Illegal protests broke out across Vietnam in early June in response to impending plans for new “Special Economic Zones.” Apparently foreign companies would be able to lease land in these zones for 99 years under new rules.
Nationalist anti-Chinese protests broke out across the country almost exactly four years ago in May 2014, in response to China deploying an oil rig to a disputed section of the South China Sea. Those protests led to hundreds of factories being attacked or burned down. Several died and thousands were arrested. In the aftermath it was found that the vast majority of the factories attacked were not actually owned by anyone in or from mainland China. Many businesses attacked were Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese or Singaporean. Close to a hundred Chinese were injured and at least one was killed.
In 2014, there were signs that other demands were emerging even early on in the protests. While the general overtones were nationalist, some among the protests were demanding speech rights or changes at work. Many workers went on wildcat strikes and joined roving rallies, especially where industrial parks are concentrated, in the provinces of Dong Nai and Binh Duong. Factories were variously stormed, burned, emptied out or occupied.
Now in 2018, the protests seem more turned towards the Vietnamese state. The overall sentiment is again anti-Chinese, but more than a few in the crowds carry signs demanding things like “freedom of religion” and “freedom of expression.” In part this may be in response to a proposed cyber-security law set to pass this week that would give the state authorization to censor posts on social media and force companies like Facebook to hand over their data. Beyond that it is not unheard of for people to join nationalist rallies with various other demands and interests as the Vietnamese government is (or at least historically was) perceived as being more permissive of these sorts of protests since its legitimacy is based on its history as a “national liberation movement.”
Three days on, protests continue to grow. In the main, the protests have consisted of a combination of “peaceful rallies” and direct conflict with the state. Information isn’t easy to come by, and it goes away as fast as it comes. Heavy censorship is getting in the way. Many videos and pictures that have been posted to Facebook by people on the ground have been deleted by Facebook soon after.
So far, protests have included the following:
- wildcat strikes in factories not far from Ho Chi Minh City (e.g., Dong Nai and Binh Duong provinces) and possibly at some smaller workplaces;
- “mass protests” in (at least) Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang and some provinces;
- blockading roads, including a 10-hour blockade of National Highway 1, the main north-south route that ties Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City;
- attacking police squads and stations, including surrounding a squad of heavily equipped riot police and making them surrender (and strip!) before they were allowed to beat a hasty retreat;
- attempting to seize government buildings, prevented in Binh Thuan only by the use of water canons and, in Phan Thiet, apparently successful, as a crowd took the local People’s Committee building.
It is not clear where this will go as it is happening in fits and bursts. Some thought it ended on the first night only to reappear stronger later. The immediate results are:
- hundreds of arrests, with others rounded up and shipped off on buses to who knows where;
- protesters driven from streets on all three days by nightfall, except in Bin Thuan where the protests went around the clock and the crowd seemed to have the power (for now);
- two forced reversals: first the government said the proposed 99-year lease would be modified to a 70-year lease in accordance with existing laws. Not much later when that didn’t calm the situation, the government announced a postponement of measures entirely at least until October.