country and exposed two competing tensions for the Vietnamese Communist Party – the need to expand its economic relationship with its neighbour to the north, and the nationalist struggle of a public who feel the leadership is selling the country to China piece by piece.
The protests come as Vietnam plans to open three special economic zones, one each in the country’s north, central region and southern Phu Quoc island.
According to a draft law, foreign investors in the zones would be offered leases to land for up to 99 years. On the surface, the leases were not aimed at investors from any particular country but the protesters viewed China as the main driver of the plan, analysts said.
“These protests are directed mostly at the Vietnamese authorities which are widely perceived as corrupt and beholden to China,” Tuong Vu, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, said. “This SEZ law is seen as them selling the country to China for money.”
In the end, Vietnam’s National Assembly postponed its vote on the economic zones until October.
Vietnamese discontent towards China has simmered for years. In 2014, deadly anti-China protests swept the nation after Beijing deployed an oil rig in the South China Sea in an area also claimed by Vietnam.
Those tensions resurfaced in early June when the Vietnamese foreign ministry called China’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles in the Paracels, a string of South China Sea islands, a “threat” to regional peace and stability. Vietnam also protested after China expelled several Vietnamese fishing vessels from the Paracels.
But as tense as relations get, Vietnam is all too well aware that it is heavily reliant on and it wants to expand ties with its neighbour.
China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, and trade between the two countries is expected to surpass US$100 billion this year. Chinese investment in the country is growing, from luxury flats in Vietnam’s booming property market, to joint ventures.
Chinese investors have earmarked billions in funds for Vietnamese projects, including the Vinh Tan power plant in Binh Thuan worth US$1.76 billion and US$6.87 billion for the processing and manufacturing industry.
Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College, who has researched China’s policy towards Vietnam, said Vietnam needed Chinese investment.
“Vietnam needs Chinese money, Chinese trade, as well as infrastructure improvement, and many other things they can get from China to help Vietnam’s economy,” Ross said.
And that’s why the Vietnamese government is concerned that the tensions could escalate.
After the unrest earlier this month the chargé d’affaires of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, Yin Haihong, demanded Vietnam protect Chinese interests.
The authorities did clamp down on the demonstrations, arresting more than 100 protesters.
But the government has to be mindful that a tough crackdown may be a signal that Hanoi is soft towards China.
“The demands of these nationalists is to take a harder line on China, because they think that the Vietnamese government is too weak when it comes to foreign policy,” Ross said.
“If Vietnam does not find a way to manage this, it will be very difficult for their economy to develop, and they will lose ground with other economies in East Asia that are more willing to cooperate better with China.”
Hanoi’s other concern is that the protests against China could become a vehicle for airing other grievances about the government, such as environmental degradation and official corruption.
Both China and Vietnam have blamed overseas dissidents for organising and inciting the demonstrations as a way to promote their “anti-state” agenda.
Chan Yuk-wah, a professor specialising in Vietnam-China relations at City University of Hong Kong, said Hanoi was always on alert for influences from overseas Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese communities.
“Though Vietnamese communist cadres may share the same sentiment [as the protesters], they would not like to see any organised political activities to be out of control,” he said. “There are always worries that protests are under the influence from overseas Vietnamese or non-Vietnamese communities, and the government would not like to see any of this grow.”
To that end, the government has passed a cybersecurity law, which requires international companies such as Google and Facebook to store their data in Vietnam rather than abroad.
But critics said the law also listed a range of prohibited online activities such as organising for “anti-state purposes” and would make organising protests online more difficult.
“This will make Vietnamese people unable to express their political views,” said Do Thi Minh Hanh, president of labour group Viet Labour Movement. “Just one utterance could lead to anything from a fine to imprisonment. This law has the purpose of suppressing, controlling and covering up information.”