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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 21, 2011

Vietnam leaders taken to task on China
By David Brown

It was inevitable that the recent ruckus over territorial claims in the South China Sea would spill over into Vietnam's internal politics. How to manage the relationship with China is the second touchiest issue in national life (the first is whether having more than one legal party would be a good thing or not).

After nearly two months of apparent national unanimity on the China threat, things came to a head July 16 when police broke up a smallish demonstration in the vicinity of the Chinese Embassy. The Vietnamese regime had tolerated - some say tacitly encouraged - such manifestations since early June.

The confrontation on the streets of Hanoi came just a few days after a group of eminent intellectuals took the leadership

vigorously to task for, they said, failing to see that "the more Vietnam tries to cooperate, the more aggressively China behaves".

The ruling Communist Party and government characteristically show high sensitivity to criticism that they are overly accommodating to the emerging superpower across Vietnam's northern border. Such criticism last boiled over in 2008, after the government awarded a Chinese state firm the right to exploit huge bauxite deposits in the nation's central highlands region.

Fighting off encroachments and invasions is a constant theme in Vietnam's historic consciousness. Schoolchildren are taught that the nation has survived for nearly 1,200 years by never surrendering to bullying when issues of territorial integrity are at stake.

Vietnam's pantheon of heroes are mainly remarkable for wearing down Chinese invaders until they gave up the attempt. That defiant spirit was fully evident when Vietnamese rose as one in May and June to denounce Chinese provocations in the South China Sea.

China maintains that circa 85% of the 1.5 million square kilometer South China Sea - an expanse that the Vietnamese doggedly refer to as their "East Sea" - is its territory by historic right. As its naval forces have grown, China has staked its claim with increasing vigor and with growing contempt for Philippine, Vietnamese and Malaysian claims based on United Nations Law of the Sea rules.

As tensions rose following blatant Chinese harassment of two Vietnamese oil and gas exploration vessels well within Vietnam's 200-mile economic zone, the nation's media were filled with discussion of ways and means to defend Vietnam's maritime territory.

Robust counter-measures by Hanoi - they included a live fire exercise just offshore and ostentatious consultations with foreign friends like the United States - won applause in the blogosphere and social media as well as in the nation's lively state-sanctioned press.

The turning point came at the end of June, when the foreign ministries of China and Vietnam announced that the two nations had agreed to cool the rhetoric and get on with an effort to work out bilateral resolution of territorial claims.

For the Hanoi regime, acutely aware that it would be unlikely to prevail if shooting began in earnest, backing away from the brink made good sense. For a population that had gotten used to parading about defiantly and posting patriotic slogans on their Facebook pages, the change of direction was unwelcome.

Some prominent people have refused to fall in line. On July 10, 20 well-known intellectuals signed and sent a petition to the politburo of the Communist Party and the chairman of the National Assembly urging fundamental changes in governance. The recent crisis was, they argued, just a symptom of a more dangerous national malaise. Without radical reforms, Chinese "penetration and disruption of all aspects of our economic, political and cultural life" would continue until the nation was reduced to vassal status.

These intellectuals are not fringe figures. All are establishment types; some are retired high officials, officers and diplomats, some still serve in such posts. They are men and women with excellent revolutionary pedigrees. In party jargon, they are "patriotic personalities". Their reputations for probity and a penchant for frank talk make them the sort of person who is eagerly sought for sound bites by the national media. More than others in Vietnam's public life, they can credibly claim to express what's bothering a broad swath of the public.

The intellectuals' critique, though wide-ranging and often caustic, shows expert appreciation of the boundaries of the regime's tolerance. It stops well short of calling for regime change or a multi-party system - notions that have put many less careful critics in Hanoi's jails. It's a hefty document, nearly 4,000 words in English, that merits attention and will get it.

The first part of the petition builds an argument that China's aspirations to regional hegemony pose a mortal threat. Beijing's strategic plan to dominate Vietnam, the intellectuals assert, is already well-advanced, to the point that the economy is virtually under Chinese control and Chinese ‘soft power' has corrupted the nation's political life.

