In Vietnam, distrust of government's China policy fuels protests
* Government says violence orchestrated by extremists
* Protests show mistrust about Vietnam's China policy
* Anti-China sentiment taboo for ruling party
* China diplomat demands Chinese businesses be protected
By Martin Petty
MANILA, June 19 (Reuters) - Protests by thousands of people
in cities across Vietnam are showing just how easy it is to
unite public opinion and mobilise dissent when an issue has one
key ingredient: China.
The demonstrations, which are technically illegal, sprung up
for a second consecutive week on Sunday, stoked by fears that
proposed coastal economic zones for foreigners would be
beachheads for an invasion of Chinese businesses.
The proposal makes no mention of China. But political
analysts say Vietnamese minds were already made up, with popular
Facebook posts reinforcing deep-rooted suspicion that Chinese
interests are influencing state policy.
Central to the issue is a combustible mix of generations of
anger over perceived Chinese bullying, and a lack of faith in
Vietnam's ruling communist party to do anything about it.
"The government underestimated the amount of anti-China
sentiment in the country," said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia
specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
"There's a constant undertone among many in Vietnam that the
government isn't doing enough to protect the country's
sovereignty against China," Hiebert added.
Social media such as Facebook, used by half of Vietnam's 90
million people, makes such fervour easy to stoke and hard to
After protests spanned cities nationwide, the National
Assembly last week postponed its vote on the economic zones
Security was tightened on Sunday to prevent protests in
major cities, but thousands still gathered in central Ha Tinh
province, many with signs saying "No leasing land to Chinese
communists for even one day."
Tensions are likely to persist as long as China pushes its
Belt and Road initiative to advance its overseas business, and
takes stronger action to fortify its claims over almost the
entire South China Sea.
China has been accelerating construction and militarisation
in the Spratly and Paracel islands claimed by Vietnam, and in
March pressured Hanoi to suspend some major offshore oil
drilling for the second time in the space of a year.
The Vietnamese government's resistance to Chinese pressure
has been limited.
The communist party top brass rarely acknowledges anti-China
sentiment even exists in Vietnam. On Friday, house speaker
Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan skirted the issue, saying the legislature
"appreciates the people's patriotism and their profound concerns
about important issues."
Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong weighed in on Sunday to
reassure the public about the economic zones, which have 99-year
leases, but also made no specific mention of China.
"No one is that foolish to hand over land to foreigners for
them to come and mess things up," state media quoted him saying.
The June 10 protests were in large part peaceful, but turned
violent in central Binh Thuan province, where vehicles were set
ablaze and angry mobs hurled rocks and charged at riot police.
Tran Vu Hai, a prominent lawyer, said the anger had been
festering for years in Binh Thuan, where China is blamed for
assaulting fishermen, polluting the land with a Chinese-built
power plant, and for deforestation to mine minerals exported
primarily to China.
Hai said people were venting fury not only at China, but at
a local government, which is perceived as being corrupt and
enslaved by destructive Chinese commercial interests.
"They don't investigate why people are irritated and they
don't solve the people's problems," he said. "The trust in the
authority in that area has already been lost."
Analysts say the turnout and coordination of protests is now
emboldening ordinary Vietnamese, but also complicating the
party's difficult balancing act of tolerating some dissent while
keeping it under control.
That risks angering a vital trade partner that can hold
Vietnam's fast-growing economy hostage.
The protests are being taken seriously by China; its
diplomatic missions in Vietnam held meetings last week with
Chinese business groups, local government and local media.
In one of several postings on the embassy's website, it
said charge d'affaires Yin Haihong "demanded" that Vietnamese
authorities protect Chinese businesses and citizens.
Yin said the embassy had been informed by the Vietnamese
authorities that people with "ulterior motives" had
"deliberately misrepresented the situation and linked it to
The recent rallies follow similar protests in 2014 after
China's deployment of an oil rig off central Vietnam, and months
of demonstrations in 2016 over an environmental disaster at a
steel plant run by Taiwan's Formosa Plastics.
Responding to questions from Reuters, Vietnam foreign
ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang made no mention of China
but said "extremists" had "incited illegal gatherings." He added
that Vietnam's policies served its peoples' interests and
supported business and investment.
Nguyen Van Quynh, a well-known lawyer followed widely on
Facebook, said it was clear that the rallies were organised and
violence had been instigated. He said they showed meticulous
planning and knowledge of state security procedures, and
suggested Binh Thuan was a weak spot.
"The scale, organisation, sophistication of the protests,
riots are increasing, proving that there must be a person or a
leading group with knowledge and skill for it to be organised
this way," Quynh said.
Some current and former lawmakers say it is time to revisit
a long-delayed law to regulate demonstrations. The constitution
allows freedom of assembly, but protests are often broken up by
police and participants held for "causing public disorder."
Others say it's time to listen more to public opinion.
"The administration needs to care for what its people care
for," said Nguyen Si Dung, a former deputy head of the National
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI; Editing by
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