By Joe Buckley
Ask anyone, anywhere in the world, what the most important Vietnam-related issue has been over the past few months, and I bet that lots of them will say the South China Sea dispute. In May, China put an oil rig in disputed waters. Vietnam didn’t like that, so it all kicked off. Things seem to have calmed down a bit now, although recent reports suggest that tensions may well flare up again.
For a few months everyone went wild about it. In general, international observers either decried Chinese imperialism, appealed for calm, said it would have a negative impact on business, or laughed at the silly Commies. In Vietnam, the issue became a prominent part of many social and cultural spaces. Various government departments and spokespeople made constant reference to the tensions; state-owned publishers started rapidly churning out new books to ‘prove’ that the South China Sea islands belong to Vietnam; ubiquitous posters and billboards announced the same; and Facebook profile pictures, and a popular T-shirt design, declared Hướng Về Biển Đông (Aim towards the South China Sea). Even Bill Hayton, formerly the BBC’s Vietnam correspondent, until he was kicked out and banned from the country in 2007 for upsetting the government, was published in the state-owned press with an article supporting Vietnam.
Perhaps now it’s time to move on. A constant, manic focus on it is really unhelpful. Of course, it’s a bit interesting and a bit worrying, but there’s been tension and cooperation between Vietnam and China for decades, so recent events aren’t amazingly unusual or scary when seen within that context. China is one of Vietnam’s main trading partners and allies. The main nationalist epic poem of Vietnam, Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu) was originally written in Chinese characters, and some of the most common words in Vietnamese are unproblematically derived from Chinese.
Given this complexity, it seems that presenting China-Vietnam tensions as a simple patriotic narrative works as a useful distraction tool for the Vietnamese government. Perhaps it’s not a conscious, cynical manipulation on their part, but it certainly plays into their hands, as it’s been the perfect excuse to foster nationalism, and, more importantly, to distract attention away from the government’s own behaviour domestically.
And there’s a lot that’s been going on recently. For example, in June, the Law of Marriage and the Family was expected to be redrafted to include rights for same-sex couples. In a shock move, all the proposed revisions were removed at the last minute and replaced by a line declaring that Vietnam doesn’t recognise the rights of gay couples. Over the past few months, the local Saigon council has been passing more and more legislation to destroy the livelihoods of street sellers, which led to a big protest in the city’s major tourist area in July.
More recently, Do Thi Minh Hanh, an independent labour activist released from prison in June, was detained again, and had her passport taken away. Just a couple of weeks ago, the independent journalist Truong Minh Duc was brutally beaten up by state agents. A few days ago, hundreds of drug addicts escaped from a rehabilitation centre in northern Vietnam. Many newspapers decried the escapees as crazed, violent druggies, but by all accounts conditions in these centres are terrible, tantamount to forced labour camps. And eye witnesses, all over Facebook, reported that the escapees weren’t violent at all.
But it’s not all negative news in Vietnam – Parliament has started to investigate police torture for the first time ever, the minimum wage will be increased, and a dissident writer, Nguyen Xuan Nghia, has just been released from prison, vowing to continue his work.
And yet, because of people’s continued obsession with what’s going on in the sea, these events have passed largely unnoticed. Despite how Western states, or indeed the Vietnamese government, try to present it, Vietnam is not a simple little one dimensional place. We have to stop having such a narrow focus. Domestically, it helps to foster nationalism and patriotism, distracting attention away from the government’s behaviour. Internationally, when people’s entire focus is on China and Vietnam relations, observers stop looking inside Vietnam’s borders at the very complicated and urgent issues that are occurring here. In order to find out what is really going on in Vietnam at the moment, we all need to shut up about the South China Sea, and quickly.