Protests that broke out earlier this week at factories in southern Vietnam have resulted in hundreds of arrests the past two days. Demonstrators torched several factories and smashed up more in industrial areas on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. The exact number of arrests remains unknown, but some human rights activists I spoke with are now estimating the number of arrests is in the high hundreds, not the figures in the low hundreds given by news reports on Wednesday. Without a doubt, though, the coverage of the riots in the New York Times, which called them the worst public unrest in recent Vietnamese history, is correct. There have been deadlier protests and riots in rural areas of Vietnam in recent years, especially in ethnic minority highland areas, but these protests and crackdowns received little public attention, and did not involve the numbers of people that we saw involved in the Ho Chi Minh City riots this week.
Most of the coverage of these industrial zone protests has focused on the anti-China aspect of the demonstrations; many protestors reportedly started demonstrating to protest Beijing’s recent actions in the South China Sea, where Beijing has put a new oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. Beijing has used aggressive tactics, including ramming Vietnamese ships and pelting them with water cannons, to prevent Vietnamese coast guard ships from approaching the rig and disputing China’s claimed economic zone in the South China Sea. Of course, Beijing also has rejected taking overlapping claims in the Sea to international arbitration, as the Philippines wants to do, and has stalled efforts to work on a real code of conduct for the South China Sea with Asean. China’s actions toward Vietnamese coast guard ships have, even by the more aggressive standards of recent years, probably been the hardest-line actions taken by Beijing in the Sea in twenty years. And China shows no sign of backing down.
Without a doubt, demonstrations started in part due to anti-China sentiment, which is easy to spark in Vietnam. Rioters clearly were looking to attack factories with what they thought were names of Chinese companies, at least at first. However, I do not think that the demonstrations in the Ho Chi Minh City outskirts were fuelled solely by anti-China sentiment; many demonstrators, even if they were stirred by anti-China sentiment, have several other important reasons to protest. Protestors reportedly shouted a range of slogans while attacking, not merely anti-China rhetoric. In the past five years, Vietnam, which was never in any way an open society, has become increasingly closed and repressive. During that time the government has overseen one of the harshest crackdowns on activists, writers, and bloggers of any country in the world, and passed some of the most repressive legislation restricting the Internet and social media of any nation on earth. While five or ten years ago complaints about the government and corruption were common in private conversations with educated Vietnamese, now even in private many people are wary of making such criticisms. This growing suppression, at a time when Vietnam’s economy has slowed seriously, the number of entrants to the labor force is growing, and the government has not made good on promises to reform the economy, slash corruption, and cut bloat at state enterprises, has led to a potentially explosive amount of dissent in Vietnamese society.
What’s more, manufacturing workers in Vietnam have become increasingly frustrated at their inability to win better working conditions in all factories, not only in those owned by Chinese firms. Vietnam’s state-controlled union is just a façade, which is why Vietnam now is witnessing a growing number of seemingly impromptu worker strikes.
So, while anti-China sentiment might have played a central role in these demonstrations, anger at Beijing is not the only driving factor here. Hanoi has now sent large battalions of security forces to crack down on the demonstrators, perhaps regretting that it allowed anti-China demonstrations to take place peacefully in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City prior to these riots. But unless Hanoi recognizes that anger at the Vietnamese government’s own policies also drive unrest, it will have done little to address the root causes of the anger.