To illustrate their point, the petitioners dissect the China-Vietnam joint press release of June 26, a statement that appears to commit Hanoi to bilateral negotiation of territorial issues. They don't like that it refers to bilateral relations as "healthy and stable", nor do they approve of Hanoi's agreement to tamp down demonstrations and media attacks on China.

Least of all do the petitioners like the statement's assertion that "the two sides emphasized the necessity to actively implement the common perception of the two countries' leaders, peacefully solving the disputes at sea through negotiation and friendly economic activities." They comment that while Hanoi has been grimly silent on the nature of the "common perception", Chinese leaders and media have claimed that it means Vietnam agrees that third countries have no business intervening in the maritime dispute.

The middle third of the petition develops a broad critique of national affairs. The economy is said to be in crisis, buffeted by inflation, trade deficits, rising debt, a growing gap between rich and poor, and dependent on the exploitation of sweatshop labor and depleting natural resources. Cultural and social conditions are deteriorating, asserts the group of 20. Social justice is compromised and corruption rampant, while the educational system grinds out grade-grubbing automatons.

All of these weaknesses, continues the petition, "clearly reflect ... the degradation of our socio-political system and government" and "though the need for political changes has been put forward by the leadership, there have been no concrete goals, plans or action". A bloated government is mired in red tape and corrupt practices. The democratic rights guaranteed by Vietnam's constitution, "among them the rights to free speech, free access to information, freedom to establish groups and freedom to demonstrate ... are not allowed or protected in daily life."

Circling back on the China theme, the petition observes that Vietnam is condemned by geography to be the neighbor of "an ambitious China that is on its way to becoming a superpower". The clashes over the East Sea islands are just a piece of a larger problem, it continues. Vietnam faces a China intent "on infiltrating our leadership, weakening our national unity and reducing our capability to defend our nation".

The petitioners urge the government and politburo to come clean. The leadership should, they say, "make transparent the real relationship between China and Vietnam". It should trust Vietnam's citizens, including those scattered abroad, to understand the risks to the nation and respond as patriots. Economic, educational and political reforms are termed essential to "liberate and promote people's will to build and protect the nation".

Finally, the petitioners pin the responsibility squarely on party leaders. "As the sole ruling power, the Vietnam Communist Party must lead."

Generally, anywhere in the world, the powers that be don't take kindly to being denounced, even when the denunciation is in the time-honored form of a scholars' memorial to the throne. It's hard to imagine Vietnam's politburo collectively confessing to incompetence or worse.

It is more accurate to regard the intellectuals' petition as aimed mainly at the attentive public. It's a document that reflects views typical of liberal elements within the Vietnamese establishment, a statement around which those who choose to seek reform "within the system" can rally.

"Above all," one of the petition's drafters told Asia Times Online, "we want the people of Vietnam to understand the situation and agree with our assessment. We have no illusion that all of Vietnam's leaders will concur with our petition, but we aim as well for the agreement of an active element at the top."

Though the Vietnamese government and party leadership are sensitive to the shifting public mood, they have learned that in the Internet era they have but limited ability to shape or direct it. After the bauxite crisis, Hanoi's public security agencies intensified efforts to police political free speech in the blogosphere and social media.

These failed; Facebook users and bloggers quickly learned to rely on servers outside the regime's reach. The intellectuals' petition has gone viral since it was posted on the "Bauxite Vietnam" blogsite last week. Reportedly, another thousand or so have added their signatures.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his colleagues merit a bit of sympathy at this juncture. It's easy to find things to criticize in Vietnam's public life but much harder to fix them, easy to give orders but hard to enforce them. The China relationship is especially resistant to facile answers. Vietnam's huge neighbor has historically been best managed by a combination of due deference and evident willingness, should the chips be down, to fight like hell.

That seems still to be the plan. Whatever the June 26 China-Vietnam joint statement may mean, whatever truth the intellectuals' petition may speak to power, there's scant evidence that Vietnam's present leadership has gone soft on China.

David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes on contemporary Vietnam. He may be reached at nworbd@gmail.com.

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