Plain clothed policemen arrest a protester (C) during an anti-China rally in Hanoi, Aug. 21, 2011.
Vietnam may have crushed anti-China protests at home but the rare street demonstrations have stoked demands for greater freedom in the relatively closed society and tested the resilience of the ruling communist party.
The government clamped down on the protests last weekend and arrested dozens of defiant protesters, who took to the streets every Sunday since early June to condemn what they saw as Chinese aggression in Vietnamese territory in the disputed South China Sea.
Some say that Hanoi allowed the rallies in a bid to fuel nationalism and deflect attention from the country’s economic woes.
Others believe the government had to allow the people to vent their anger at Beijing’s unprecedented acts of assertiveness: Chinese ships allegedly rammed one Vietnamese oil survey ship and cut the exploration cables of another while sailors from China’s navy reportedly assaulted the captain of a Vietnamese fishing boat and confiscated its catch.
Vietnam’s one-party state bases its claim to legitimacy mainly on nationalism and successful economic development, said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
But Vietnam’s leaders face a dilemma on both fronts, he said.
They cannot allow domestic anti-China nationalism to drive their actions, especially «politically motivated» activists bent on attacking their handling of South China Sea issues with China, he said.
As Vietnamese leaders depend on China for their economic well-being, Hanoi’s leaders also cannot allow economic relations to be adversely affected by South China Sea issues, Thayer said.
«Vietnam’s leaders cannot resolve either dilemma by stoking anti-China nationalism.»
Hanoi’s action to stop the protests comes ahead of a visit by Vietnam’s new party secretary general, Nguyen Phu Trong, to Beijing.
Thayer believes a «great deal will be riding on this visit in terms of friendly bilateral relations.»
Vietnam’s handling of the protests also exposed divisions within the leadership.
One example was the decision by the authorities to move away the protests in Hanoi from the vicinity of the Chinese embassy to around the capital’s landmark Hoan Kiem Lake.
In addition, police had dispersed two earlier demonstrations but allowed subsequent protests to go ahead before the final clampdown on Sunday.
The clampdown was illegal and violated the constitutional right to demonstrate, according to several prominent Vietnamese intellectuals involved in the protests.
It contradicted an earlier stand by Hanoi’s police chief, Lieutenant General Nguyen Duc Nhanh.
Nhanh had previously stated that the demonstrators were orderly and patriotic and police had no policy of harassing or arresting them, after an online video clip of a plainclothes security officer stomping on a protester’s face angered the public.
«Vietnamese leaders are divided about how to respond to domestic pressure,» Thayer said.
Human rights groups believe that the anti-China protests, driven by netizens using social media including Facebook, text messaging, blogs, and chat forums, had sparked a new awareness in Vietnamese society about freedom of expression.
«[T]he upsurge of nationalist feelings and public criticism during the China dispute reflects a real awakening of political sentiments in the young generation,» said Vo Van Ai, a veteran Vietnamese political activist living in exile in Paris.
«They are not encumbered by the heavy ideological legacy of the older generation, so they see things with new eyes,» he said in a recent interview with the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
Until now, Vietnamese youth had played «no significant role» in Vietnamese post-war society, Ai said.
More than 60 percent of Vietnam’s 89 million population was born after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the communist takeover.
Ai said he was very struck to see banners in the anti-China demonstration with the names of all the soldiers who died defending the potentially oil-rich Spratly and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea from Chinese attacks in 1974 and 1988.
«This means that the demonstrators are paying tribute to soldiers from the former Republic of (South) Vietnam as well as to Communist soldiers. This is something completely new, and it gives the protests a completely different perspective.»
Against this backdrop, the Vietnamese communist leadership can expect more public demonstrations against its policies.
Duy Hoang, spokesman for the U.S.-based Vietnamese pro-democracy group Viet Tan, feels that there is a «conflict» between Vietnam’s rulers and its people on addressing the South China Sea islands’ issue.
«The matter of these islands can be explosive, and the Hanoi leadership knows it,» he said.
Vietnam was once occupied by China for 1,000 years and many Vietnamese still bitterly recall the Chinese occupation.
Viet Tan, which is banned in Vietnam where it is branded a «terrorist» group, has been persistently demanding that Hanoi recall a diplomatic note sent to Beijing on September 14, 1958, acknowledging China’s claim to the entire South China Sea.
«The failure of the Communist Party to defend Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty and its insistence on repressing domestic expression of patriotism call into question the very legitimacy of its rule,» said Duy Hoang.
The anti-China protests also saw more active participation from several prominent activists, intellectuals and bloggers, many of whom had championed issues, such as support for Christian land rights or opposition to bauxite mines in Central Vietnam.
One of them, Nguyen Quang A, founder of a think tank that has been shut down, was among 20 intellectuals and bloggers who sent a petition to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking for talks between China and Vietnam to be made public.
“We don’t have enough information. We respect the operation of the Vietnamese government but we, as citizens, would like to express our opinion,” he said.